THE BIG BAMBOO opera house echoes to the distinctive tones of Chiu Chow opera, while backstage young actors hurriedly dress in colourful costumes and apply makeup as they prepare to play their part in the evening's storytelling. Outside, smoke trails lazily skywards from burning incense sticks set atop fruit offerings, and fake paper money is fed into flaming buckets, some of it to fall back to the ground as ash. It's feeding time for the Hungry Ghosts in Hong Kong. While the offerings may seem out of step with a modern, bustling Hong Kong, they - along with the Hungry Ghosts (Yue Lan) Festival - are links with the past. Sadly, the festival, held on the 14th day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, is being killed off by old age and lack of interest from the young. Yeung Mei-wah, a former Chiu Chow opera actress, recalls her heyday in the 70s and 80s with enthusiasm. 'We often performed from eight o'clock in the evening to six o'clock the next morning with no rests,' she says. 'Audiences at that time were full of passion for our singing. We usually had more than 10,000 people, young and old, in the audience for one performance in the Hungry Ghosts Festival. But now there are only a few hundred people, mainly elderly, in the audience.' One of those is 86-year-old Lam Shek, a Chiu Chow descendant and opera fan since childhood, who moved to Hong Kong in the early 1950s. Wrinkled and hard of hearing, he still attends every Hungry Ghosts Festival. 'Chiu Chow opera has been a big part of my life,' he says without taking his eyes off the actors on stage. 'I can see my past days in the stories, and they're like a mirror reminding me of yesterday.' Lau Fok-kwong, artistic consultant of Hong Kong Arts Development Council and vice-president of Sun Hon Kwong Chiu Chow Opera Troupe, one of the oldest local Chiu Chow troupes, says the industry began to have problems in the 1980s. 'It was hard for the actors to earn their living singing Chiu Chow opera. The market was withering, and salary levels dropping, resulting in a large number of actors retiring or quitting to look for other jobs,' he says. 'Our troupe had to invite actors from the mainland to perform for the annual Hungry Ghosts Festival from the early 1990s. There are now no professional Chiu Chow opera players in Hong Kong. All the troupes here are in name only. Actually almost all the players on the Hungry Ghosts Festival are from the mainland.' The 1960s and 1970s were a good time for Chiu Chow opera, the second biggest opera form in Hong Kong after Cantonese opera, which, although suffering its own problems, has more than 100 troupes, thousands of actors, and government funding to back its development. There were seven local Chiu Chow opera troupes in those days, 200 to 300 local professional actors and audiences in their thousands. Today, mainland actors make up most of the Hong Kong troupes, who play to dwindling audiences in 45 locations around the city. Chiu Chow opera is one of the traditional activities of the Hungry Ghosts Festival, and with about a million people here believed to be of Chiu Chow ancestry, it provides the largest and most important platform for this form of opera in Hong Kong. The festival, thought to have originated in the Chiu Chow area of Guangdong during the Liang dynasty (502-557 AD), is dedicated to the dead who are not one's own ancestors. Its aim is to pacify the uncared-for deceased, including those without descendants, and those who've been forgotten by their children. During the festival, which this year fell on August 29, Buddhist monks and Taoist priests chant liturgies, perform rituals and offer incense, paper money and food to the ghosts at ceremonies, which climax with the throwing of buns, sweets and money. Locally, Yue Lan Association members also distribute rice, known as peace rice, to the elderly. Zhuang Yeren, director of Shantou Culture Bureau in Guangdong province, has been leading Chiu Chow local troupes to Hong Kong to perform for more than 10 years. He says there were 17 professional government-backed Chiu Chow opera troupes and more than 200 private troupes in the Chiu Chow area, with about 10 coming to perform in Hong Kong annually. But he doesn't regard Hong Kong as a promising market. 'The opera market here isn't prosperous,' he says. 'Most audiences are elderly rather than young, which reflect a lack of momentum in the market.' Chan Sau-yan, professor of Music at Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that, since later generations of Chiu Chow people born in Hong Kong no longer speak the dialect, it's difficult to recruit actors. 'In a sense, Chiu Chow opera is no longer a local operatic genre, and it's fading away from its traditional local identity,' he says. Chan Chor-wai, 61, is one of the oldest Chiu Chow opera players in Hong Kong. Now an independent distributor heading a troupe carrying her name, she started learning the opera at age 11. She still enjoys a following among opera fans, but says that, as she gets older, her enthusiasm for performing on stage is waning. The most important part of her work nowadays is to organise performances in Singapore, Thailand and other Asian countries where, she says, there are many entrepreneurs and wealthy people ready to invite her troupe and finance their performances. 'It's almost impossible in Hong Kong to ask a tycoon for several hundred thousand dollars to invite an opera troupe to perform, let alone to employ and cultivate actors because they know they can never get their money back when they have to pay high salaries but have no audiences,' she says. Chan dreams of the day the government will provide a fixed place for training young players, who could provide regular public performances in return and preserve the art. But it could be an empty dream, with new generations showing less interest in the tradition and the government interested only in facilitating entertainment rather than cultivating the skills necessary to preserve the art form. Wong Shui-wing, 26, can't speak Chiu Chow dialect and shows little, if any, interest in the opera, although both her parents are fans from the Chiu Chow area. 'I don't like listening to Chiu Chow opera, which seems to me to be outdated and vulgar,' she says. 'My parents enjoy the opera very much and celebrate the Yue Lan Festival every year. But I don't. Actually many of my friends and I prefer western art forms like piano, and festivals such as Christmas.' Dr Dan Waters, a past president of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, and a resident of Hong Kong for 50 years, says he believes Hongkongers today, especially the young, are more interested in western culture. 'People celebrate Halloween, the American ghost festival, which people hadn't even heard of a few years ago, instead of the Hungry Ghosts Festival,' he says. 'The western customs are increasing in popularity. By contrast, the Chinese traditions, such as the Hungry Ghosts Festival and the Chiu Chow opera are dying off.' A spokeswoman from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department says its Cultural Presentations Section arranges Chiu Chow opera performances in March every year, through the Sun Hon Kwong Chiu Chow Opera Troupe in Hong Kong, which collaborates with troupes from Chiu Chow. The department's work focuses mainly on communicating with troupes and actors on the mainland instead of cultivating artists in Hong Kong. While Chan Chor-wai is anxious to cultivate young actors, she has doubts about the future of Chiu Chow opera. 'Young people in Hong Kong don't seem to be keen to learn the opera,' she says. 'I don't know what tomorrow will be like for the opera. I dare not think about it.'