HONG KONG — Strung up in the Sunbeam Theatre in a gritty working-class part of this city are posters showing Cantonese opera singers, their red lips offset by chalk-white, made-up faces. In the faded lobby, where theatergoers mill on a Saturday afternoon, dozens of bouquets with handwritten messages are dedicated to the stars by fans
For four decades, this theater in North Point on Hong Kong Island has been one of the last remaining stalwarts for Cantonese opera in the city. But its existence is by no means guaranteed. A year ago Sunbeam faced closure over soaring rents only to be saved at the last moment by a feng shui master who struck a deal with the landlord to keep it running until 2016. (It has also previously escaped being made into a shopping mall.)
At stake is not just a historical building but for many the future of Cantonese opera itself, which has become synonymous with the Sunbeam. In its fight for survival Sunbeam has become an emblem of resistance against the encroachment of modernity that many say is eroding this centuries-old art.
“This is our traditional performing art, so we would like to preserve it,” says theater manager Wong Kwun Shui, speaking at the venue where he has worked for the past 15 years. “Sunbeam is a brand name in Hong Kong for showing opera.”
Cantonese opera is an integral part of the identity of Hong Kong, a former British colony ceded to China in 1997. Like other Chinese operas, it consists of highly wrought plot lines, warbling arias, martial arts and acrobatics and became popular in Hong Kong during the Sino-Japanese War when troupes and fans escaped from Canton to the former colony.
It is distinct from Peking opera because of the use of Cantonese rather than Mandarin. But there are other distinctions that practitioners and fans here want to preserve. They include the merging of Western with Eastern elements — for example, the saxophone alongside the Chinese erhu (fiddle) — that reflect Hong Kong’s hybrid history.
The best known works are probably “Princess Cheung Ping” or “The Flower Princess” by Tong Dik Sang. The Sunbeam continues to feature new operas as well.
Yu Siu Wah, a professor of music at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, believes Cantonese opera in Hong Kong developed at odds from Cantonese opera in the mainland during the latter half of the last century. “The [People’s Republic of China] is trying to promote Cantonese opera as the common culture among Canton, Macao and Hong Kong. It’s very convenient for the PRC government to use this as a symbol of commonality,” he explains.
“But Cantonese opera here is very different. [In China] most of the operas were so-called communist and had a Soviet influence. But in Hong Kong we were free to follow whatever trend. There is no political censorship. It makes Cantonese opera stand out.”
In recent years, Cantonese opera has faced myriad challenges. These include a shortage of dedicated venues, a shrinking pool of performers and an elderly audience. While the music is performed during events such as Chinese New Year, commercial troupes are feeling the bite.
There are positive signs. In 2009, Unesco made Cantonese opera an “intangible cultural heritage” leading to renewed government-led initiatives to help promote and preserve it. Spearheading the campaign for its comeback is the Chinese Artists Assn. of Hong Kong, a professional organization for opera performers.
“Hong Kong has preserved the richest heritage of Cantonese opera and absorbed elements of Western culture which gradually developed its uniqueness and cultural importance,” explains Alisa Shum, the organization’s chief executive. “Among all the performing arts in Hong Kong, Cantonese opera is the only home-grown art form.”
Last year the new 300-seat Yau Ma Tei Theatre was opened in a former 1930s cinema through a collaboration between the Hong Kong government and the association. Although too small for commercial productions, the theater, which has a white Art Deco facade, will be a birthplace for talent. (The government has put roughly $600,000 into the “Cantonese Opera Young Talent Showcase 2012-13.”)
In June, an annex for Cantonese opera is due to open at the Ko Shan Theatre after more than $87 million in government funding. A core hub for the art form will also be provided in 2016 when the West Kowloon Cultural District’s Xiqu Center launches.
But what of the actual performers? New York-born Pui-yan Li, 35, is one singer trying to make a difference. Li, the daughter of professional Hong Kong opera singers who immigrated to the United States and the granddaughter of an opera playwright, spent four years in intensive training and today performs under the stage name Li Pui-Yan in Hong Kong as well as the U.S. and Canada.
“My parents never intended me to get into this profession,” says Li, who has a grueling daily training routine of singing and acrobatics. “They were really shocked when I told them that was what I wanted to do after college. They thought it was a very tough job. They didn’t want me to go through what they went through.”
In a smart cafe in a skyscraper mall Li looks like an ordinary off-duty young professional, sweeping her waist-length black hair over one shoulder as she talks. But in character she is transformed. It takes her an hour to do her makeup and an extra 30 minutes to get into the elaborate costume and headdress.
Li believes the art form will find a small but dedicated fan base among the cultural elite. What was once mainstream entertainment has become a more acquired taste today. “I think that is the same case for Western opera and ballet,” she says, adding, “It will always be here.”
Featured photograph: Pui-yan Li performing in Hong Kong. Photograph by Jackie Yeung