Ancient art, fresh heirs
There's rather a lot of noise coming from class 4A at St Joseph's Primary School in Ma On Shan and surely too much laughter for serious study. At the front of the room, facing their classmates, children sit in a row with signs around their necks, each depicting the Chinese character for one of the nine tones in Cantonese.
The class sings the tune to the nursery rhyme Old MacDonald Had a Farm, and the children with the signs jump out of their chairs and sit down again every time their tones are sung.
It's a fun and engaging way to learn about Cantonese opera.
The children, mostly aged nine or 10, collapse into fits of giggles and are fully engaged as the teacher, Stella Ma Man-har, moves on to a Cantonese version of London Bridge is Falling Down.
'If you're going to teach children Cantonese opera,' Ma says, 'then it has to be fun, not boring, and about things primary school kids can relate to in everyday life - being naughty, not wanting to study, not wanting to listen to their mothers, finding exams difficult, sometimes failing.
'As long as you are staying true to the art of Cantonese opera, then why not show it to them with a different tune?'
'I've learned how to do Cantonese opera,' says one of her charges, Clemence Le Sayec, 10.
'You're always going up and down, and they speak funny. They sing all the time, whatever they are doing.'
Since 2002, Ma has been on a mission to introduce Cantonese opera to primary school children in a way they can grasp. This academic year, she is touring several primary schools in the New Territories, replacing 26 lessons of physical education, art and music with her introduction to Cantonese opera. The course is funded for one year by the Arts Development Council.
'I love Cantonese opera, but the kids don't have to like it,' Ma says. 'But I do want them to try it out and understand what it is about.'
Ma uses cartoon characters of key figures, such as a general, to appeal to the children.
Unesco has recognised the art form as an intangible cultural heritage, and the number of courses at the secondary and tertiary levels in Hong Kong have increased in recent years. But there's still a shortage of books for primary schools, says Ma.
Opera plots often involve star-crossed lovers stymied by dastardly mandarins who fancy the protagonist's girlfriend for a concubine and scheme to achieve their evil ends. There's usually a general, and several people die as the actor-singers work their way through a three-hour script. But tales of concubines, death and revenge have little appeal for, say, a nine-year-old from Tsuen Wan.
To make the art form more accessible, Ma has created her own children's operas, which pupils rehearse and perform at her weekly private classes run by her Cha Duk Chang Children's Cantonese Opera Association in a Kwun Tong studio.
There's Three-eyed Fairy in Distress - about a six-year-old boy fairy who fails his exam in heaven and has to go to earth to revise for the exam, meeting pupils along the way, and manages to pass.
Ma has also written The Quest for the Moon Fairy - in which two children run away from home to see the Mid-Autumn Festival. They become hungry and steal some cakes from a baker, and the fierce woman in the bakery chases them.
'That's when they decide they need their mum and head on home,' says Ma.
'I don't want the children to have to deal with adult themes,' she says. 'Cantonese opera is about stories. The elements [such as the music, costumes and singing style] have to be the same, but who says [the plots] have to be historical? These stories are all about children, so they are completely themselves on stage.'
Ma's efforts have come to the attention of a government organisation in Foshan, Guangdong, the historical heart of Cantonese opera. While the art form is taught in schools there and in Shenzhen, Ma says it is all very academic.
'They use adult operas to teach the children,' she says. 'So now we have the opportunity, as the first Hong Kong Cantonese opera troupe, to show them our children's operas.'
Earlier this month, Ma led a group, including 17 child performers, to Foshan for a four-day symposium on the art form held by the city's office for the protection of intangible cultural heritage. The trip was partly sponsored by Hong Kong's Cantonese Opera Development Fund.
'The office representative has been coming to watch our children perform for the past 10 years,' says Ma. 'Finally, he said it was time for us to visit them. Foshan TV agreed to do a documentary on our visit and will send footage to CCTV.'
In the group were Smon Yung Sze-man and her eight-year-old daughter, Charlotte.
At a final rehearsal ahead of the trip, Yung says Ma's Saturday afternoon classes are 'a lot of fun'.
'I hope it will help to revitalise the culture, but there's a long way to go. It's important to keep up our Chinese traditions. A lot of local people think that Cantonese opera is for old people. I love the make-up and the costumes - they are so pretty. Charlotte loves it, and I tell her if she's naughty during the week, I won't let her go.'
Another mother, Lilian Cheung Lai-wan, says it was her four-year-old daughter, Natasha, who insisted on learning the art form.
'It was her idea. We were living in North Point near the Sunbeam Theatre, and she saw a Cantonese opera poster and thought it was very beautiful,' Cheung says.
The trip to Foshan was an exciting opportunity for Ma to show how the younger generation can engage in a historical art form, something that she says is lacking in her generation.
'Our parents loved Cantonese opera,' she says. 'They would listen to it on the radio, go to the theatre, see it at the cinema, partly because it was one of the only forms of entertainment available.'
But Ma says that having been taught a curriculum modelled on the British one, she learned little of her own heritage at school: 'We learned Russian and British folk songs, even Chinese ones, but nothing to do with Hong Kong.'
These days there has been a resurgence of interest in Cantonese opera. The famous Sunbeam Theatre was recently saved from closure by a benefactor who offered to pay the monthly rent. The University of Hong Kong is among several institutions bringing the art form to secondary schools.
'Cantonese opera is part of the music curriculum, but more needs to be done for primary school children,' Ma says. Cheung agrees: 'The government needs to promote this more.'
One of Ma's assistants is air steward Lee Ting-fung, 24, who was also going to Foshan.
'When I was young I was quite weak,' he says. 'I was always getting sick, so I needed to do more exercise, and my mum chose this when I was nine years old. Mum said I had to be there, so I went. But I fell in love with it. I'm so interested in Chinese traditions and the songs.'
Lee, who performed as a child in the Sunbeam Theatre, helps teach basic movement and singing.
'I'll play a small character in the Foshan performances, as I'm over age,' he says.