Old-school Cantonese opera performer looks at how to keep the art alive in Hong Kong
Yuen Siu-fai is one of just a few performers still alive who learned the art form from a grand master; he looks at how it must now adapt to the modern era
Yuen Siu-fai is among the few old-guard Cantonese opera performers who learned the art through a one-on-one apprenticeship and not in a classroom.
For 24 years, Yuen, now 72, was at the side of late grand master Mak Ping-wing in the theatre and at home as his protege, grasping the subtleties of the craft embodied in every move of the master.
“I think there are just three or four of us left who learned our craft the old way. The tradition is not just at a red light; it’s at one that is blinking,” he told the Post ahead of his talk on Sunday at the Hong Kong Book Fair.
Born in Foshan in 1945, Yuen and his family moved to Hong Kong when he was just three years old. Poverty forced him to quit school. He joined the film industry as a child star at the age of 9. From 1953 to 1967, he starred in 80 films. His lead title as Prince Nazha in 1957 turned him into a household name.
In 1960, Yuen started studying under Mak, one of the grand masters of Cantonese opera.
“I went through the entire ritual, including bowing to [God of Opera] Wah Kwong and serving tea to master Mak, and I moved into his home as a live-in protege for four years,” Yuen recalled.
He counted himself lucky because “the master was well off so there were servants to do house chores. But during their days off, I had to clean the floors and do the cooking,” he said.
Academic training could not match close observation of the master and his art, Yuen said.
“The master won’t tell you directly about his skills. You have to observe them through his moves, including those in his daily life. Once you grasp it, it’s yours for life,” he said.
Such master-disciple tradition will be lost after his generation.
“No parents would send their child to serve a master nowadays. Society has changed, so Cantonese opera has to turn a new leaf,” he said of the art form which the United Nations body Unesco named an intangible cultural heritage in 2009.
Calling himself an open-minded conservative, Yuen is nevertheless willing to accept new ideas and reforms.
Last month, he performed two traditional arias with a 60-strong orchestra at the Academy for Performing Arts instead of with a small ensemble.
He harbours hope for the Xiqu Centre due to open in the West Kowloon Cultural District next year. His hope was boosted by the choice of a Cantonese opera excerpt for President Xi Jinping during his visit to Hong Kong last month.
“The move shows Xi is interested and supportive of our heritage,” he said.
Why did you say the state of Cantonese opera in Hong Kong is like a blinking red light?
Time has changed. So has society. We often talk about nurturing young successors to carry the torch. But what I’m seeing is even if there are young talented people with the right potential, they can’t get past Form 3 or Form 4 without their parents saying: “Fun time is over, now focus on your studies.” The attitude of viewing art as “fun” does not just lie with parents. Take a look at the name of the government body in charge. When leisure comes ahead of culture as in the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, and no one sees any problem with that, I think that is the crux of the matter. If culture is just for fun, then even professional troupes, without a critical mass, will gradually be relegated to the amateur level, which in turn drives away serious audiences. This kicks off a vicious cycle leading to the genre’s demise.
You are an eyewitness of the golden days of Cantonese opera in the 1950s. What has gone wrong since then?
It surely was a golden era when classic after classic was staged at the Lee Theatre by the late Yam Kim-fai and her partner Pak Suet-sin, who collaborated with the legendary playwright Tong Tik-sang. Unfortunately, Hong Kong is a city that destroys its own history. The top-class Lee Theatre was pulled down [in 1991]but the lower-grade Yau Ma Tei Theatre was preserved. How much more absurd can you get than that? It is true that the Lee Theatre was a private property. But many of those old theatres from the 36th to 52nd streets in New York City are also family properties and they are still there after 100 years. Is the land there worth less than Hong Kong’s? Lee Theatre founder Lee Hysan built the theatre [in 1927] to boast to the world that we in Hong Kong were proud to have a glamorous venue of our own. So what is behind the decision to tear it down? Was the family short of money? It’s just a case that shows the prevailing disrespect for history among people in Hong Kong.
