Reviving the tradition of Cantonese opera in teahouses

Theatre recreates post-war restaurant ambience in trial run for planned revival of intimate shows

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 May, 2015, 6:17am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 May, 2015, 6:17am

After the second world war, Cantonese opera lovers enjoyed nights out at Chinese restaurants, sipping tea while opera singers performed in a casual setting different from dressed-up shows in big open-air bamboo theatres.

Seventy years on, bosses of the West Kowloon waterfront arts hub want to revive the opera-with-tea tradition, but with a modern appeal targeting new opera audiences.

To that end, a "teahouse theatre" would be part of Xiqu Centre - the venue earmarked for Chinese opera, or xiqu, and slated for completion in 2017.

"It will be a smaller space where the audience will be closer to the stage," the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority's performing arts executive director Louis Yu Kwok-lit said. "They can enjoy tea and dim sum during the performance, which would be a relaxing experience."

Such a facility would be a first in the city, a step up from the restaurants of the old days where artists sang at a corner as there was no stage.

The authority has taken references from old opera houses in mainland cities, including Suzhou , Nanjing , Shanghai and Beijing, when designing the new 200-seat theatre.

"We want to create a unique experience," Yu said. "We also want to reach first-time audiences of Chinese opera, both locals and tourists. Many Hongkongers are interested in Chinese opera, but they don't know how to take the first step."

To test the idea, the authority created a smaller version of the theatre at the Academy for Performing Arts and conducted a trial run for three days.

In simulating the laid-back restaurant ambience, rows of wooden chairs and tables were lined up. Waiters served floral tea, tarts and tea-smoked eggs as invited guests - half of whom had never watched Chinese opera before - listened to famous songs such as Zhaojun Going Beyond Frontiers, which tells the story of Wang Zhaojun, one of the four ancient beauties in China who was married off to a tribe beyond the border; and Fifth Brother Rescuing Younger Brother, which is based on folklores of the military Yang family during the Song dynasty (960-1279).

These were short pieces of well-known traditional works, said Dr Fredric Mao Chun-fai, chairman of the school of Chinese opera at the academy, which provided the student and graduate performers.

"The students love the teahouse setting," he said. "They see a lot of potential in staging more relaxing, experimental works at the theatre."

Among the audience on Thursday night was Ella Li, who is in her 20s. New to the art, she said the most important appeal factor was the easy-to-understand content. "The subtitles helped a lot."

Her friend Rolla Zhang also applauded the idea. "But the serving of tea affected our appreciation a little," she said.

But Cantonese opera artist Lam Shuk-yin felt the setting looked like one for Peking rather than Cantonese opera. "The tables also look more Japanese than Chinese," Lam said.