City Weekend

Cantonese opera script based on a video game? Hong Kong charity out to get children learning an ancient art

Cha Duk Chang Children’s Cantonese Opera Association is dedicated to promoting the craft among the city’s youth, and is the first organisation in China to pen scripts exclusively for children

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2018, 12:18pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2018, 12:17pm

Their painted faces belie the focus in their eyes. Sleeves flicking, heads tilting, the young Cantonese opera stars revel in applause.

But these are no professionals – they are students of the Cha Duk Chang Children’s Cantonese Opera Association, a charity dedicated to promoting the ancient art among Hong Kong’s youth.

Every week professional instructors take time out to teach pupils from kindergarten to Primary Six everything from singing and gestures to stretching and martial arts.

Parents fork out between HK$1,000 and HK$1,500 a month for the privilege.

Six-year-old Sophos Li Kin-hei’s passion for the craft has even inspired his family, father Simon Li Ka-ho says.

“We had never been fans of Cantonese opera at all. I tried to avoid it as much as possible – even if it was just on the radio,” Li says. “But with Sophos’ influence, we’ve been going to performances, and I’ve even begun to appreciate its aesthetics.”

However, learning the complicated craft is not all fun and games.

Young performers get ready for annual Cantonese opera show

“Cantonese opera involves a lot of footwork and memorising lyrics. The headdress and make-up can also get quite uncomfortable,” Li says. “By working through these challenges, Sophos has developed greater tenacity and self-confidence.”

Schoolmate Hayley Ng Hin-yee, eight, enjoys the challenge of sword choreography.

“My daughter loves attending Cantonese opera classes because in addition to singing, there’s also martial arts,” says her mother, Leona Yeung Tsz-wan. “The kids are always learning something new, so it’s never boring.”

Strikingly artistic make-up, elaborate costumes and impressive choreography aside, association founder Ma Man-har says the craft teaches children valuable life lessons.

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She writes songs from scratch with child-friendly themes, such as video games and showing respect for elders. The charity is the first organisation in China to pen opera scripts exclusively for children.

“Like other art forms, Cantonese opera is about self-expression. It just doesn’t feel right when children are performing adult themes, such as romance and revenge,” Ma says.

She draws inspiration from conversations with the youngsters and keeping up with their hobbies and interests. She wrote her first script for kids in 1997 as a way of “repackaging” the craft to make it more appealing. As a teenager, she used to dislike Cantonese opera – it was boring and she couldn’t understand the lyrics.

“My siblings and I used to draw lots to decide which one of us would accompany our mother to shows,” Ma recalls. “The loser would have to go!”

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But she began warming to the genre when she picked up a guzheng, also known as the Chinese zither, and starting learning how to play the plucked string instrument shortly after graduating from university.

Combined with her new-found interest in the Chinese language, Ma began reflecting on why she had dreaded drawing the losing lot.

“Cantonese opera is an acquired taste that can only be enjoyed if it’s relatable and understandable,” says Ma, who founded Cha Duk Chang in 2002.

“At school, children are taught songs in foreign languages, such as Russian and Italian, but never Cantonese opera. I hope Cha Duk Chang will give children the chance to appreciate opera in a way they understand.”

But Ma says this task isn’t always easy. The association receives project-based government funding, which means there are times when it has to go without assistance from the authorities.

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“The government puts a lot of money into grooming professional Cantonese opera performers, but with sporadic funding at the amateur level, it’s hard to establish a strong foundation in Hong Kong,” she says.

While Cantonese opera is a category at interschool competitions, many teachers are not equipped with the skills to train competitors, she says. This means contestants have to hire tutors to prepare. The need for self-funding has made it somewhat elitist, Ma laments.

“It isn’t just an art form – it can also teach children important life lessons,” she says. “It would be a real shame if only the privileged few got to appreciate it.”