Heritage on Stage: Nick Shen’s Chinese Opera Odyssey

Chinese Opera may appear to be a fading art, a relic of the past. However, Nick Shen sees it differently. DANN TAN delves into Nick Shen’s journey of preserving Chinese Opera and managing a successful acting career.



Dann Tan
Social Media Manager

Hype Issue #57

Published on
June 26, 2023

Nick Shen’s career in the entertainment industry has taken him on a fascinating journey, from his early days as a full-time Mediacorp artiste to his passion for promoting Chinese opera in Singapore. With a burning desire to preserve this traditional art form, Nick has become a prominent figure in the local arts scene.

Nick Shen striking a confident post in his Chinese opera costume.
Photo courtesy of Nick Shen.

Nick’s early aspiration to perform in Chinese opera, particularly as a warrior, was influenced by his grandmother who often took him to see Teochew Opera. He began his journey when he joined a Teochew Opera Troupe, 老赛桃源 (Lao Sai Tao Yuan), at the age of 13. Nick eventually enrolled in acting classes at Mediacorp, where he honed his performing skills before being offered a full-time contract. Notably, Nick successfully balanced his passion for Chinese opera alongside his career as a Mediacorp artiste. 

A mask-changing act unleashes a mesmerising allure of red darkness.
Photo courtesy of Nick Shen.

During his time in secondary school, Nick once showcased his creativity by ingeniously crafting tissue paper puppets using his grandmother’s back scratcher, transforming them into a Chinese opera set for his social studies project. His remarkable effort earned him an award from his principal as recognition for his creativity. “Back then, I hardly received awards on stage, so it was a memorable one,” Nick said.

Fueled by a desire to prevent this traditional art from fading away, Nick established his own events company, Tok Tok Chiang, dedicated to promoting arts and culture in Singapore. With Tok Tok Chiang, he wants to create platforms for youths to embrace and understand the richness of this art form.

Inevitably, starting his company with limited business knowledge presented initial difficulties. However, the encouragement he received from teachers he met during entrepreneurship courses served as a catalyst for his determination to move forward. Through opportunities to conduct workshops, collaborate with schools, and organise events, Nick skillfully developed his entrepreneurial skills from scratch.

Nick Shen ignites joy as he conducts a Chinese opera workshop for eager young minds.
Photo courtesy of Nick Shen.

Nick’s background as a Mediacorp artiste has significantly influenced his efforts in promoting Chinese opera. His training equipped him with essential skills in stage presence, public speaking, and audience engagement. Being recognised by the public through his exposure on Mediacorp platforms also gives him more credibility and trust when collaborating with government agencies, educational institutions, and cultural organisations. Additionally, his role as an acting coach at Singapore Media Academy enriched his understanding of the craft, empowering him to advocate for Chinese opera effectively.

Reflecting on this journey, Nick said, “Being a teacher, I was able to learn ten times more.”

Nick Shen (left) with actor Edmund Chen (right), who acted as Nick’s big brother in his very first Chinese drama. Photo courtesy of Nick Shen.

The profound impact of Chinese opera extends beyond the stage. Nick highlighted the significance of the Chinese phrase ‘生意’ (shēng yì), which encompasses both making money and creating something meaningful. Throughout his Chinese opera career, Nick has had  various opportunities to make a difference. A career highlight in this regard was teaching  African orphans to perform Chinese opera and helping raise funds for their orphanages in Malawi and Swaziland. 

Nick said , “I never thought that one day, we could actually raise funds through Chinese opera, it was very meaningful to me.”

Mandarin-speaking, African teenagers from Malawi, performing Chinese opera with Nick Shen.
Photo courtesy of Nick Shen.

However, Nick’s journey to promote Chinese opera was not without hurdles. In an unconventional twist, Nick’s parents prohibited him from watching Chinese opera when he was a child. 

According to Nick, many people held the belief that pursuing a career as a Chinese Opera artist was considered shameful due to its inability to provide a sustainable livelihood. In the past, impoverished families resorted to selling their children to opera troupes, who then employed them under contractual obligations. As a result, these children lacked opportunities to acquire essential life skills, and the financial rewards of such a profession were unappealing.

Despite this, Nick followed his heart and continued to pursue his love for Chinese opera. He eventually won his parents’ approval through his unwavering dedication and hard work, even convincing his father to lend a helping hand backstage. 

Nick seamlessly balances two worlds as both an actor and a passionate advocate for Chinese opera. Photo courtesy of Nick Shen.

Chinese opera stands as a testament to the richness and diversity of Singapore’s cultural heritage and it reflects the essence of different dialect groups. As Nick continues to champion its preservation, recognising its role in connecting people to their roots and heritage through modernisation and educational infusion, he believes this traditional art form can impart valuable moral values to the younger generation.