IF YOU THINK that only middle-aged people enjoy Cantonese opera, you are wrong. Children as young as four are finding this traditional art form - which dates back more than 200 years - good entertainment. 'It's a matter of promotion,' said Stella Ma Man-har, organiser of the Sha Tin Arts Association's Cantonese opera courses for children. 'In Hong Kong, Cantonese operas are targeted at adults with serious stories about love, patriotism and death, which fail to connect with the younger generations. However, the great response to my first children's script told me that kids love it once they have the chance to learn,' she said. Ms Ma has taken 30 young students under her wing since she launched the course last July. But what makes the four- to 10-year-olds obedient enough to sit still for an hour putting on make-up, tolerating layers of heavy costumes and head ornaments, plus ignoring the pain of stretching and even bruising? 'I love it because I like the painted faces and beautiful costumes. And my mother sings Princess Cheung Ping [a famous Cantonese opera] at home, too,' said eight-year-old Tanya Kong. 'Once I had a terribly painful experience when the teacher lifted up my leg to touch my head and I couldn't stop crying. But most of the time, I'm used to the pain and feel no more than a bit of muscle ache at night,' confessed the frail-looking girl. But apart from emotional attachments, what really hooks the children on opera? Ms Ma's debut Cantonese children's opera, Where Does Sister Moon Live?, is an unprecedented breakthrough in the local Chinese opera scene. The production captures children's hearts with its vibrant rhythm, dramatic expressions, acrobatics and, most importantly, a script that empathises with children's feelings. 'Genuine children's plays are not about telling them not to do this and that, but have scripts that identify with their daily lives. They teach them how to cope with difficulties with the right attitude,' said the composer, who has written six opera songs for children. Ms Ma has a degree in English and Chinese languages from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a master's degree in music, majoring in folk music and Cantonese opera. Her four-month-long children's opera courses are supervised by teachers from the mainland. The acting and basic technique classes are conducted in Putonghua, while one of the course repertoires is in English. Like most other cultural activities, Cantonese opera contributes to children's well-being, both physically and psychologically. 'Cantonese opera has raised my daughter's interest in the Chinese language, which contradicts with the general atmosphere in her English-medium school,' said the mother of 10-year-old music enthusiast Liang K-pei, who began singing opera eight months ago. 'She also gains confidence in performing and becomes active in community services. It helps her lose weight, too,' she said. Although discouraged by her schoolmates who love the Twins, K-pei is not deterred, and goes on collecting CDs by Yam Kim-fai and Pak Suet-sin and reading biographies of Cantonese opera maestros. Her determination is shared by her fellow opera students who want to ensure that this national pastime will continue to cast its warm glow over the local arts scene.