The hat was missing, from the beginning all the way to the end of the show.

It was a hat for Wang Zhiliang, a student Cantonese opera actor in the Young Academy Cantonese Opera Troupe. It did not happen until the last five minutes before the troupe’s first campus show in the Wei Hing Theatre at City University of Hong Kong.

“Call the office and ask if we left the hat in the school!” said Hong Hai, art director of the troupe, who, for the past two hours , had been busy preparing members and himself for today’s operas, and was now on seemed the verge of collapse.

Wang Ziliang found his hat missing a few minute before the troupe were going up to the stage.
A blue towel was used as substitute for Wang Zhiliang.

“We don’t have enough time. The show has begun,” Chou Lai-fung, his part-time helper, suggested “Let’s just use the blue towel as substitute.”

And that’s what the audience saw—a Cantonese opera actor with a blue tower that was as distinguishable and awkward as a man walking into the White House office in pajamas. Fortunately—and oddly enough—no one hardly noticed; instead, more than 300 people sat quietly enjoying the loud Cantonese operas as if everything was in its right place.

Backstage, the story was less harmonious.

“For God’s sake, don’t they know what costume and accessories we need for which show?” Hong said while he was busy making up and preparing for his role as male warrior role in the classic Divergence. Maybe we lost it on the way,” said a troupe staffer. “Or maybe it is our limited budget!” said another, a bit angry. Recently, the funding for the Troupe has been cut, forcing it to reduce the number of wardrobes they could maintain.

No one replied.

Another hour went by until the show ended, with success—if we would just ignore that mysteriously-missing hat.

But there is something the troupe and all Cantonese opera practitioners, including someone as a mainstay as Hong is, cannot afford to ignore.

“Well, the thing is, you have to making a living.” said Hong, being frank about the hardship in Hong Kong, “I am all tied up – with my job as a teacher in the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA), with catering for the troupe, and with preparing for own opera shows.”

Unlike in mainland China, where operas are primarily non-commercial and opera troupes are subsided by local governments, in Hong Kong, Cantonese opera is perceived as an industry. Thus, it receives less support from the Hong Kong government. Even the Cantonese Opera Development Fund, which is supposed to sustain and promote this art form, is a miniscule portion of the total three million in last year’s governmental support for other arts and culture.

Such figure might mean nothing to the general public but a mere word on a government document; yet, it is something Cantonese opera professionals can feel in their daily life. According to Hong, Cantonese opera professionals in Hong Kong have to prepare and pay for the costume by themselves. The problem lies not only in funding, however; it is about how and where to spend the funds.

“The first and foremost characteristic of Cantonese opera in Hong Kong is that it is an industry and unlike those in government-subsided troupes, professionals in this field have to sustain by themselves through performing,” said Ip Sai-hung, chief director of Hong Kong Radio Five who once worked in the Cantonese Opera Advisory Committee (the Committee), “Such characteristic is something the government has to take into consideration when deciding whether and how to help a particular art to development.”

“So you see the irony here—on one hand, the government wants to promote ‘cultural industries’ in Hong Kong; on the other hand, it hesitates to subsidy Cantonese opera as it does not want to act like helping businesspersons to make profits,” Ip said in a phone interview.

While the government is in a dilemma, wondering whether it should help sustain this art form through financial means, Cantonese opera professionals themselves are also faced with certain quandary.

Dorothy Ng Fung-ping from the University of Hong Kong, is more concerned about the lack of communication and reconciliation between the government and the Cantonese opera professional. “The problem is, not only the government does not know how to support Cantonese opera, but practitioners themselves have not yet come up with a consensus. On one hand, they want the government to help them develop; on the other hand, they do not want to depend too much on the government.”

Still, Hong and many of his colleagues prefer to be struggling in Hong Kong as Cantonese opera professionals than performing more comfortably in mainland China.

Originally from Guangzhou, Hong decided that he should pursue his opera career in Hong Kong because he sees it as a vigorous place for arts and cultures and an ideal place for dream-makers. “There are more opportunities here. Back home, one has to wait hundreds of years to be chosen as a main actor in a play,” he said.

Up till now, Hong has been in Hong Kong for eight years, a city where he described as “a place where everyone, if works hard enough, can get a desirable outcome” and where “the waiting for success is worthwhile”. Yet, the reality, such as job stress and an uncertain future, has cast some gloom on his optimism.

