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A Night at the Opera

Photography: Chew Win Win

The sweet scent of caramelising meat fills the air; as the soy sauce- and sugar-basted skewers sizzle on the charcoal brazier, curls of smoke waft from the glowing embers beneath the grill, momentarily shrouding the chef in a white fog. He hands me my meat-on-a-stick, money changes hands, and I head for the theatre – a massive makeshift pavilion constructed entirely out of bamboo.

I’m in Tsing Yi, a once rural island in Hong Kong’s New Territories that has been transformed in recent years into a largely urban and residential area. Here to catch a yueju performance, I stick out like a sore thumb, as foreigners, though welcome, are a rare sight at a traditional bamboo theatre.

The entrance to the bamboo theatre in Tsing Yi. Constructed from bamboo, these theatres are temporary auditoriums for the staging of Cantonese opera performances. At the end of an event, the structure is dismantled, packed and carted to the next location.
The entrance to the bamboo theatre in Tsing Yi. Constructed from bamboo, these theatres are temporary auditoriums for the staging of Cantonese opera performances. At the end of an event, the structure is dismantled, packed and carted to the next location. Photography: Chew Win Win.

Around me, crowds of people – a gaggle of pig-tailed schoolgirls in their uniforms, parents pushing strollers, and groups of seniors – flit from stall to stall, appraising the wares on display. From brightly coloured toys and tacky thingamajigs to ice-blended thirst quenchers and hot dogs, there is something for every palate. To me, the atmosphere is reminiscent of a fete. Bamboo theatre dates back to when visiting opera troupes staged performances in villages during festive or religious occasions. Over time, the eagerly awaited performances developed a fairground appeal, with food and drink stalls catering to the needs of theatregoers. Tonight, the festivities are in honour of Tin Hau, the Goddess of the Sea and patron saint of fishermen.

As I jostle through the thickening crowd, skewered dinner in hand, I spy a friendly face at the entrance of the theatre. Keith Lai, a cast member with whom I’m acquainted, beckons me to join him backstage. It is an incredible honour to be invited behind the scenes, and I hurriedly wolf down my takeaway meal before he has the chance to change his mind. Peeling back a tarpaulin sheet that delineates the backstage area, he lets me into what seems like another world – the magical realm of Cantonese opera.

BEHIND THE BAMBOO CURTAIN

Lai announces to the cast and crew that they have a visitor. With less than an hour to go before the curtains are raised, the actors are in various stages of dress and makeup but graciously welcome me into their fold. Here, in the warren of improvised dressing rooms partitioned only by flimsy drapes, the assistants to the lead actors are busy with the final preparations, carefully ironing and laying out the night’s outfits, and selecting accessories to match the costumes.

Space is a premium at the backstage area of a traditional bamboo theatre. Here, actors prepare for their roles for the evening with barely a curtain to give them privacy.
Space is a premium at the backstage area of a traditional bamboo theatre. Here, actors prepare for their roles for the evening with barely a curtain to give them privacy. Photography: Chew Win Win.

I duck out of the way as a cast member in full makeup hurries through the labyrinth, a handful of lit joss sticks in his grasp, and watch from the shadows as he proceeds to offers prayers at an altar to Master Huaguang – one of the gods worshipped by Cantonese opera artists.

Actors always seek blessings before a show to ensure a smooth performance. Not wanting to interrupt the pre-show routines of the actors, I tip-toe around their backstage home, quietly taking in the sights and sounds of this bamboo sanctuary. From the corner of my eye, I notice a gentleman trying to catch my attention.

Keith Lai studies his lines before going on stage. The young playwright and actor is among a new generation of performers passionate about preserving the art of Cantonese opera.
Keith Lai studies his lines before going on stage. The young playwright and actor is among a new generation of performers passionate about preserving the art of Cantonese opera. Photography: Chew Win Win.

The man is Loong Koon-tin, the lead of tonight’s premiere. In the midst of his makeup routine (Cantonese opera performers do their own makeup), Loong asks his assistant to bring me a stool, and motions for me to take a seat next to him. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me because Loong is one of the finest Cantonese opera performers in Hong Kong. Lai must have put in a good word for me as the senior actor is in good spirits, going as far as to show me photos of his grandchildren!

