Sights and Sounds

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Leisure and Cultural Services Department

Celebrate Hong Kong’s cultural heritage at Cantonese Opera Day 2017

Event pays tribute to the musical and visually beautiful tradition and provides an opportunity for locals and visitors to learn more about the art form

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 9:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 9:32am

Hilvinn Wong Hai-wing has found Cantonese opera mesmerising since she was young. A native of Cheung Chau, an outlying island 10km south west of Hong Kong Island, Wong spent much of her childhood admiring dazzling Cantonese opera performances staged in bamboo theatres erected especially for festivals. She had a lot of fun.

“My mother took me to see Cantonese opera performances at bamboo theatres when I was a child. Every time when there was a show, I wanted to go. We would eat snacks and we got to stay out late,” she recalls. “But I had no idea what was happening on stage. I just thought it was beautiful and alluring.”

Little did she know back then that her passion for Cantonese opera would eventually lead her to a career in this traditional art form. Now 32, Wong is an award-winning performer starring in “Kneeling by the Pond” – an excerpt from the Ming dynasty drama Henpecked Husband – on Cantonese Opera Day, November 26. Wong is also an educator, promoting the art form to children and students – a role she sees just as important as performing.

“As young artists, we must run an extra mile to promote the arts of Cantonese opera among the young generation,” she says.

Organised by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Cantonese Opera Day celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. The annual event is a government initiative to promote the traditional art form that makes Hong Kong so proud – an art form which has been inscribed onto the Unesco List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since 2009.

This year, the free event takes place at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. In addition to performances of excerpts of Cantonese opera classics, such as “Purple Bamboo Forest” from Merciless Sword Under Merciful Heaven and “Saving Pei” from The Reincarnation of a Beauty, there will also be talks on the stylised movements and postures adopted in Cantonese operas, and on the singing styles and musical instruments used, as well as parent-child face mask drawing and make-up, stall games, a Cantonese opera riddle quiz, and an animated film. Celebrated artists including Lee Lung, Nam Fung, Sun Kim-long, Wong Chiu-kwan, Ng Chin-fung, Wan Fai-yin, Wai Chun-fai, Chan Wing-yee, Tam Sin-hung and Lau Wai-ming will also attend the event and will be available to sign autographs.

As young artists, we must run an extra mile to promote the arts of Cantonese opera among the young generation
Hilvinn Wong, Cantonese opera performer

Backstage, a modern drama aimed at introducing Cantonese opera to foreign and new audiences, will also be performed on Cantonese Opera Day. Starring the renowned master Yuen Siu-fai, the drama was debuted in 2014 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has toured around many place in Europe, China and South Korea.

Cantonese opera is among the most popular performing art forms in Hong Kong. But despite efforts to promote it, the Arts Development Council’s latest annual arts survey shows that while the number of xiqu (Chinese opera, including Cantonese opera) programmes increased from 1,227 in 2014/15 to 1,568 in 2015/16, audience sizes were down over the same period by 1.3 per cent – from just over 1 million to 997,000. Total box office sales also fell over the same period by 15.3 per cent – from HK$99 million to HK$84 million.

Wong, a graduate of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, points out that while more training programmes for xiqu artists are available today, there’s still a long way to go in terms of building up an audience. Drawing from her own experiences as a child, she believes that developing an appreciation of Cantonese opera needs to begin at a young age.

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“I was very lucky to have grown up with Cantonese opera, but a lot of children simply do not know what’s going on,” says Wong, who teaches children at kindergarten and students up to secondary six.

Dennis Wan Chi-hung, 22, who will be taking part in the performance of Merciless Sword Under Merciful Heaven, says that his love for Cantonese opera also began early in life, as his father Wan Yuk-yu is also a Cantonese opera artist.

“But when I was in school, from kindergarten all the way to secondary school and university, there was little to no exposure to the art form,” he says. “Students should be taught about the art form. Whether they like it or not, it’s up to them. But at least we will have a chance to have [a bigger] audience. Without an audience, we will not be able to survive.”

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Some opera troupes and the Chinese Artists Association run school programmes, but these are only available in a handful of schools. Wong says that there are interschool competitions in Cantonese opera singing, but these do not help promote appreciation of the art form.

“The students are under so much pressure taking part in these competitions. They are sent to compete on stage but few have been asked if they really enjoy it. And even if they don’t, most of the time they won’t tell the truth [so as not] to disappoint the school and parents,” Wong says. “Children should be allowed to have fun and learn happily. We need to groom a young audience, but we can’t force the art on them.”