We need Cantonese opera IN the city: why a Cantonese opera exhibition at Times Square matters

A visit to one of Hong Kong's busiest shopping districts turned out to be a trip down the memory lane. Stumbling across Times Square in Causeway Bay over the weekend, I was surprised by not the frantic the Lunar New Year shopping crowd but a Cantonese opera showcase right in the heart of the city.
Celebrate Chinese New Year with Cantonese Opera at Times Square, Causeway Bay. Photo: VC
Running until February 11, Celebrate Chinese New Year with Cantonese Opera is an exhibition and showcase co-presented by Times Square and The Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong.

Just like what the title suggests, the event is to tie-in Cantonese opera with Lunar New Year, featuring performances by young Cantonese opera artists as well as exhibition of the colourful and glamorous Cantonese opera costumes, set pieces as well as some multimedia presentations of the tradition of the art form that has already been enlisted under the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

It was exciting to see such an event staged right in the middle of the city. I grew up on Cheung Chau, an outlying island that is an hour boat-ride away from the city centre (well, 35 minutes if you take the fast ferry). The island is a house of treasure for Hong Kong's cultural heritage, and Cantonese opera plays a huge part in it.

Cantonese opera performances were staged at purposely-built bamboo theatre during almost all important festivals. And the biggest shows can be found during the Bun Festival and Pak Tai Festival, which celebrates the birthday of the Pak Tai god outside the Pak Tai Temple.

Cantonese opera costumes in festive colours featured at Times Square exhibition. Photo: VC
As a child, I was mesmerised by Cantonese opera performances - the extravagant costumes, the music, the singing, the dancing and the stories of the operas. The bamboo theatres were also children's favourites for hide-and-seek (note: it is VERY dangerous to run around bamboo theatres). I fell in love with this performing arts at a very young age, and I began practise singing Princess Chang Ping《帝女花》 with the cassette tapes I borrowed from the library. The words were difficult but my curiosity and determination to succeed conquered it all - I looked up all the words and phrases I didn't know in dictionaries and asked my family and school teachers to explain the meaning of the text. When I was primary six, I took the chance to perform an excerpt from Princess Chang Ping at a school singing contest and to my surprise, the crowd went wild. And I won the competition!

Fragrant Death, the most famous song from Princes Chang Ping - this was the song I performed
when I was in primary school and it is still my favourite piece. Lead stars Yam Kim-fai and Bak Suet-sin
are irreplaceable. I've probably watched this hundreds of times since I was a child
and it still moves me to tears today. 

But it wasn't until I grew up that I realised Cantonese opera culture has already been fading in the city. There are very few bamboo theatres built in the city centre because of the lack of space and reasons beyond my comprehension. People have the impression that only old people enjoy the shows and Sunbeam Theatre in North Point becomes the only place to go to.

Over the years, The Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong has been pressing the government to make an effort to safeguard such cultural heritage. Ko Shan Theatre's annex was later only built to accommodate performances of Cantonese opera. West Kowloon Cultural District's first performance venue Xiqu Centre, which will open in 2018, is dedicated to the arts of Chinese opera, and no doubt Cantonese opera will play leading role.

West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre 2014. Photo: WKCD website
Few years ago West Kowloon Cultural District attempted to revive the bamboo theatre tradition by staging West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre, a series of Cantonese and Chinese opera performances taking place during Lunar New Year at a massive temporary bamboo theatre in Tsim Sha Tsui, right where Xiqu Centre will be located. The initiative was kicked off in 2012, followed by two more editions in the Lunar New Year of 2013 and 2014. The programme series was well-received as it brought Cantonese opera back to life in the city centre.

But sadly, since the construction of Xiqu Centre began, we no longer get to enjoy Cantonese opera and the bamboo theatre in the heart of the city. Thus the Times Square show is particularly meaningful as it brings such elegant performing arts back to where it belongs -- the city centre and the people. [UPDATE: Louis Yu, performing arts executive director of WKCD, just told me that Bamboo Theatre will return to West Kowloon when Xiqu Centre opens.]

Cantonese opera costumes featured at Times Square exhibition. Photo: VC
The Times Square show highlights a range of costumes previously worn by Cantonese opera masters such as Susan Tse, Law Ka-ying and Yuen Siu-fai, on display alongside three traditional Lunar New Year performances set pieces -- The Birthday of the Goddess of Mercy, A Fairy Delivers Her Son to the Mortal Father and Promoting to High Officialdom. An audio guide narrated by Law can be downloaded with smartphone.

Rising stars: young Cantonese opera artists who will be performing at the Times Square exhibition. Photo: VC
Performances of excerpts of important Cantonese opera titles are also staged on a regular basis. The public will get the chance to meet the rising stars of Cantonese opera, performing titles include Saving the Holy Matron, excerpt from The Lotus Lamp and Stealing the Flute, excerpt from A Forced Match, under the artistic direction of master Sun Kim-long. 

The most fun part of this exhibition is the photo booth. Visitors can have a taste of dressing up as a Cantonese opera star in this photo booth and go home with a series of photos and a GIF image on their smartphone. Although I won a Cantonese opera singing contest, I never had the chance to dress myself up in Cantonese opera costumes. This fun photo booth satisfied my desire.

Dream come true: Vivienne in Cantonese opera costumes, photo only.
Photo: Times Square exhibition photo booth
The Times Square show is worth a visit - and I hope this is just the beginning: if Times Square is planning to bring the show back next year (which they totally should!), a bamboo theatre should be erected in the Open Plazza to house such an exhibition, rather than placing it under the roof of a mediocre set-up. Cantonese opera at bamboo theatre is far better than any other boring Lunar New Year decoration seen at any shopping malls - it is the living cultural heritage that we all must treasure.

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