Cantonese Opera

Breathing New Life into an Art Form at Risk: Cantonese Opera

A desire to see Cantonese opera retain its place as an important part of Hong Kong's culture has resulted in a project to promote the art form in local schools and the community.

Teaching materials and lesson plans on Cantonese opera have been compiled, school trips organized to see performances, and a book and documentary have been produced to try to elevate the opera's status at a time when there are fears it may be dying out in Hong Kong.

According to Dr Dorothy Ng Fung-ping, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education and leader of the project, the number of Cantonese opera performances in bamboo shed theatres in Hong Kong has dwindled from 158 in 1970 to 34 in 2010. The traditional bamboo sheds where operas are performed and the accompanying communal rituals are also under threat.

"This is a fading art and if we don't do something to preserve it, it will disappear at a very fast rate," she says.

The project started in four schools in 2007, when Dr Ng and her team started training teachers in how to integrate Cantonese opera into the curriculum, developed teaching materials and introduced students to texts and performances.

Initially teachers were skeptical and questioned whether Cantonese opera could be included in the new curriculum, particularly as it was unclear if it was language learning or liberal studies. Dr Ng says it is both – and then some.

"It's language learning because you can admire the scripts. It's literature. It's part of liberal studies because you can look at the stage, costumes, music, performance and all of these things related to cultural heritage. And it offers a different learning experience because you can visit the bamboo shed theatres and watch the performances on site," she says.

The efforts of her team convinced the teachers of the opera's value and the success in those first four schools has led to more than 20 secondary schools integrating Cantonese opera into their curriculum.

In addition to her school work, Dr Ng has also been trying to stir public interest. She wrote a biography of popular artist, Leung Sing-boh, in 2009 which made it to the best-sellers' list and received the 22nd Hong Kong Print Awards Distinguished Publishing Award, Genre (Biography). She has also worked with the Chinese Artists Association and universities in China and the US, produced a documentary about teaching Cantonese opera, and initiated research studies on opera scripts, opera singers, and learning outcomes for students studying the art form. Altogether 12 projects have been initiated to promote Cantonese opera.

The government is now taking a keener interest in her efforts, too, after UNESCO declared Cantonese opera to be a form of intangible heritage in 2009. Dr Ng has been appointed to several government advisory committees on the arts and Cantonese opera.

"Cantonese opera is part of Hong Kong culture. Hopefully our work can inspire the next generation to think about what our local identity and culture are and what we inherit," she says.

Dr Dorothy Ng (front left) with lead actor Lung Koon Tin and actress Cheng Wing Mui after guided backstage tour during bamboo shed theatre cultural exploration in Cheung Chau

Dr Dorothy F P Ng received the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2011 of the Faculty of Education for the "HKU Cantonese Opera Education Research and Promotion Project".