THE WHITE AND RED FACE

We chat in fits and starts – me in my pidgin Cantonese remembered from Hong Kong TV dramas of long ago, and Loong in the smattering of English that he has accumulated from his part-Caucasian grandkids. But we have no trouble understanding each other.

I pepper him with questions as he ‘puts his face on’. Stage makeup can consume the better part of an hour, but for an actor with Loong’s experience who has been performing for over three decades, the backstage routine is swift. First, he pulls his hair back and secures the strands under a close-fitting skull cap before applying a layer of chalk white foundation to his face, neck and ears. Then, he gently sweeps rouge across his eyes, cheeks, and up to the bridge of his nose. The contrast of the pasty foundation with the rosy hue is famously referred to as ‘the white and red face’ in Cantonese opera.

Loong is a picture of concentration as he applies eyeliner. Eye makeup is an important facet of Cantonese opera as the eyes convey emotion.
Loong is a picture of concentration as he applies eyeliner. Eye makeup is an important facet of Cantonese opera as the eyes convey emotion. Photography: Chew Win Win.

It all seems easy enough, or so I think, until Loong gestures for his assistant. She winds a slim black band across his forehead and behind his ears, pulling the band tautly before tying it so that it stretches the skin, and lends Loong’s eyes and brows an upwards slant. The process looks painful even to the casual observer but the actor is all smiles. “So many years already, no pain… it is easy.” With a few deft flicks of the wrist, he traces the outlines of his ‘elongated’ eyes using an inky black liquid eyeliner, and creates thick, bold brows that befit the role of the powerful general he will be playing tonight. With a lip brush, he then paints his pout fire-engine red. But this is only the makeup.

The stage manager pops backstage to remind the actors that the show will begin in 20 minutes, prompting performers with roles in the first act to get dressed. Loong’s assistant fastens a cloth wrap much like a corset around his midriff. Next, a sleeveless padded vest is worn, adding form or ‘more muscle’ to his body. Padded sleeves are also wrapped around his biceps for the same reason. Finally, the costume – a sparkling sequinned robe that conjures the armour of a general – is unveiled.

Costumes, which vary in design according to the role of the actor, are heavy (weighing up to a few kilograms) and expensive affairs. Richly embroidered, sequinned and sometimes bejewelled, these outfits cost tens of thousands of HKD – Loong owns a bespoke crystal-studded robe that set him back a staggering HKD40,000 (approx. USD5,138)! Leading Cantonese opera performers often possess their own made-to-order wardrobe, while supporting players rely on rented costumes due to the high cost of new outfits.

For the role of a general, Loong Koon-tin wears a grand sequinned costume attached with triangular banners. The elaborate costume is meant to conjure the armour worn by generals, while the banners symbolise flags. To give the ‘general’ a more formidable appearance, platform shoes that add height, are worn.
For the role of a general, Loong Koon-tin wears a grand sequinned costume attached with triangular banners. The elaborate costume is meant to conjure the armour worn by generals, while the banners symbolise flags. To give the ‘general’ a more formidable appearance, platform shoes that add height, are worn. Photography: Chew Win Win.

As Loong stands before me, every inch the formidable general, it’s hard to imagine that, just minutes ago, I’d been chatting with a jolly grandfather. I wish Loong good luck as he waits for his cue and he rewards me with a broad smile. As I watch from the wings, the general, in all his glory, steps proudly onto the stage and into the spotlight.

In tonight’s opera, The Impetuous Generals, Loong is playing the lead, General Liu Xiaotian, who banishes his wife, Cuijjun, from the kingdom after a misunderstanding. Liu goes into battle against troops from another kingdom, and, in a twist of fate, finds himself face to face with Cuijjun – who has been conscripted into the opposing army – on the battlefield. The story is not all heartbreak and war. Secondary characters provide comic relief to lighten the tone of the play, while some improvisational dialogue helps the cast engage with the audience. This is the very essence of Cantonese opera – to entertain and engage its viewers.

AN OPERATIC LEGACY

To learn more about the origins of this precious art form, I head to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, a repository of history, art and culture in Sha Tin. Among the museum’s permanent galleries, is a hall dedicated to yueju, with a replica of a bamboo theatre and interactive exhibits that encourage audience engagement.

