Is Cantonese opera ‘cool’? These Hong Kong children think so
Art form is attracting a younger generation of fans thanks to colourful costumes, make-up and all that ‘very special’ singing
When Li Man-chit puts on heavy make-up and colourful Chinese costumes, he enters another zone: from being an ordinary schoolboy to a star on stage.
At the age of 10, the Primary Four student has already made his name in Cantonese opera. He is a two-time champion at the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival and has staged live performance in the United States and Canada.
Li even greeted President Xi Jinping on June 29 when he visited Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty and swear in a new administration.
“My friends think Cantonese opera is too old-fashioned for them. But I think it’s cool, and I need to respect this art form,” Li said as he warmed up for his regular training session at a Tai Kok Tsui studio on a recent Saturday.
His passion in the traditional art form was fired when his grandfather took him to a show, where he found the singing to be “very special”. “Cantonese opera is very attractive to me. I also enjoy performing on stage very much,” he said.
Li, who has been learning the art since he was five, said the hardest part was doing cartwheels and the stretching exercises.
However he will watch videos and learn the skills of other professional performers in his spare time.
His idol is master Lam Ka-sing, who founded his own operatic troupes, appeared in films and staged live performances from the 1960s onwards and died in 2015 at the age of 82.
“I saw him on TV and found his singing and acting very impressive. I was six at the time,” Li said.
His classmates at the studio said they enjoy Cantonese opera for the costumes and make-up.
“I just love how the make-up and the costumes make me very pretty,” said seven-year-old Anson Yu Tsz-on, who has been learning the art since she was four.
Instructor Yeung Kim-wah said: “Children come to learn with pure hearts and curiosities, and that’s what makes them better than adult learners.”
Yeung, 78, said he was surprised by the hard work and consistency of child performers.
“You might think these children are just playing around, but when they go on stage, they are very serious and tough about the show,” he said.
Yeung pointed out that technology had helped children explore the traditional art form as well as improve their singing and acting skills.
He said, when it came to teaching, instructors should be more down to earth and friendly to child learners, or otherwise they may easily lose interest.
In agreement with Yeung, another instructor, Ivy Fong Suet-ying, said: “Kids like acting with their lives. They won’t hold back but make sure every posture is on point. You can’t find this passion in adults very often.”
Fong, who is the chairwoman of Sing Fai Cantonese Opera Promotion Association, a non-profit organisation that nurtures child performers, explained that was because most students developed the interest on their own or through their grandparents, rather than being forced to learn.
The youngest student at her association is three years old.
But she said, since children may be easily distracted in class, instructors only teach them new skills when they were focused, and that could take minutes. “After that, we are basically repeating what they have just learned,” she said.
Fong, who has been involved with Cantonese opera for more than 30 years, set up the association in 2013 after she was inspired by a fan who taught children the art.
“I had just finished a live performance of Goddess from Ninth Heaven, and the fan, who was around seven to eight years old, painted the show’s poster on a T-shirt and handed to me. I was touched. I didn’t know children could be that passionate and attentive to Cantonese opera,” she said.
“I now believe children are the ones who keep the art going.”