If you find yourself watching Chinese Opera in a Hong Kong theatre, and the man beside you carefully sets out four cameras on the floor around him and hugs a fifth close to his chest, then you are certainly sitting next to Siu Wang-ngai. The lawyer-photographer has watched hundreds of Operas over the past 16 years, taking an average of eight rolls of film in each. It has resulted in an extraordinarily modern photographic record of regional Chinese Opera, for which he has been awarded a fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. The photographs - all taken on 200 ASA negative film during actual performances in Hong Kong - are extraordinary theatrical records by any standards. Although officially an 'amateur' photographer, Siu - who works as a solicitor - has created a very professional portfolio. Without using tripod or flash - partly so as not to disturb the actors and audiences, but also to give the pictures the depth that flash tends to steal - Siu has managed to capture the drama, colour and humanity of this theatre form. A selection of his photographs will be on show at the Cultural Centre Foyer from September 10 to 15. The exhibition will also officially launch a remarkable book on Chinese Opera he has put together with Canadian writer, academic, and teacher of Chinese performance, Peter Lovrick. The book sets out to explain Chinese Opera, its images and stories, and, as well as being interesting to the converted, will also be an invaluable aid to newcomers to the theatre form who want to attend the Provisional Urban Council's rare Festival of Chinese Opera next month. In laudably-straightforward language, the book explains the conventions, the plots, the various musical instruments, and the regional differences within Chinese Opera. So you learn how a white face means treachery; a black one means impartiality. And the red faces? Those belong to the most generous and courageous of operatic characters. And you also learn the social context of some of the plots: how wealthy families in China could fall after a single indiscretion (shown in Daughters ), or how the three religious ideologies of China are represented in operas like The Legend of the White Snake and The Thirsty Monk. Siu, who has loved Chinese Opera of all types since he was a toddler and sat entranced at performances with his mother, first became interested in taking photographs in 1969, but started combining this with his interest in theatre in 1981 when an amateur opera singer invited him to see The Jade Bracelet in Yuen Long. 'I took a camera along and some of the pictures turned out well, so I tried it again, and worked out how to get over some of the technical problems.' He is also guest photographer for the Hong Kong Ballet ('quite a different set of technical problems: ballet is much faster'). He has photographed some 16 different types of theatre (a single panel of the operatic fan that stretches across 300 different regional forms) for the book. Although each has its appeal, his favourites are the Hebei Clapper Theatre and the Sichuan opera which includes the rapid mask-switching that was shown so charmingly in the film The King of Masks. 'They are amazing: you can't imagine how they do it. Except . . . look at the photograph,' Siu said. 'There are strings all over his body.' One tradition of Chinese Opera that Siu always found particularly useful was the informality of the audience. In the past it was not uncommon for people to go to hear opera in teashops and chat loudly until the singers reached a favourite bit, when they would listen intently before chatting again, and the habit of moving around was maintained in Hong Kong theatres until very recently. 'Until about 1986 I could wander round in the theatre and take pictures from whatever angle I wanted. But now I get a seat somewhere between the third and fifth rows of the theatre and try to be as quiet as possible.' The shutter makes some noise, he acknowledged. 'But the music is so loud that I don't think anyone notices.' Chinese Opera: Images and Stories. University of British Columbia Press and University of Washington Press, $288.