Bamboo theatre before the newly build Xiqu Centre

Taking a break

Taking a break

For several years now the “West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre” has been staged in Hong Kong’s future cultural hub West Kowloon Cultural District.  Several events featuring mainly Cantonese operas (which used bamboo for building stages in the old days and the event hence is titled “Bamboo Theatre”) along with some contemporary music and Chinese dance.

Since 2012, this huge bamboo theatres have sprung up each year in West Kowloon in time for the Chinese New Year period. This theatres have about 800-seats and take just some weeks to be constructed. A bamboo theatre is just a temporary structure designed using traditional and modern architectural designs. Ten specialist bamboo craftsman use kind of 10,000 bamboo poles to build the theatres.

Having a chat under actors

Having a chat under actors

Each year extremely popular xiqu (Chinese opera) performances are shown on stage. At the usual area the bamboo theatre had been staged there is the construction of the new Xiqu Centre going on. The Xiqu Centre will be part of the 40 hectare West Kowloon Cultural District. The precinct, built on reclaimed land, will also include 23 hectares of public open space, museums, art galleries, and exhibition centres.

Actors old and young are waiting to perform here as soon as possible.

Time to think about the performance

Time to think about the performance

Behind the scenes of a Bamboo Theatre

Bamboo theatre and Cantonese Opera are linked over hundred of years together and having the opportunity to get a glimpse behind the scenes was a rare chance I greedily took. There are so many different things to see and to capture for documenting purposes. Here some images I took in spring this year.


Actors in Cantonese Opera

I'm into Cantonese Opera since - actually I can't remember as it has been such a long time. I took up to know hundreds of images of different behind the stage views as well as many images on the stage. I'm still collecting, sorting out and trying to get the best images front up as well a concise story about Cantonese Opera.

At my last visit in Hong Kong I was able to meet and to interview Mr. Ng Chin-feng one very prominent member and actor of Cantonese Opera. As I was sorting out the pictures taken lately I came upon one image of him as he prepared his stage make up for the act in the play: "Two Heroic Families" which he played at the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre in February. 

Suddenly I was struck by an idea. As I interviewed him he was talking about different aspects of Cantonese Opera, his journey in this art and his dedication. I was imagining how deep he was influenced by the Cantonese Opera and how in return he influenced the opera on his terms. 

hundreds of images are to be turned into a portrait

hundreds of images are to be turned into a portrait

Seeing all the images I took in front of me, and there will be as usual a lot which don't see the light of the internet, I imagined how full Mr. Ng is of Cantonese Opera if it is possible to say so and I decided to show this in an image.

how to do it - how to show his determination about this art? As I look t my screen i got the idea. Why not just use the hundreds of my images to creat a portrait of him. Thought and done.

Here the result;

Mr. Ng Chin-feng, Cantonese Opera Actor

Bamboo Theatre

Dramatic scene not only in the Bamboo Theatre. (West Kowloon Water Front)

Dramatic scene not only in the Bamboo Theatre. (West Kowloon Water Front)

This February 2014 was again a time to enjoy some Cantonese Opera pieces at the Bamboo Theatre in Hong Kong. Everything was organised by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department in accordance with the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. I had the opportunity to meet a well known actor, going behind the curtain, getting an interview and obtaining even more insight in this kind of Chinese heritage.

Rich Heritage

The heritage of Cantonese Opera is undoubtedly rich. The long and unique tradition as a performing art have met different demands over time. The Cantonese Opera artefacts and pieces has never been systematically collected and preserved. There are now some Museums especially in Hong Kong with the intent to preserve this invaluable heritage. Here some images of one of the popular performances.

Cantonese Opera part of Hong Kong

painting the lips

painting the lips

Hong Kong a metropolis of high rises and a commercial hub this is often associated when you ask foreigners about Hong Kong. Most of them don’t associate it immediately with performing arts and arts in general. But this has changed in the last years. The yearly arts fair and the Arts Festival in Hong Kong have changed this a lot. This is a significant growing part and Cantonese Opera is part of this cultural landscape.

