Spirit of Hong Kong

Singing the joys of Cantonese opera

Stella Ma Man-har wants to keep the Cantonese opera tradition alive amongst Hong Kong's youth

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 2:56pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 3:00pm

Cantonese opera is still alive and well.

At Sok Ku Wan on Lamma, a huge bamboo theatre is erected every year and a Cantonese theatre troupe arrives with its tragic tales of star-crossed lovers, generals, mandarins and concubines, some parts delivered in high falsetto, accompanied by percussion and erhu.

At the back of the theatre, tanned, wrinkled ladies in pyjama-type suits and gold earrings have a good – and usually loud - catch-up with their friends while expertly chewing on sunflower seeds. People wander in and out over the three-hour performance.

The scene is repeated at Shek O, Junk Bay and other venues across the city.

In the northern New Territories at Kam Tin, every 10 years a festival is held to honour the ancestors and burn effigies. On the first night a theatre designed to hold thousands of people is empty. Or is it? – the opera troupe is playing to the ghosts.

Stella Ma Man-har loves Cantonese opera. Over the years she has provided tours for tourists, including dressing up in Cantonese opera costumes and full make-up. But more importantly, Ma has been central to keeping the tradition alive in Hong Kong’s youth.

When she’s not fighting for government funding, Ma heads off to primary schools to try and light up children’s minds with the magic of the theatre. Even if they think it sounds like screeching and crashing of cymbals, at least they’ll have had the opportunity to hear it, an opportunity she feels was denied to her generation.

“When I was growing up, there was no Chinese culture at school. I didn’t know Cantonese opera and I didn’t like it,” she says. But that changed as Ma headed into adulthood. After a first degree in Chinese and English, she did a master’s degree in ethnomusicology and her dissertation at The Chinese University of Hong Kong was on Cantonese opera percussion.

But as Ma became passionate about sharing her enthusiasm for this intangible heritage art form with children, she became increasingly aware of how alien the storylines were for your average nine year old, who has no affinity with the shenanigans of Qing dynasty characters. For most children it is purgatory.

So Ma set up her Cha Duk Chang Children’s Cantonese Opera Association and started to write her first Cantonese opera for children, The Quest for the Moon Fairy, in which two children run away from home to see the Mid-Autumn Festival. They become hungry and steal some cakes from a baker, and the fierce woman in the bakery chases them.

It is something children could relate to rather than evil mandarins, concubines and tales of revenge.

Ma taught Cantonese Opera through her themes for children and cartoon characters to children at 26 primary schools with Arts Development Council funding. But even without funding, she hosts children at her Kwun Tong studio to learn the martial arts movements and how to sing the notes.

“It’s all about fun, it has to be fun for them,” she says.

But she is frustrated that theatres tend to show the same old classics, and she finds it very difficult to get a venue.

Ma’s efforts have come to the attention of a government organisation in Foshan, Guangdong, the historical heart of Cantonese opera. Last year she led a group including 17 child performers to Foshan for a symposium on the art form held by the city’s office for the protection of intangible cultural heritage. The trip was partly sponsored by Hong Kong’s Cantonese Opera Development Fund.

“It is so important to share Chinese culture with the kids,” she says. “Even if they just receive a tiny bit when they are young, when they are adults they will remember that” sewing the seed perhaps for future generations of Cantonese opera fans.