Cantonese Opera

by AFP/Stephanie Wong, Aug 2, 2005 | Destinations: China / Guangzhou

HONG KONG, June 1, 2005 - Clutching a wooden bow, Chan Gum-to glides it across the two strings of his traditional Chinese erhu. He taps his feet gently to the tempo of the music and with a strong voice recites centuries-old Cantonese opera -- music of love, loyalty and morality.

A dozen students sit singing inside a community centre in Hong Kong's rural Sheung Shui district near the border with China, where Chan has been giving lessons like this for nearly three decades. It's a tough living these days, earning him just 200 Hong Kong dollars (25.6 US dollars) a month from each student, compared with decades ago when he lived comfortably. But to Chan it's more than just a living, it's a way of keeping alive the dying art of Cantonese opera.

As Hong Kongers spend increasing amounts of their spare time watching movies and going shopping, they are abandoning traditional pastimes. With the future of the city's last traditional opera house, The Sunbeam Theatre, under threat due to increasing rent, Chan fears Hong Kongers will soon lose what little interest they have left in his refined art form.

"This art used to make money for me, but it no longer does that. Now you have to pay your own money to keep it alive," the 57-year-old master laments.

Chan makes ends meet by playing in orchestras and offering private lessons. But more and more he is having to rely on handouts to keep going.

"Not only do teachers do it, my students do the same. They are all willing to chip-in," says Chan. who gives away free gifts and tickets to attract audiences.

It wasn't always like this. Before the 1950s Cantonese opera -- an art form that involves singing, acting, martial arts and acrobatics -- was more popular than movies, and many operas were adapted for the big screen.

Stories in traditional opera, which spread to southern China's Guangdong (Canton) province from the north in the 13th century, are based on classical literature, history, and the philosophies of virtues such as loyalty, moral, love, fidelity and patriotism.

Many well-known operas performed today, such as 'The Purple Hairpin' and 'Rejuvenation of the Red Plum Flower' originated in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), with the lyrics and scripts translated into Cantonese.

Until the 20th century, males performed all the female roles. In the early years, a lot of the performances were arranged in bamboo-sheds where god statues and altars were placed for worship. Now, a lot of Hong Kong opera bamboo-sheds mostly have performances for superstitious reasons -- they are produced for ghosts and gods, or to celebrate the birthdays of deities and Buddha -- and are only attended by small numbers of elderly people.

'They've been playing the same thing for years, people get bored'

Opera's popularity waned with the mass adoption of TV, video and, latterly, video games and karaoke.

"It has no audience any more. People think it's out-dated," says theatre critic Jessica Yeung, an assistant professor at the Department of English Language and Literature at Hong Kong Baptist University. The number of fans has dwindled from two million in the 1950s to today's 300,000, according to the Cantonese Opera Advisory Committee, set up by the government a year ago to preserve the art form.

Yeung believes that unlike the regular theatre, Cantonese opera is failing because it is too rigidly rooted in the past and unable to adapt to modern tastes and issues.

"How do you write about a lesbian? You would have to break operatic convention," she says. "You would be criticised by the traditionalists. A lot of people have experimented with a new form but failed. "To break a tradition is not an easy task. Innovation is difficult."

In China, the situation is worse. To survive, opera companies have had to set up other side businesses, like restaurants and even -- in one case -- a driving school to keep afloat.

In Hong Kong, the Sunbeam Theatre is on the brink of closure as a doubling of its rent threatens to put the 33-year-old theatre out of business. It already relies heavily on donations to survive and is finding it difficult to attract new audiences. Only one percent of its audience are regulars.

Manager Yip Man-tak, 63, says 90 percent of the audience is over 60 years old and therefore eligible for discounted tickets.

"Two-third of the audience buy half price tickets," says Yip, who has worked at the theatre for 17 years. He agrees the opera needs to freshen up to attract younger devotees or face extinction.

"They've been playing the same thing for years, people get bored," he says.

To help preserve the opera, Hong Kong's Academy for Performing Arts introduced a full-time two-year diploma programme in 2001. But among the Academy's 1,000 applicants each year, only a handful are interested in the course, says Susanna Chan, public relations manager at the school.

"We see it as an alternative interest. There is no mass audience for it," she says.

Erhu player Chan fondly recalls the days before the Asian financial crisis of 1997 when he received enough funding from the government to organise more than 10 shows a year. He now has enough for just two. Many of his colleagues switched careers years ago, becoming security guards or choosing to live on welfare handouts. Yet Chan, who plays 10 Western and Chinese musical instruments, has not given up.

Besides free tickets and gifts, students are expected to pay at least a few thousand dollars each show for costume hire, makeup artists and musicians.

"We do that for art. If it disappears, it would be such a shame. But I would not want my sons and daughters to live on any form of art here. You cannot make a living here," Chan says.

Stephen Chow Chun-kay, chairman of the advisory committee, is more optimistic. An amateur performer himself, he says an audience of 300,000 means the opera is still the most popular art form in the city.

A foundation has been set up to promote the art and plans promotional programmes at schools to help youngsters understand it. "The situation is bad now. If we do nothing, it will get worse. But it's never too late," says Chan. "It's difficult to promote it but it's not impossible. It's an art that's worth preserving."

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