Backstage, Szeto Chui-ying is being pressed into his outfit, a stiff black and gold brocaded affair boxing him in on all sides and two long antennae-like accessories blooming from his head. Chui-ying is readying for a performance of the Cantonese opera, “The 10-year Dream”, one of this group’s 100 annual performances.
Today the 300-seat Yau Ma Tei theatre on Hong Kong’s Waterloo Road appears to be mostly full. The show begins at 7.30 p.m., but not everyone is standing on ceremony, many continuing to trickle in even after the first act has concluded at 8.15 p.m. There are five more to go.
Chui-ying, who it turns out is becoming a popular star of the stage, is front and centre, owning the space. Tonight he is playing Yang Yue, a marauding king of the Sui-dynasty who has swooped in and made off with the wife of Xu Deyan of the Chen dynasty. This is explained to the non-Cantonese speaking audience by way of a small brochure and periodic subtitles on screens flanking both sides of the stage.
Whatever she might be speaking in Cantonese, Princess Lechang’s body language is speaking volumes in her initial on-stage time with Yang Yue: an admixture of fear, demureness and obedience. Tse Hue-Ying, who is playing the princess, one of the main characters tonight, is commensurately decked out in a flaming red dress and a heavy golden headgear.
She has been performing professionally for the past five years and began to learn the art form after she turned eight. “I fell in love with it,” she says, backstage before the performance, “So I begged my mother to let me learn.”
My own one and only brush with Cantonese opera came with the film Farewell My Concubine (1993) several years ago, a winner at Cannes and a nominee for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars. The film significantly featured opera, but is now of little help.
It is impossible to be parachuted into the middle of a traditional art form and expect to really understand what is going on. Not only is the language foreign, the grammar of the form itself is alien. The accompanying music sounds to the untrained ear to be entirely comprised of clashing cymbals and the tinny nasal tunes of the flute.
Perhaps this is also true for local viewers. A Hong Kong native told me in a subsequent conversation that opera took too long. “I like it but not that much,” says Po Chun Leung, a 65-year-old retiree. “And now people have many choices: cinema, cartoons. It was different before. We didn’t have so many forms of entertainment.”
In 2009, Cantonese opera was added to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage, the first such honour for Hong Kong. And the government has been trying to boost its popularity and help it stay relevant.
Today’s performance has a special thrust on young and new performers. David Chow Long-fung, a project officer for the Chinese Artists’ Association of Hong Kong—the nodal body for performers in the city—explains that they have been trying to introduce opera to younger audiences, inviting school children to watch, for free. He himself came to be fascinated by the form because of a childhood spent listening to his grandparents singing popular operatic songs. But he is here to support, not perform. “We want to showcase young talent,” he says. “We want to give them a chance.”
One such member of the troupe is Susan Leung, a 25-year-old, who has been learning the art for the past four years. “It is a tradition of Hong Kong,” she says, before going on stage. “It is our responsibility to keep this culture going.” Leung began learning after cultivating a childhood passion for performing, and Cantonese Opera calls for a diverse set of skills: singing, dancing, acting, even kung fu. “Some people think opera is old-fashioned but we need to help our culture survive,” she says.
On stage, Leung has a minor role in the first act, dressed in a light pink silk shirt and pants, speaking only occasionally. The action is unclear to the uninitiated, but there is definitely a buffoon on stage who has been pulling the crowd laughs. Still, there is something to be said for novelty and the power of spectacle.
This opera has six acts, and ends in tragedy. The synopsis explains that Princess Lechang eventually finds herself caught between her former husband and her new one, with each “trying to let the other have the wife, while she feels ashamed for having served two husbands”. I don’t stay till the end, so don’t know how it looks on stage, but it roughly seems to go down in a blaze of old-style slut-shaming. “She ends her life,” the synopsis continues, “to express her gratitude towards the love and loyalty of both husbands.”
Whether or not the opera is dying, the patriarchy will survive.