Fion Lin, an assistant curator at the museum takes me on a tour of the exhibits, which traces the history of this operatic legacy. Dating back to the reign of Emperor Jiajing (1522 to 1566) of the Ming dynasty, Cantonese opera began as a blend of regional Chinese operatic styles. During the Ming and Qing (1644 to 1911) dynasties, theatre was an important feature of people’s lives, and usually complemented religious festivals.

Besides traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu (two-stringed bowed instrument), yangqin (Chinese dulcimer), and pipa (sometimes referred to as the Chinese lute), the music of Cantonese opera also features the fan ling (fiddle) and even the saxophone.
Besides traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu (two-stringed bowed instrument), yangqin (Chinese dulcimer), and pipa (sometimes referred to as the Chinese lute), the music of Cantonese opera also features the fan ling (fiddle) and even the saxophone. Photography: Chew Win Win.

Drawing inspiration from regional operatic styles, particularly the tradition of spinning stories through song – common in the southeastern provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong – the art form gradually developed a unique style of its own.

“Though Foshan in Guangdong province is widely considered the cradle of Cantonese opera, by the end of the 19th century, many local performers took their talents on the road and headed for the bright lights of Hong Kong – a bustling port city with modern theatres. In the years before WWII, Cantonese opera thrived in both the southern regions of the mainland and Hong Kong, with troupes performing a regular circuit of venues in Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macao,” she explains.

Actress Susanna Cheng receives a bit of help from an assistant as she adds the final flourishes to her hair and makeup routine just before a performance.
Actress Susanna Cheng receives a bit of help from an assistant as she adds the final flourishes to her hair and makeup routine just before a performance. Photography: Chew Win Win.

To the uninitiated, Cantonese opera may be no different from the other regional forms of Chinese opera (of which there are over 200), but can be distinguished by its vocal style, colourful costumes, musical accompaniment, makeup and characters. I learn that the repertoire of Cantonese opera features works adapted and inspired by Chinese history like The Joint Investiture of a Prime Minister by Six Kingdoms, as well as classic tales of love and morality. Over the centuries, performances have served as social commentary, with current issues woven into the tales of love and legend.

In recent times, playwrights have also written new works that have become classics in their own right. An example is Princess Changping, a love story penned by the legendary and prolific playwright Tong Tik-sang in the 1950s, during the heyday of Cantonese opera.

EMBRACING CHANGE

Unlike many other forms of Chinese opera, such as the steadfastly traditional Peking opera, the Cantonese style of the art form has always been more accepting of different influences while remaining rooted in tradition. At the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) – the premier performing arts academy in Hong Kong, I meet Li Siuleung, professor and dean of the institution’s School of Chinese Opera, and Martin Lau, assistant to the dean. The school offers diploma and advanced diploma courses in Cantonese opera, and has recently introduced a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Chinese Opera – a comprehensive four-year programme that instructs students in the finer points of the genre.

Ng Man Ting is pursuing a BFA in Chinese Opera at the HKAPA. Here, the 20-year-old rehearses a routine for the role of a female general, under the watchful eyes of her teacher.
Ng Man Ting is pursuing a BFA in Chinese Opera at the HKAPA. Here, the 20-year-old rehearses a routine for the role of a female general, under the watchful eyes of her teacher. Photography: Chew Win Win.

Li, a Western classical music enthusiast, opines that Cantonese opera has always been more adaptable of other influences. “Instruments like the fan ling (colloquial term for fiddle) and the saxophone have been used in Cantonese opera since the 1920s and 30s. Popular music also finds its way into performances, and is often woven into the score. I once watched a performance where the theme from The Longest Day, a classic WWII movie, was part of the soundtrack!”

Adding to Li’s comments, Lau, whose family immigrated to the United States when he was seven, tells me that he polished his Cantonese from watching Cantonese opera performances. “Emigrants to the US brought with them an appreciation of Cantonese opera – it was something they identified with home. I picked up my Cantonese from the opera, and for me, learning Cantonese opera – a home-grown performing art form – was a link to my culture and history.

“The preservation of localised art forms like Cantonese opera is one of the reasons that I’m in the industry. It’s one thing to encourage young people to learn the art and yet another to energise the general public to appreciate the art,” enthuses Lau who is also a prominent musician in the Cantonese opera circuit.

