From daan-y boy, to the saan-man: Alan Tam said goodbye to school and hello to the world of Cantonese opera

By Tiffany Choi

Performer Alan Tam Wing-lun talks about the pain, joy, and occasional embarrassment of a life spent training to be a Cantonese opera star

By Tiffany Choi |

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Alan Tam Wing-lun is always a little embarrassed to have the same name as a local Cantopop star. Both Alans live in a world of music, but unlike his elder namesake, the 23-year-old chose to be a full-time Cantonese opera performer after graduating from Confucius Hall Secondary School.

Young Post caught up with Alan to find out more about his uncommon decision to make a career in a declining industry.

Stunned by beautiful female costumes and headwear, Alan deliberately chose the “daan”, or female, role of Cantonese opera when he started training at age three. By age 13, he was able to do both daan and saan(male) roles. But just when everything was going smoothly, disaster struck in the form of puberty.

“I was performing daan on stage, and suddenly I lost my female voice,” says Alan. “I had to continue with my broken voice. I could see a lot of disappointed faces in the audience. By the time I got backstage, I couldn’t stop crying.”

But this simple setback would not keep Alan from going after his dream. “Luckily, my career was not over,” says Alan. “My teachers did not blame me, but after the incident they simply asked me to abandon the female role. No big deal.”

And while the embarrassment hurt a lot, physical injuries posed a much bigger risk to his career. Opera performers need to wear heavy extremely heavy costumes, and the shows are very demanding, with dancing and acrobatics.

“I had a lot of lower back pain, and needed physiotherapy.” says Alan. “But despite the physical pain, I have never considered giving up.”

Even after overcoming so many hurdles, Alan was still too shy to tell his secondary school classmates about his hobby. “Cantonese opera isn’t very common in Hong Kong, so I was afraid of being called a ‘weird kid’, especially since teenagers are always trying to act cool,” says Alan.

But when his “secret” was finally revealed by some teachers, his friends didn’t think he was weird at all. In fact, they were a little envious, because Alan sometimes got to skip classes so he could do daytime performances. But opera took up a lot of his time after school, too.

“Everyday after school, I was out either for practice or shows. At weekends, it was the same. Soon I found it wasn’t possible for me to do both studies and Cantonese opera. I had to make decision,” says Alan.

“One day when I was chatting with my fans about this, and they encouraged me to quit school after the DSE. And after discussing it with my parents, I decided to focus on Cantonese opera and make it my life-long career.”

For Alan, Cantonese opera is an important part of his culture. “It is far more than just a show,” he says. “The stories usually involve a lesson about proper behaviour, which is an important element in traditional Chinese culture. In the industry, we put a huge emphasis on the issue of respect. If you don’t respect your seniors, your professional path is finished – even you have amazing skills.”

It’s an important message, one that Alan hopes to teach as he gives lessons in Cantonese opera to young students. “I hope that they can learn what respect is,” says Alan, “so these traditional virtues can be passed on to future generations.”

Head to Times Square from January 14 to February 11 to see Alan talk about this life in opera in the video I am a Cantonese Opera Performer!

Edited by Sam Gusway