West Kowloon Cultural District

Hong Kong’s West Kowloon arts hub can be the global champion of Cantonese opera

Bell Yung says the Xiqu Centre has the potential to be the place to experience the best in Chinese performing arts, especially if it features its own resident Cantonese opera company

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 August, 2017, 2:21pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 August, 2017, 7:37pm

The greatest cities in the world earn their reputation from, among other attractions, renowned performing arts. These include not only popular entertainment with mass appeal, such as New York’s Broadway and London’s West End, but also such upscale art forms as symphonies, ballets and operas, which imbue these cities with sophistication and refinement.

New York has the Metropolitan Opera at its home in the Lincoln Centre; London has the Royal Opera at its home in Covent Garden; the Vienna Philharmonic has its Golden Hall at the Musikverein; and the Paris Opera has its home in the Opera Bastille. These venues and their resident groups have a symbiotic relationship: the artists enjoy specially designed stages, and the venues rely on top-notch artists to give them sparkle.

At the end of the day, the cities become known as a Mecca for the best of the performing arts, with venues and performances to serve its citizenry and attract sophisticated world travellers.

Is the West Kowloon Cultural District finally taking shape?

As the West Kowloon Cultural District slowly materialises, we who love the city have high hopes that its performing venues will become the Lincoln Centre of the East. Far-fetched as this may sound, the vision will guide us towards a higher ideal for the city, however many years or decades it may take to reach the goal. The first step, however, is to have a vision, and if the many factions of society collaborate, the dream will come true.

Watch: A preview of the Xiqu Centre

Among West Kowloon’s venues, the uniquely designed Xiqu Centre – named after the Chinese term for traditional opera – has the potential to be the place in the world to experience the best of Chinese performing arts, just as the Lincoln Centre features the best of Western opera.

The Xiqu Centre could make Chinese opera reach a global audience; but the Xiqu Centre as a venue also needs a resident opera company to build its own brand. Nothing could be more appropriate than a group showcasing Hong Kong’s – and China’s – Cantonese opera.

The Xiqu Centre, which is expected to open in 2018, should not be a mere physical structure that any performing group can book and fill in order to balance the centre’s financial accounts or even to make a profit. Rather, by building its own resident opera company and staging regular performances for a good portion of every year, with the rest devoted to China’s other operas, it could match the prestigious venues in other great cities that are homes to the Paris Opera, the Royal Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.

Hong Kong traditional opera troupes welcome ‘One Belt, One Road’ showcase initiative – but only if performed in Cantonese

Cantonese opera, the theatre of southern China and Hong Kong’s own, has its distinctive linguistic and musical characteristics, yet it shares many artistic conventions with China’s other regional operas. As a counterpart to the Peking opera of the North, Cantonese opera is a proud cultural treasure not only of Hong Kong but of China as a whole. It is local and national – and has the potential to become international.

Cantonese opera is beloved by many Hongkongers; it is high time for the city’s political and financial leaders to also cultivate its artistic – and, even more importantly, symbolic – value.

Watch: Children keep Cantonese opera alive in Hong Kong

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These leaders can play a central and active role in protecting the opera’s heritage, nurturing its development, and promoting its visibility nationwide and worldwide, as well as in educating international visitors about Hong Kong and China. With well-prepared programme booklets, supertitles during performance, and pre-performance introductory talks, the Xiqu Centre with its resident troupe has the potential to become a must-see destination for visitors, just as a concert at the Lincoln Centre is to tourists in New York.

Hong Kong’s fame as a glittering cityscape, as the world’s financial and business hub, and as a food and shopping heaven, will continue. But the “Pearl of the Orient” and “Asia’s world city” has a pearl of its own that’s waiting to shine. Hong Kong’s superb performing arts can help the city become a worthy peer of the world’s other great cities of art and culture.

Bell Yung is professor emeritus of music at the University of Pittsburgh