IT'S A SUNDAY AFTERNOON and a child aged about eight, weighed down with an overloaded backpack, is walking in a hurry along Nathan Road. There is something strange about this sight - he is heading for a tutorial class and yet he is smiling. And he doesn't stop, the grin just grows wider when he arrives at the private Cantonese opera school. Inside, 13 children, aged between five and 11, are sitting down with score and lyrics in their hands, practising singing Fragrant Death from Princess Chang Ping, one of the most well-known Cantonese operas. Their singing class will be followed by an opera dancing session. Eight-year-old Man Kar-yuen is one of them. 'I love the music,' says the Primary Three boy. 'The singing is very good and it has good rhythms. I always watch [Cantonese opera] VCDs with my daddy.' Cheung Yuen-keiu, nine, likes the class because of the beautiful costumes. 'I do not like Canto-pop. The sounds are so different from those in the past. Those Canto-pop stars are so arrogant,' she says. Her love of Cantonese opera is not a result of family pressure. 'I am the only one [in my family] listening to it,' she says. Summy Leung Sum-yee, a professional Cantonese opera performer since 1974, strolls around the classroom to see if any of her pupils need help. It's the first time her group, Kim Sum Cantonese Opera Company, is conducting classes for children this young. 'This is an ageing industry. The 'young' performers are already over 40 years old,' Leung says, explaining the reasons behind organising the classes which started in July. 'In the future, there could be no audience and performers from the new generation.' Although the class is as small as it is young, those who take part are full of enthusiasm, though they're having trouble mastering the melodies and recognising some of the characters. Parents sit at the side of the room listening. Kwan Chan Chit-man feels sending her 11-year-old, Kwan Wing-man, is worthwhile. 'Cantonese opera is a multi-faceted interest. It is not only about singing but also physical training and developing one's confidence, self-esteem and interpersonal relationship.' Local youngsters, says Kwan, have been too heavily influenced by Western culture. 'Learning Cantonese opera can balance their knowledge about Chinese culture and history. If my child wants to become a professional performer, I will support her,' she says. Next to her, Melanie Wong Cheung Mei-lam, back from Canada a few months ago with her children, aged seven and six, adds: 'They are quite used to the Western lifestyle. I want them to learn more about Chinese culture and Chinese language. At first they disliked it because they could not recognise Chinese characters. Now they are getting more interested and sometimes sing to me at home.' Wong's elder daughter, Crystal Wong Shue-ting, found the class difficult at first - she didn't speak Chinese when she was in Canada. 'I am getting a little more interested,' she says now. 'It feels good to perform on the stage. The only thing I do not like is practising.' These children - and their parents - are what hope remains for a declining scene, for the golden age of Cantonese opera seems well and truly over. Chinese opera has been around for almost 1,000 years. A systematic and consistent music style was developed during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), but Cantonese opera did not emerge until the 1920s, when the introduction of Cantonese dialect in both sung and spoken passages, the incorporation of Western musical style and musical instruments, and the change in the manner of singing brought new life to this art form. In the 1920s and 30s, it was popular music. The scene continued to grow until the 50s and then television and films started to take over. Theatres regularly used for Cantonese opera closed one after another as ticket sales declined. Hei jyn hei (performance within the commercial context, in urban, permanent theatres) has been fading away in this westernised city since then. Yet Cantonese opera in Hong Kong clings on, largely because of Chinese superstition, rather than a respect for the culture it seems. 'No matter how westernised Hong Kong people are, Cantonese opera will not disappear because of its religious nature,' says Dr Yu Sui-wah, assistant professor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong's music department. Cantonese opera is often staged in rural areas in the New Territories to celebrate traditional and annual festivals. These sen gung hei help Cantonese opera to continue. Another reason for its survival, according to Yu, is that there still is a low-profile yet steady market for Cantonese opera. There has always been a group of hardcore fans, mostly middle-aged with big spending power. But to the majority of Hong Kong youngsters, Cantonese opera is simply outdated. They'd prefer to see the Phantom Of The Opera or Cats to Princess Chang Ping. If a child has to learn a musical instrument, parents tend to prefer the piano or violin to the erhu (a two-stringed Chinese instrument). A precious part of our culture is being abandoned, says top Cantonese opera performer Yuen Siu-fai sadly. He's been in the industry for 47 years since 1953 but feels 'we never think of preserving or being proud of what we already have, not only art forms but also our inventions such as china, silk and explosives'. Yuen is involved in promoting Cantonese opera among the new generation. 