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Cantonese

Hongkongers ‘take their cultural heritage for granted’, laments Cantonese opera master

Yuen Siu-fai, 72, one of the city’s old guards of an opera style considered an intangible cultural heritage, will perform on Sunday at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 November, 2017, 6:12pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 5:49pm

There is a strange phenomenon of local culture and artists playing second fiddle to their imported counterparts in Hong Kong, a Cantonese opera master has said after comparing the reception his troupe has received at home with reactions overseas.

Yuen Siu-fai, who is 72 years old and still performing, spoke of how his troupe’s staging of Backstage earned critical acclaim internationally but a more tepid response in Hong Kong.

Backstage is a modern tale of what goes on behind the scenes with a Cantonese opera troupe and features an array of costumes and martial arts demonstrations.

It premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014, and was only performed in Hong Kong two years later, in 2016.

Watch: backstage at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014

It will be restaged on Cantonese Opera Day this Sunday at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Admission is free.

Yuen, one of Hong Kong’s old guards of an opera style considered part of the city’s intangible cultural heritage by Unesco, the UN’s heritage body, recounted to the Post that Backstage had a 14-show run in Edinburgh.

“One review gave it four out of five stars,” Yuen said.

“We went overseas in the hope that if we fought hard on foreign soil on behalf of Hong Kong, those at home would cheer for us.”

After Edinburgh, Yuen and his troupe were invited to perform at a festival in Italy in 2015, then Belgium and Holland. It was in Italy that an agent from Beijing spotted them and invited them to perform there last year. The show will debut in Singapore next year.

Old-school Cantonese opera performer looks at how to keep the art alive in Hong Kong

Back home though, Backstage did not premiere at an arts venue but was staged at Nina Tower, a shopping centre in Tsuen Wan as a free performance.

“I asked myself why Hong Kong didn’t appreciate us as much as our foreign hosts? Perhaps it’s because we take our own culture for granted and show little interest,” the disgruntled master said with a sigh.

Yuen and his troupe were in South Korea last month, at the invitation of Seoul’s Performing Arts Market, when news broke that Hong Kong’s new Chinese opera centre would be run by an American, Alison Friedman.

Liza Wang Ming-chun, chairwoman of Barwo, the local flagship union for Cantonese opera artists, led criticism of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority for appointing Friedman as artistic director overseeing all major performing arts in the hub, including the Xiqu Centre for traditional Chinese opera due to open next year.

It was later announced that a local Chinese candidate would head the Xiqu Centre, reporting to Friedman.

Cantonese opera expert to report to American boss of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon hub

Yuen said that while Friedman worked in Beijing for many years and spoke fluent Mandarin, it was not clear if she did so as an “arts practitioner or an arts agent”.

“Knowing how to sell the arts doesn’t mean the person knows art, especially when Chinese xiqu is complex with a long tradition of its own,” said Yuen, who is Barwo vice-chairman and a member of the Xiqu Centre’s advisory panel.

“The centre should not be just a theatre but a platform for all traditional Chinese opera genres – especially those which have their survival at stake on the mainland – to shine or be documented.”

Watch: keeping Chinese opera alive in Hong Kong

Yuen suggested that a committee of two or three salaried employees with xiqu knowledge be set up to advise Friedman.

“Just advisory meetings would not do; you have to pay them to assist someone who doesn’t have in-depth knowledge of our art form, and I am sure there are qualified experts in Hong Kong,” he said.