University students went backstage last week for a close-up look at a traditional art form some consider an endangered species. Participants in this year's Lee Shiu Summer Institute - now in its third year - visited an insurance company, a family temple and an archaeological site during a stop in Guangdong province's capital city. There were factory tours in Huizhou, Dongguan and Shekou. The highlight for many, however, was the chance to visit the rehearsal site of an amateur Peking Opera troupe, where six students put on grease paint and donned satin costumes that have changed little since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The six, selected by Chen Hualing, a senior language instructor at Lingnan University, were asked to prepare a short speech explaining their part to the more than 70 participants. Make-up artists and performers applied make-up and helped them get dressed. Twenty-one-year-old Jenny Lee, a junior at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, was dressed up as the daughter of an official in the Qing dynasty. Her impromptu performance drew cheers from the Peking Opera performers, some of whom said she had the makings of a star. 'It was really great,' Ms Lee said later. 'It was much better that we did it ourselves. If we had attended a performance in a theatre, it would have been like watching it on TV,' Ms Lee said. For Rob Bohn, 20, a junior at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, the excursion provided a rare insider's glimpse at Chinese society. On his second trip to the mainland, Mr Bohn said that part of the fun was the chance to soak up local colour - something that few tourists get to experience on guided tours. 'It was exciting going through those back streets to see how Chinese people live,' Mr Bohn said. 'We went to this little Chinese theatre. We ate Chinese food. We got all dressed up. It was really exciting,' he said. Ms Chen said even Chinese students were sometimes more interested in Western culture than in their own country's rich cultural heritage. She hoped that by taking a more interactive approach, teachers could help them develop a taste for traditional art forms, such as the Peking Opera. 'I thought it would be more interesting for them to get dressed up in costumes rather than just watching a performance,' Ms Chen said. 'If we had taken them to a theatre, many of them would have lost interest,' she said. At least some of the students appeared to have taken the bait. 'I had never been to a Peking Opera,' said Richard Liu Ke'yan, a third year English literature major from Xi'an Foreign Language University. 'I didn't know it would be so exciting. I didn't realise it would take so long to put on the make-up or to get dressed,' Mr Liu said. When asked if activities like this could increase interest in the traditional art form, the 20-year- old was emphatic. 'When I get back to Xi'an, I plan to buy some cassettes and attend some Peking Opera performances,' Mr Liu said. But not everyone was convinced. According to Sak Kai-yau, internal secretary of the executive council of the Lingnan University Students' Union - better known by his English name, Play - visiting a watch parts factory run by a couple from the SAR was more interesting than getting dressed up as an opera star. 'It showed Hong Kong people are hard-working and far-sighted,' the 19-year-old said. 'Although they are not yet able to compete with Japanese and Swiss manufacturers, they hope they soon will. I found this very inspiring,' he said. Half of the participants this year are from mainland universities. The other half are from Hong Kong's Lingnan University, two universities in Taiwan, two uni versities in Canada and four tertiary institutions in the US. Following a week on the mainland, participants moved last weekend to the SAR. They will spend one month here living and studying together. In addition to English, Cantonese and Putonghua classes, they will make group presentations and visit schools, businesses, factories, government offices and other places of interest. The Lee Shiu Summer Institute was set up following Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty. It aims to promote a better understanding of Hong Kong and its role in China, a dialogue on social and economic issues affecting the two places, international understanding and exchange. 'There should be more exchanges between young people in Hong Kong and China so that they can get to know each other better,' said Dr Lee Shiu, benefactor of the programme. 'It's good for them to exchange experiences and work together,' he said. Jennie Lee, his wife, agreed. 'In 1997, we didn't know if it was for better or worse,' she said. 'The success story of Hong Kong ought to be immortalised.'