Regardless of the different and well received western troupes coming to Hong Kong its culture and heritage remains Chinese nevertheless. One of the most obvious is the Cantonese Opera which has had a revival lately.

Cantonese Opera derives from China’s earliest folk theatres, music and dance like Kun Qu Opera as one of the oldest. Cantonese Opera and its actors, especially the singing performers present the stories in form of music and dance. The stories and plots were mostly developed during Yuan and Ming Dynasty. This kind of Opera can be divided in different types: Cantonese Opera, Beijing Opera, Chiu Chow Opera etc.

The different kind of Operas undergoes intensive training to get a high pitched falsetto. Apart from this they need skills in gesturing and movements, which are important as well. These movements include mime, dance action, sword play and acrobatics.

The costumes are a vital part of the Cantonese Opera. The costumes are exaggerated and are for an enhanced theatrical effect. The actors wear embroidered and elaborate robes and headdresses. The shoes are very high, kind of platform shoes. The costumes are in different colors, which represent divers ranks, status and personalities. To give you one example the color yellow are for emperors the color purple would be for me – a barbarian. 

Preparation

cantonese Opera.jpg

Applying make-up for Cantonese opera is a long and specialized process. One of the most common styles is painting the face white and red. White foundation and red color around the eyes are blended to fade down to the bottom of the cheeks. Eyebrows are painted black and sometimes elongated in a shape similar to the eyes of a Chinese phoenix. Lipstick is usually bright red.

The Hong Kong government has promised to promote Cantonese opera even more by providing more training venues and introducing the traditional art form as well in schools. The UNESCO recognition had encouraged the government the increase of funding as well.  

Development of Cantonese Opera - part three

The complex social environment in which the actors of the Cantonese Opera had found themselves had significant influences on the reform of the Opera itself. Guangzhou was the first city to be opened to foreign trade and as well the base of some new key politicians and reformers such as Kang Youwei and Dr. Sun Yat-sen, both revolutionary at their time. This time of challenging social upheaval inspired the artists to new forms of themes and forms in the again growing of Cantonese Opera. New scripts were written to discuss this new ideologies and as well the social inflictions.

At the same time the introduction of modern drama and the development in opera music accelerated the process of change in Cantonese Opera. The outstanding effort and performance of a few artists led to the effect, that the Cantonese language became the dominant theatrical language used in this kind of opera.

All was going well but economic times weren’t as good. The troupes did a significant change in this period and reduced the casting of roles to be used. Before there had been at last “Ten pillars” which were cut down to “six pillars”  to minimize the cost of the troupes. This new “six pillars” were composed of a principal male role, a principal female role, a supporting male role, a comedian role and last but not least a martial role.

 All this ended with the second World War and the Japanese troops after 20 years when Hong Kong and Guangdong were occupied by Japanese troops. To pacify the people and to create a peaceful atmosphere the Japanese encouraged the Cantonese Opera artists to continue their performances. Censorship playing under Japanese occupation or playing in other parts of China under threat of bombing at this times were the two solutions given.

 This kind of dark age ended in 1945 and the development of the Opera began anew but slightly different in Hong Kong and Guangdong.

Make up process for painted faces

male and female make up have the same basics

Male and female make-up process is basically the same, except that feminine beauty is emphasized.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Cantonese Opera artists were heavily made up with crude cosmetics. Beginning since 1930s this have been improved by borrowing techniques from Beijing Opera and Western drama and movies. Artificial hair is used in different ways. Everything intended to beautify and making it more natural. At the same time cosmetics of better quality gradually became available.

Her some stages of applying the make-up:

First stage applying the grounding

Development of Cantonese Opera - part two

Part two


As described in my last article there have been difficult times for all troupes in Cantonese Opera. Some of the information could be regained by searching old local gazettes. One of this has been the Local Gazette of Panyu County by Ding Renchang. As described in this historic references most troupe members lived in pairs of Red Boats and they adhered to straight rules and norms which as well where a conduct and life style of the members. I didn’t find any photograph of this time nor seems there to be paintings. If you go to one of the museums handling this area you will find some reconstructing they have done on recount of old members of this time. This Red Boats where self sufficient entities indeed.


