Hard act to follow
With baby-faced features and a petite frame, Karen Wang Kit-ching seems a little doll-like. But there's nothing delicate about her passion and determination to succeed as a Cantonese opera performer. A graduating student at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA), she still smiles when describing the many bruises and sprains that she has endured as part of the gruelling training.
'Back splits were the most painful when I first started because it's like having your body folded up, literally. I think everyone on the floor could hear me wailing at the time,' she says with a laugh.
Wang's spirits are running high as she and other young students will perform Cantonese opera excerpts and a full-length production of the classic The Lotus Lantern at the Sunbeam Theatre in North Point. It's the students' second appearance at the city's only venue dedicated to the art, and such opportunities are hard to come by, says APA programme co-ordinator Boaz Chow Sze-sum. 'It's a commercial venue so dates can be hard to book. Public funding helps a lot. It's also special because the theatre is about to close [early next year],' says Chow.
Playing to an audience of knowledgeable theatre-goers is a thrill for students such as Vanessa Tsang Ho-chi. 'I am a little nervous, though. It's a big and professional theatre and we're facing a more demanding audience,' says Tsang.
Wang, 28, and Tsang, 21, are keen to pursue full-time careers in Cantonese opera after they graduate in June, but it will be a tough road ahead. Although the APA prospectus says graduates from its Cantonese opera programme are almost certain to secure jobs because of the frequency of performances - it estimates about 1,500 every year - seasoned performers reveal a far less rosy picture.
'It's a strange business,' says Leung Hon-wai, co-founder of the Cantonese Opera Academy of Hong Kong. 'Many old masters are too busy managing their own troupes or think young talents don't suit their needs,' he says. 'They are only interested in themselves and it's not their priority to nurture younger performers.' Another insider says it's 'painful' to watch many passionate people drop out from dejection after years of grind without reward.
Still, some have worked their way up against the odds. Ng Siu-tin, a 37-year-old performer, graduated in hotel management but began taking classes at the Cantonese Opera Academy in 1996.
Despite his parents' opposition, Ng joined a troupe and like most people started as a lowly member of the corps. After three years of playing bit parts, Ng was promoted to more important roles. 'I don't know many professionals who have gone as far as I did. It's very competitive,' he says.
Opportunities to perform, while still frequent, are not as plentiful as before, he says, and many troupes vie to be hired for traditional celebrations such as the Yu Lan and Tin Hau festivals. There's also stiff competition from mainland companies, whose performers often began training as children.
Ng learned that he needs plenty of time, money and a few connections - he was fortunate to have veteran star Mui Suet-see as his mentor - to carve a niche in Cantonese opera. 'It's a very costly profession because you have to keep learning different skills and provide your own costumes,' say Ng, who estimates he has spent about HK$1 million on the elaborate robes. 'I am very lucky to do be able to do it full-time because I don't have a family to support.'
Ng is ambivalent about pursuing the art in Hong Kong. 'I wouldn't hesitate to learn the art because everything about it is so beautiful - the singing, acting, speech and movement. But Hong Kong is not a good place to do it. The ratio of hard work to the reward is never proportionate,' he says.
'Many actors are willing to play bit parts just for the money, but I'm not one of them; I want to move up the ladder. But I've learned you have to be realistic. I thought about giving up, but it's too late. At my age, I have too much at stake. I have fought so hard to be where I am now, how can I give up?'
Ponny Ma Tak-ming isn't as well off as Ng and doesn't have the connections that might give his career a boost but after almost 20 years of perseverance, he is beginning to get supporting roles. 'Opportunities for male actors are more scarce because women can play male roles as well. But I am glad to have been one of the very few who have made this far,' says the 44-year-old who has devoted himself to Cantonese opera since 1983.
Training is provided by many troupes and schools, including the Cantonese Opera Academy, which has nurtured many talented performers in the past 20 years. Even so, Ma and Ng say the APA's Cantonese opera programme is a valuable addition.
'Its academic system makes for a good [learning] environment,' says Ma. 'It's easier for young people to enter this business, although I'm not sure about the [long-term] job opportunities.' Launched in 1999, the APA programme includes certificate, diploma and advanced diploma courses that distinguish themselves from other schools by combining practice with theory and research. Wang says the four-year programme has helped her become a more rounded performer.
'Now I have a good knowledge of the history, literature and music related to the genre. I know how to play instruments like the cymbals. It helps me to learn it as a professional, rather than an amateur,' she says. 'You're also more inspired when studying with people like yourself, rather than amateurs with jobs.'
For Tsang, the APA course is merely an introduction to the art form. 'I studied Chinese dance and only got to know Cantonese opera at high school through my aunt. I signed up out of curiosity but fell in love with it,' she says. 'This course is just a way to get started because there's so much to learn; it's not something you can master in a couple of years.'
While conversion of the Yau Ma Tei Theatre into a Cantonese opera centre signals growing official support for the art, insiders say urgent issues concerning its future have yet to be addressed.
'We have to keep Cantonese opera sustainable by creating a conducive environment for performers to focus on their craft without constantly worrying about making a living,' says Leung, who has served as a government consultant. 'It's a good thing to see the government pay more attention to our sector, but we need to come up with a clearer cultural policy that envisions where Cantonese opera is heading in the long term.'
But achieving this would be difficult if the divided Cantonese opera community does not set aside its differences and self-interest. Rampant bureaucracy, nepotism and personal politics don't help either, says Leung.
Despite the uncertainty, the graduating APA students remain optimistic. Wang has secured a coveted place in the government-funded Hong Kong Young Talent Opera Group. Tsang has yet to find a job but is happy to start from the bottom. Nothing compares to the satisfaction of being on stage, she says. 'I am glad to be taking up Cantonese opera at a time when people are more aware of this art form. I won't give up because it's not who I am. No matter what I've been through, it's worth it as long as I've shown progress.'
Academy Cantonese Opera Performance. The Lotus Lantern, tonight; Cantonese opera excerpts, tomorrow; 7.30pm, Sunbeam Theatre, North Point. HK$80-$150. Cityline: 2314 4228