In a first, Hong Kong Cantonese opera training school members perform in Beijing alongside mainland Chinese troupes of ancient genre
Group of 40 local young people ranging from three years old to 22 show fruits of gruelling lessons to senior officials amid art form’s growing popularity
Sporting heavy pink, black and white make-up, four-year-old Chloe Lam Sum-wan moves her hands and sings like a veteran Cantonese opera actress during rehearsals at China Pingju Opera Theatre in Beijing.
The girl is one of 40 young people from Hong Kong performing a two-hour Cantonese opera performance in the capital on Thursday and Friday.
Led by Sing Fai Cantonese Opera Promotion Association, they were invited by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to perform alongside about 100 Cantonese opera troupes from around the country.
Association chairwoman Fong Suet-ying said it was the first time for a Hong Kong Cantonese opera training school to have the chance to perform alongside so many troupes of the genre in mainland China.
“We are training more than 60 students from three to 22 years old in Hong Kong,” Fong added.
Sing Fai is among the estimated 20 youth training schools in the city, with the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong and Kim Sum Cantonese Opera also training the next generation for the ancient art form.
With the imminent opening of the Xiqu Centre, a performing arts venue in the West Kowloon Cultural District, such training schools believe Cantonese opera is enjoying a revival among young people locally.
Chloe Lam’s mother, Rachel Kwan Lai-chu, a physiotherapist from Hong Kong, said her daughter had been learning Cantonese opera for three months.
“She begged me to let her learn it as a birthday present,” Kwan noted.
“Her older sister, who is seven, first developed a love for it after attending a performance in Hong Kong. She sings all the time at home, which made her younger sister love it as well. Because of them, my husband and I had to start appreciating the art form, too.”
Lam said her daughters’ pursuit of their passion had given them greater confidence and higher language proficiency.
“Chloe was shy before, but now she always takes the initiative to sing in front of others,” Kwan added. “She asks me what each word in a script means. And her Chinese pronunciation has improved a lot.”
The mother noted it was not always easy to find schools targeting young children for training. But over the past two years, she said the search had become “much easier”.
“I don’t mind if she become a professional Cantonese opera performer after she grows up, as long as she loves it,” Kwan added.
Li Man-chit, 11 and Patrice Luk 12, always act as a team during Cantonese opera training and performance. They won a children’s competition in Hong Kong last year and were selected to perform before President Xi Jinping when he observed the construction of the Xiqu Centre.
Luk said she and Li did not know they had to perform for Xi until the day of his visit last year.
“We were just told a secret VIP would come,” she recalled. “I was very happy to be able to see him.”
The girl said she had been learning Cantonese opera for six years with Sing Fai, adding: “I love the beautiful costumes and headdress. My grandmother is an amateur Cantonese opera actress, so since I was younger she always brought me to see the performances.”
Li expressed enthusiasm for the production design, costumes, make-up and body movements of Cantonese opera.
“It takes an hour to do the delicate make-up,” he explained. “Two pieces of Sellotape are pasted onto our eyebrows to make them slant upwards to give a more imposing air.” He also liked the abstract and exaggerated body movements, noting there were specific moves for how to open a door as well as get on and off a horse.
“I want to be a professional Cantonese opera actor when I grow up,” Li said.
At 21, Tung Wah College nursing student Yeung Sum-yu is the oldest member of the Hong Kong troupe.
Now possessing 15 years of training in the art form, Yeung’s favourite role is that of the female protagonist in Red Flowering Plum.
She described the part as challenging, noting that in the story the character is bought by a powerful man of the Southern Song dynasty to be his concubine. However, she falls in love with a scholar. Yeung’s task in the role, she said, was “to express her feeling of wanting an impossible love”.
Yeung Kim-wah, 78, artistic director of the association who as an actor with the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Troupe performed in the 1950s in front of late Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong and premier Zhou Enlai, said the group intentionally designed fun-filled lessons to lure young people.
“Students won’t come again if the lessons are too harsh ... They must feel they are playing. Our weekly three-hour lessons involve two hours for foundation skills, such as leg and waist movements, and one hour of singing.”
Yeung said Cantonese opera had grown in popularity among local young people after it was named in 2009 to a Unesco list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. At present, he estimated some 20 adult performing troupes operated in Hong Kong alongside the 20 schools aimed at young people.
Former lawmaker Lau Chin-shek, another avid supporter of the art form, served as a team leader for the local troupe visiting Beijing. He believed Cantonese opera was the best of all the genres of Chinese opera.
“There are 800,000 people watching Cantonese opera performances every year [in Hong Kong],” he said. “We have to find young people to learn it so that this art form can be preserved.”
“Students can boost their knowledge of history, Chinese proficiency, interpersonal skills and resilience as it’s quite a gruelling process learning it. They have to wear all the heavy make-up under bright lights.”
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor; Wang Zhimin, director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong; Zhang Xiaoming, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office; and top officials from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism were to attend the Hong Kong troupe’s performances on Thursday and Friday.
Before heading to a Cantonese opera performance on Friday, Lam said she was asked by President Xi Jinping to relay a personal message to the young performers during the night.
She said that Xi learned about two young Hong Kong performers telling a newspaper in June that they hoped to see the president in person, though the performance, which forms part of Lam’s Beijing trip, clashes with Xi’s trip to Johannesburg for the Brics Summit.
“The two young children… told reporters that they feel honoured to be able to perform in Beijing, and said they hope to see grandpa Xi…” said Lam.
Lam said she received a message from Xi through Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong to send the young performers his warm regards.