“There are more opportunities to make and to perform operas here, but  many of those operas are low-quality,” Hong said. “We don’t have new and good-quality scripts; few people really know how to write scripts for Cantonese opera, and we don’t have enough funds to train one.”

So far, around 3000 Cantonese opera performers have registered in the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong (also referred to as Hong Kong Bar Wo Association), the leading non-profit organization for Cantonese opera performers in Hong Kong. Apart from the professional performers, there are also learners and amateurs who are fans of this art form but do not consider themselves as professionals. Yet, much as the figure of Cantonese opera performers and fans is going up, the scale of qualified teachers, script-writers and good-quality scripts remain on roughly the same level as that in years ago. Recently, as many of the well-known respectable professionals and scrip-writers, such as IP Shiu-tak, passed way, the scale may even be declining.

Since 2005, the Committee, the Cantonese Opera Development Fund and some charity groups has subsided 410 Cantonese opera promotion projects; of those, the most innovative one probably goes to the “Seed Project” and its successive programme named “HKU Cantonese Opera Education Research and Promote Project (HKU Project)”. The two projects, initiated by Dorothy Ng and a group of concerned people, are aimed at promoting Cantonese opera among young people via formal education in schools. Ideal as it sounds, the projects are not met with no quandary.

Hong Hai was one of the professionals who were invited by the “Seed Project” participants to teach secondary school students about basic movements in Cantonese opera. (Photo provided by Ms. Yeung Wei Si, Chinese teacher of the True Light Middle School of Hong Kong)

“We are facing two biggest problems. For one thing, when the new generation of Cantonese opera performers is just emerging, the old and experienced one is already dying. For another thing, we cannot find enough qualified teachers for our projects,” Ng said.

Nonetheless, as one the earliest members of the Committee and a chief director of the two projects, Ng witnessed the change in both the government’s and various schools’ attitude towards Cantonese opera, a change that she appreciated.

Before 2005 when the Committee was not yet set up, the government paid much less attention to this traditional art. Today, with the Committee and the Fund, “the government does have made efforts to help sustain Cantonese opera—at least it now appears to be doing so.” Also, compared with the fact the only for secondary schools were willing to participate in the three-year Seed Project when it was first launched, the number of school participants rose to 12 in its last year. The HKU Project, as a successive programme, ended up with 33 secondary schools joining it.

Another aspect that might indicate the positive development of Cantonese opera is the construction and renovation of theatres, which are said to provide more venues for and only for Cantonese opera performers.

At the beginning of this year, when people were busy celebrating the Spring Festival, Cantonese opera performers were faced with a chill as the SunBeam Theater—also known as “the Heaven for Cantonese Opera”—was to be closed forever because of its due least. Fortunately, owner of a local Cantonese opera troupe agreed to pay one million HKD per month to keep the theatre.

Whereas the professional cheered the ending, Mr. Ip, however, thought that it would be better to de-concentrate performance venues and build more for Cantonese Opera performers.

“The Cantonese opera professionals in Hong Kong are so used to the SunBeam Theatre that they often consider it as the only performance venue. But much as its least is now extended to 2015, performers still need to rethink whether it is far-sighted to local Cantonese opera at and only at North Point (the place where the SunBeam Theatre is located),” said Ip.

As once a member of the Committee, Ip and others advocated the Arts Venue Subsidy Scheme, which is to subsidize qualified performers to rent performance venues. To Ip, the construction and renovation of theatres, such as the being-constructed West Kowloon Xiqu Centre, which will be put into use around 2015 to 2020, the Yau Ma Tei Theatre, which is renovated to be a Cantonese opera performance venue and will be accessible to the public few months from now, and the Ko Shan Theathre, which is already in use, will help promote Cantonese opera among “educated and qualified audience with higher spending power”.

Ip might sound too optimistic about the future of Cantonese opera in Hong Kong, but the rising attention paid to Cantonese opera nevertheless indicates its potential revival.

“If the government truly want to sustain this art, they should be confined to one aspect of promoting it,” said Cheung Pei-kai, director of the Chinese Civilisation Centre in City University of Hong Kong,  “Policy-makers should learn more about the art so as to make reasonable decisions; We as citizens should learn to appreciate, or at least to respect, this art form. It needs every segment of the society to revive and sustain Cantonese opera.”


This feature article also appears on a student portfolio website by the City University of Hong Kong.