This gloomy time of Cantonese Opera came to an end in the Tongshi reign (1862 -1874) as the viceroy for the provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi successfully got a consent of the imperial court to lift the ban on performances. As the former leading guild, the Lotus Guild, had been destroyed a new guild and new headquarters where build in Guangzhou and started to be the new centre of Cantonese Opera.

Many of the performers had been acting in different troupes especially in Beijing troupes, but they had not forgotten their old artistic techniques and brought on top new inspirations. This gave the reform of the Cantonese Opera a significant push. At the same time Guangzhou was one of the early cities opened to foreign trade and attracted as well politicians like Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Kang Youwei with their new ideas.

The challenging environment inspired the troupes to new themes and new forms of Cantonese Opera. New scripts often reflected and discussed social evils and part of new ideologies.

Nowadays many people think that Cantonese Opera only reflects old stories of the past, but there are as well some signs of introducing once again new themes and modern influences into this ever changing form of theatre.

Development of Cantonese Opera - part one

As I already stated Cantonese Opera can be characterized as well with its readiness to adopt different elements in the repertoire. I think one could see it as a form of artistic expression as well as an adaption to social circumstances. There are certainly different influences from internal developments of artists as well as external influences like politics, economic and social developments as well as changing audiences and changing values of the entertainment industry.

sunmoonstar preview

Cantonese Opera is a theatrical form that engulfed all Cantonese speaking regions even as it used “Guilin mandarin” in the early stages. The music heavily borrowed from Waijang troupes using styles of Bangzi and Erhuang enriching it with Guangdong songs and instrumental music forms. Early Cantonese Opera artists used the southern boxing style in their martial art adaptions.

As names of this style of opera are concerned the title of Cantonese Opera can be found beginning in the late 19th century but the history of this theatre style can be traced back much farther to the Jiajing reign period (1522 – 1566) of the Ming Dynasty. At this time it was to my knowledge called Waijiang Opera and scholars have found that they already had integrated Cantonese phrases in their lyrics. It is believed that Foshan in Guangdong province had been the centre of Cantonese Opera at this time.

The other well known troupes called Bendi where not established as much in the cities but along the Pearl River in boats and smaller villages. During Ming and the following Qing dynasty this two forms mixed and interacted more closely. Economy at that time had been started to thrive and performances at festivals, celebrations and religious activities where the main reason for the good development of Cantonese Opera.

Going back in history of Cantonese Opera you reach the timeframe of 1849 to 1864 with the Taiping Rebellion. At this time the court of China banned all performances of Cantonese Opera due to the fact that some of the ators had been found guilty in actively participating in the Rebellion. Actors and Cantonese Opera survived in participating in other theatres especially in Bejing troupes but a lot of information got lost in this time.

Luckily some information could be regained as it had been described in some local gazettes and some of the actors passed their knowledge from teacher to student. This gloomy period ended in the Tongshi reign.

But enough of old times – more will follow later.

There will be up and downs in the upcoming history as in every form of art and even nowadays has been some downsides and some better times as well. Just now is a time for Cantonese Opera to be recognized much more and apart from the Hong Kong Government there are Organisations like “The Cantonese Advancement  Association Ltd., Shatin” which has been founded three years ago and helps in further developing Cantonese Opera and especially supporting young children and groups to get a better knowledge of this old and historical founded Chinese art form.

They gave me a chance to have a look behind the scene getting the painted faces done as well as offering a possibility to see and document a great performance in March this year. I like to share some of the images I took at this opportunity.

All images taken by courtesy of Cantonese Opera Advancement Association

All images taken by courtesy of Cantonese Opera Advancement Association

Painted faces in Chinese Theatre

Painted faces in Chinese Theatre

Due to different regional variations there are and have been many different forms of theaters in China. Each of this form is serving a certain locality. One major form of the southern Chinese theater is Cantonese Opera which can be found in the provinces of Guangzhou, Guangxi, Macau and last but not least in Hong Kong.