Backstage at the Ko Shan Theatre, Loong prepares for the role of a scholar in a new opera, The Romantic Dreams of Sudi.
Backstage at the Ko Shan Theatre, Loong prepares for the role of a scholar in a new opera, The Romantic Dreams of Sudi. Photography: Chew Win Win.

Lau invites me to a yueju performance he is playing at later that evening, and I accept. At the Ko Shan theatre – a popular indoor venue for Cantonese opera performances – I settle into my seat as a new play, The Romantic Dreams of Sudi plays to a packed auditorium.

JUST ENJOY THE SHOW

With only a basic grasp of Cantonese, I have my trepidations. Would the message of the play be lost on me? Though the language used in Cantonese opera is not tailored to the casual speaker, the performing arts have a way of transcending barriers.

As the story of love and longing unfolds on the stage, I realise that the only barriers to appreciating and embracing the unfamiliar are the ones in our heads. The moment I go with the flow, the opera in all its glorious splendour, comes to life before me and is a feast for the senses – no subtitles necessary.

A prelude to a main performance. When a new show comes to town, short plays are staged before the premiere to get the audience in the mood.
A prelude to a main performance. When a new show comes to town, short plays are staged before the premiere to get the audience in the mood. Photography: Chew Win Win.

I may not understand the subtleties of speech, or the double entendres in the dialogue, but I leave the theatre with a renewed appreciation of this age-old art. From my conversations with the old and new guard, one thing is apparent: cheng chuan, the passing down of heritage from one generation to the next, is integral in ensuring the art of yueju or Cantonese opera lives on for generations to come.

PRELUDES TO A PERFORMANCE

The premier of a Cantonese opera performance is an exciting event. Before a show is staged, troupes observe traditional rituals, and perform short plays to introduce the audience to the members of the cast.

PACIFYING THE WHITE TIGER
This ritual is carried out when an opera is to be performed on a new stage. The highlight of this important ritual is the placing of fresh pork into the Tiger God’s (depicted by an actor in a tiger costume) mouth, a symbolic act to protect the cast from the ‘tiger’s bite’ or misfortune. The troupe is bound by tradition to maintain complete silence during this private ceremony.

JOINT INVESTITURE OF A PRIME MINISTER BY SIX KINGDOMS
Adapted from The Legend of the Golden Seal, a Chinese literature classic, this play is staged on the first night of a new performance, and distinguished by the use of official court language. The play, which usually showcases the entire cast, is a show of artistic strength that assures the audience of the troupe’s talent.

FAIRIES BRING A CHILD TO THE WORLD
This short play is based on a folk tale that revolves around the love between a scholar and a celestial being – the seventh daughter of the Heavenly Emperor. When the emperor hears of their union, he forbids them from being together, separating the lovers. When a son is born to his daughter from her union with the scholar, the newborn is escorted from heaven by fairies to join its father on earth. As a son is considered to bring good luck in Chinese folklore, this play is performed to bless the audience with good fortune and happiness.
www.heritagemuseum.gov.hk

A supporting actress in a beautifully embroidered costume and elaborate headdress. Female characters often wear artificial bangs and buns, embellished with bejewelled hair pins.
A supporting actress in a beautifully embroidered costume and elaborate headdress. Female characters often wear artificial bangs and buns, embellished with bejewelled hair pins. Photography: Chew Win Win.

WATCH IT!

With hundreds of shows staged every year, there’s always an opportunity to catch a Cantonese opera performance when you’re in Hong Kong. Here are two not-to-be-missed events happening this summer.

CELEBRATING THE REUNIFICATION WITH CANTONESE OPERA CLASSICS, JUNE 30 TO JULY 2

Organised by the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong, this three-day festival showcases a folk classic, Enlightenment of the Goddess of Mercy, followed by a perennial repertoires of Cantonese opera classics such as Grand Birthday Celebration at Mount Heung Fa and Blessing by the God of Fortune.

VENUE: Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

CHINESE OPERA FESTIVAL 2017, JUNE 13 TO AUGUST 13

This month-long operatic fest not only features Cantonese opera, but also highlights Peking and Shaanxi opera, among other forms of regional Chinese opera. The programme includes talks by theatre practitioners, and screenings of Cantonese opera films.

VENUE: Various locations

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