'What we want are not only more audience and actors, but the public's respect for this traditional art form, to feel that this is something belonging to them.' Moves may be afoot finally to improve this toe-hold the industry maintains. Over the past two years, the Education Depart-ment has determinedly promoted Can-tonese opera in secondary schools. In May, the department organised an inter-school Cantonese operatic songs competition. Altogether 100 primary and secondary schools participated. Its Curriculum Development Institute is also running a school-based curriculum project scheme. Secondary schools can submit proposals for teaching new elements in any subject to test their feasibility, and Cantonese opera is included. In the past academic year, Methodist College in Yau Ma Tei joined the scheme. Grace Lee Wai-sze, a music teacher for 13 years, feels that she has a cultural mission. 'It is a shame if the young people do not know anything about the country and culture,' says Lee. She has introduced elements of Cantonese opera to Forms One to Three music lessons. 'At first they were against it but later on they started to accept it. A recent survey revealed that around four per cent of them love it.' Students' passion was reflected in a school variety show in May, in which a Cantonese opera written by the students was performed. Tertiary educational institutes support such moves. The University of Hong Kong offers a variety of Canton-ese opera courses, from appreciation to singing workshops. The Chinese University has been teaching Cantonese opera since 1975. In March, a Chinese Music Archive was set up, filled with thousands of videos, scripts and other collectables for students and public reference. The Academy for Performing Arts started offering a full-time two-year diploma programme in Performing Arts (Cantonese Opera) in September last year for Form Five and above school leavers. Next year, the academy will introduce a two-year Advanced Diploma programme. Cantonese opera advocates are fighting for the preservation of Yau Ma Tei Cinema as a permanent location for Cantonese opera performance. It is the last theatre-like cinema remaining in Hong Kong and could be pulled down. Yuen says they submitted a proposal to the Government but they would not know the result until next year as it would depend on the urban planning of the whole area. Despite the efforts, there are obstacles to any revival. 'Our biggest difficulty is the music teachers,' says Cham Lai Suk-ching, the Education Department's chief curriculum development officer (arts education). 'Most of them only studied Western music. They do not have much knowledge about Chinese music. If they have no interest and confidence, they cannot teach students [Chinese music].' The Education Department organised a series of Cantonese opera workshops for teachers at the end of last year. It attracted nearly 100 teachers, 80 of whom completed the 10 sessions, which were conducted by experienced Cantonese opera performers and musicians. Yet despite the department's activities, the industry still accuses the Government of not doing enough. 'Our government officials do not identify Cantonese opera as our unique art form to represent our culture,' says Yu. Yuen agrees. 'The Arts Development Council does not have any long-term plan for the development of Cantonese opera. It does sponsor our events and activities but every time is a one-off, not a long lasting programme. Once an event is finished, we have to start all over again.' At present, there is a desperate demand for newcomers to join the industry. 'To become a professional performer, one has to start as early as four to five, to practise not only singing but also kung fu,' Yuen says. 'If the Government wants to fully revive Cantonese opera, there should be opera schools. Vocational schools in Hong Kong are possible, why not opera schools?' But would parents let their children go to opera schools? Yu tries hard not to look defeated. 'Business and information technology subjects are popular because they are marketable. Arts is not practical at all in this commercial world,' he says. 'Even if the Government makes it compulsory, the public will still be against it. Hong Kong people like to estimate the rate of return before doing anything.'