West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre: Viva la Cantonese opera

West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre: Viva la Cantonese opera

"Grandma music" to some, entertainment to others, either way, Cantonese opera is gaining huge support in Hong Kong

West Kowloon Bamboo TheatreThe West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre's opening night was probably the most glamorous launch of a temporary stage.

Tickets for a series of 11 Cantonese opera performances over the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong sold out almost immediately.

The shows, which are being staged inside a traditional temporary theater, mark the launch of the construction of the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) and will give a glimpse of what the future arts hub will be like.

The demand for the shows may be due to curiosity over the Cultural District project, or the added attraction of a contemporary art and new media exhibition about Cantonese opera to be held alongside the performances.

Plus, tickets cost a mere HK$10.

But the ticket-grabbing is mostly a testament to the continuous popularity of Cantonese opera in Hong Kong. 

WKCD performance arts director Louis Yu reckons Cantonese opera is Hong Kong's second most popular form of entertainment, after Canto-pop. 

Despite Hong Kong's passion for the art, the city will lose its last major dedicated venue for Cantonese opera next month.

The legendary Sunbeam Theatre in North Point, which has been showcasing the best of Cantonese opera in Hong Kong since 1972, will close its doors for good. 

It is the last chapter in a long tale of woe for the traditional art form, beset by a lack of performance space, an aging audience and competition from more popular forms of entertainment.

"We’re a bunch of wild flowers growing in the street," is how former Cantonese opera actor Danny Li Chi-kei describes the current opera scene. "We have to fight in order to survive.”

West Kowloon Bamboo TheatreTraditional arts to live on at the bamboo theater in the shadow of Hong Kong's skyscrapers.

Twist in the plot

The turning point for the development of Cantonese opera in Hong Kong is not far off. 

In response to the loss of performance space, the Hong Kong government will open a number of new venues in the next few years to make up for the loss of the Sunbeam Theatre.

Students thought Cantonese opera was grandmother’s stuff

The Yau Ma Tei Theatre, a cinema built in the 1930s, has been restored and will open as a small venue for emerging Cantonese opera performers later this year.

In 2013, a new expansion will open at the Ko Shan Theatre in Ma Tau Wai, providing dedicated space for Cantonese opera training and performance.

Dorothy Ng, a professor of education at the University of Hong Kong, has created new educational materials to teach children about Cantonese opera, which 30 secondary schools have integrated into their curriculum.

“At the beginning, students thought Cantonese opera was grandmother’s stuff,” says Ng.

“It was boring. They couldn’t understand the lyrics. Even some of their teachers had never been inside a theater to watch opera. Then when they learned about the language, the gestures, the martial arts, the costumes, they started to change their minds. Some have even become fans.”

The most talked about initiative though is the WKCD's Xiqu Centre which will open with a 1,100-seat opera house. It hopes to provide a permanent home for Cantonese opera and make it relevant to more cosmopolitan audiences.

Before the Xiqu Centre opens in 2015, the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre will sit temporarily on its site.

The 11 sold-out Cantonese opera shows will be staged here paired with contemporary art installations by Michael Wolf, Chu Hing-wah, Gaylord Chan, Samson Young and Henry Chu.

“This is Cantonese opera for a 21st-century audience,” says Louis Yu. “The art form is thousands of years old, but the audience is contemporary.”

For anyone who failed to score a ticket, there will be a free marathon screening of five classic Hong Kong films, curated by veteran actor Law Kar-ying and visual artist Chow Chun-fai, on January 24.

West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre"Like a cathedral."

Bamboo tenacity

The 800-seat bamboo theater alone is worth a visit.

Such structures are common in the New Territories, where they are built for traditional Chinese festivals.

“It’s like a cathedral,” says Yu, who had never set foot inside a bamboo theater until recently.

Watching opera inside a bamboo theater is unlike anything else. The experience is no longer just about what is happening on stage, but also encompasses audience reaction.

“You don’t just watch -- you gather with friends for food and drinks," says Danny Li. "It’s a warm atmosphere. This affects the kind of opera you do. In a bamboo theater, it’s usually a crowd-pleaser.”

In the early 20th century, villagers throughout the Pearl River Delta would pool money to hire Cantonese opera troupes to perform in bamboo theaters.

The performers would travel by boat from village to village. Some troupes ventured as far away as New York, Vancouver and San Francisco, where large communities of Cantonese immigrants were hungry for entertainment from back home.

There was even a daily newspaper, Tsun Lam Po, dedicated to all things Cantonese opera.

“There were probably 3,000 actors in the industry at the time,” says Li, who was born in 1935 to opera-performing parents.

By the time he became an actor, in the 1950s, the opera scene had begun to change, with fewer live performances and more Cantonese opera films, which were cheaper to produce and to watch.

The start of the Cultural Revolution in 1965 was a huge shock to the industry. Opera was banned on the mainland, with actors, directors and scriptwriters hounded by Red Guards for their bourgeois indulgence.

Hong Kong became a bastion for Cantonese opera, but the British colonial government was indifferent, lending most of its financial support to Western forms of art instead.

In 2009, UNESCO deemed Cantonese opera a World Intangible Cultural Heritage. Now an effort is being made to restore the opera’s relevance.

“This a very critical time now,” says Dorothy Ng. “There was a loss of space, a loss of skills -- but recently there have been some good developments. Now I’m optimistic.”

West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre performances take place 21-24 at the corner of Austin Road and Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.

All opera performances are sold out, but entry to the contemporary art exhibition is free from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

There will also be a free series of film screenings on January 24 from 2 p.m.-10:30 p.m.


Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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