The Disappearance of Cantonese opera theatres like Ko Shing, Tai Ping, Po Hing aside, what happened to the performers and the audience?
I think the 1967 riot could have been a turning point when veteran performers were forced to quit the stage due to bomb scares. Quite a few elderly people could not pick up the art after that. It was also a time for Western culture, rock and roll music for example, to permeate the mass media. Many became Westernised overnight and prided themselves by holding a copy of the South China Morning Post even when they didn’t read a word of English. While taste could change over time, what was torn down is gone forever. Audiences too underwent changes. When families became smaller and moved away from their parents, couples with a child were no longer free to go out for a night of Cantonese opera.
What do you think about claims that Cantonese opera content is old-fashioned?
I have heard that criticism before, pointing fingers at myths and ghosts in Cantonese operas. Is there
no such content in Shakespeare plays? Were people wearing tuxedos to watch his plays in the old days? What about The Phantom of the Opera? When I saw a young Westerner in the Cultural Centre foyer shouting out to sell house programmes, I was thinking if Cantonese opera promoters were doing the same, people would probably call it cheap. This kind of prejudice has worked together with national self-pity arising from China’s loss in its encounters with the West since the Ming dynasty that produced a burning desire among Chinese advocates for wholesale Westernisation in the May Fourth Movement [in 1919]. Since then, almost everything was judged according to Western standards. Some of our traditional art practitioners got excited by saying they were being recognised by the world. Why should our art need the world’s recognition when it doesn’t even know what our art is? Not every music form follows the West’s 12-tone system. Japanese No opera and Indian opera stick to their own traditions, and I think we should do the same.
How do you decide what to change and what not to change to improve Cantonese opera?
The art form has to be preserved but we can improve the presentation. The songs I did at the Academy for Performing Arts are one example. The music came from an orchestra rather than a small group, but once the percussion played the opening notes, people could tell right away it was unmistakably Chinese theatrical music. We need to remember that we are not taking up what others have abandoned. In other words, it has to be innovative in every sense of the word. Our objective is to produce a Cantonese opera that is high-level and popular. It can’t be elitist and has to be accessible to common people because that was its nature when it came into being in the Yuan dynasty. What we need now are superstars like the late Yam Kim-fai and Lam Ka-sing to serve as locomotives to get fans back on track.
What should the role of the government be beside funding?
The government needs to have a long-term vision and the right execution to make it happen. At present, it subsidises performances and gets a report or review – and that’s it. But it takes the efforts of generations to preserve an art form. The government should be careful about what kind of seed money it puts in and monitor closely its growth to make sure it’s a healthy tree and not a poppy. I think the creation of a culture bureau would be conducive to that process.
What do you expect from the Xiqu Centre in West Kowloon?
I hope it will be more than a presenter of performances. It should be a platform to nurture performers and troupes. It could work with existing Cantonese opera institutions such as the academy’s school of Chinese opera and the Chinese Artists Association to build an active working relationship to train young artists and refine the art form through regular performances. But xiqu is not just Cantonese opera. There are some 400 theatrical forms in China and some are in critical condition. But I think Cantonese opera should remain the main art form at the future hub. The fact that President Xi was given a Cantonese opera excerpt gives us hope for that.
What do you remember about the old Cantonese opera theatres?
I remember we could have dim sum and tea during the show. The stage was smaller but closer to the audience. The whole set-up was intimate and cosy.
Did you do films for fun?
No, my family was so poor that my brother and I took turns to borrow canned food from the neighbourhood stores.
Do you remember how much you were paid as a child actor?
It was HK$50 for my first film in 1953. That was equivalent to the monthly pay of a household maid at the time. Then I joined Union Film Enterprises and got HK$300 for the next film.
Which film left a special mark on you?
That would have to be Orchid of the Valley, a 1954 film in which Mui Yee, my stepmother in the film, beat me so hard and real that I was asked by film censor Helen Yu if I was actually beaten.
What is your hobby for leisure?
I love soccer. I watched a lot in my younger days and often supported the underdog such as the KMB team against the stronger South China club. I played the game too – as a midfielder.