Class of ’97: The magic of Cantonese opera helps Jackie Leung feel connected with Hong Kong

Currently studying law and politics at HKU, Leung’s ambition is to save up to be professional singer, performing in theatres erected during festivals to honour folklore deities

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 June, 2017, 10:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 June, 2017, 10:00am

Meet the class of ’97, born the year of the handover. Their childhoods tell the stories of Hong Kong’s first two decades after the return to China. Some remember Sars, others took part in Occupy. Now, they’re trying to work out what their future holds – and how Hong Kong’s own uncertain future fits into their plans.

Jackie Leung

You won’t find many 19 year olds at a rickety bamboo theatre, performing traditional Cantonese opera in silk robes, their faces covered in thick, colourful make-up.

For Jackie Leung, the temporary structures with their leaky tin roofs and wafting incense are, since she was first introduced to them as a toddler by her mother, the best places to be. Performing the ancient art form isn’t just a hobby – it’s a reason why the city is part of her future.

“I just feel very magical and very happy every time I go on stage,” she says. “Doing Cantonese opera makes me feel more connected with this place, and that’s one of the reasons why I feel, even though the future of Hong Kong is a bit pessimistic, I would still want to stay.”

Currently Leung is studying law and politics at the University of Hong Kong, and wants to be a lawyer. But her ambition is to save up to be a professional Cantonese opera singer, performing in theatres erected during festivals to honour folklore deities. Leung, who lives in Kennedy Town, admits friends think it is “a bit weird”.

“Not many young people would want to watch [opera] for even 15 minutes,” she says.

“I think one of the reasons I identify myself as a Hongkonger is that I am a Cantonese opera performer. If you’re addicted to a traditional local art form, it sort of makes you feel connected with this place more,” she said.

Cantonese opera dates back almost 1000 years, and was originally performed to honour gods, rather than as pure entertainment.

Leung’s passion started as a two-year-old when she was brought along to a Bamboo Theatre by her mother.

“She had to bring along milk powder and stuff so I could eat during the performance,” Leung recalls.

She’s been learning Cantonese opera since she was six, and recently has been taught by top performer Emily Chan Wing-yee.

Like many Hongkongers, she’s pessimistic about the political future of the city. But unlike many Hongkongers, Leung has an easy escape route: she has a Canadian passport.

In 1998, her family moved to Canada, afraid of what could happen to the city under Chinese rule. The following year they returned, with the two year old clutching a Canadian passport.

When everything seemed to be fine, they moved back the following year, with a Canadian passport in tow for the then-two-year-old Leung.

Hong Kong’s political situation has always been a point of discussion with her family, who live in Kennedy Town in Hong Kong Island.

On her father’s shoulders, she was one of 500,000 Hongkongers to protest on July 1, 2003, against the proposed introduction of a national security law. “It was hot, it was really hot. I can still remember that all the protesters were really determined,” she says.

Leung was one of over half a million Hongkongers who came out on July 1 protest in 2003 to protest a proposed law change that would make subversion against the Chinese government illegal.

Leung also visited Admiralty during the 2014 Occupy protests.

“I went with my friends and I also went with my family. I think it really changed how teenagers see politics. They began to feel it was really something to do with their own lives,” she says. “In a way, it didn’t lead to any substantial achievements but it changed mindsets.”

However this is where her future lies.“

If every young Hongkonger decided to leave, the city would not sustain itself. So I think some of us would have to stay.”