Painted faces in Chinese Theatre

Scene of the Southern District Cantonese Opera Bamboo-Theatre in Ap Lei Chau, Hong Kong

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. As quite a number of this Cantonese speaking Chinese communities has spread as well in America, Canada, South East Asia and as well in Europe they took part of this culture with them and in doing so brought Cantonese Opera as well to this parts of the world.

Ap Lei Chau Bamboo-theatre in March 2013

I lived for four years in Hong Kong and to get a better understanding of the Chinese Culture and looking for a way to find and build a network I got interested in the colorful and historical rich art of Cantonese Opera at an early time of my posting. The rich colors used in Cantonese Opera stage, the mystery of the meaning of the painted faces and the open mind of the artists gave me a lot of opportunities to enhance my knowledge about this art as well how to deal with low light situations and fast changing lighting conditions from a photographic point of view.

I could explore some older and traditional art – Kun Qu Opera – as a starting point and later on more contemporary Cantonese Opera stories. As I found out there is quite a large readiness in modern Cantonese Opera to adopt new elements. The artists involved in Cantonese Opera don’t hesitate too much to introduce new elements in their repertoire – especially make-up techniques, costume design and different forms of performance formats.

In order to promote Cantonese opera the Hong Kong government introduced in 2009 opera performances under the title: “Let’s Enjoy Cantonese Opera in Bamboo Theatre” by the Audience Building Office in collaboration with different institutions and organizations.

Part of this new scheme has been the offering of free parts of Cantonese opera stories specially designed for children at old traditional bamboo theatres in different districts. It was an opportunity in particular for children to set foot on the bamboo theatres to get to know about this unique kind of temporary structure while at the same time appreciating the art of Cantonese opera. In this way they try to enable the traditional Chinese culture and arts to attract younger audiences and to pass the heritage along the generations.

If you visited the Heritage Museum of Hong Kong you could find some displays of Bamboo Theatres and Cantonese opera and might have thought it is a thing gone by. The UNESCO recognized Chinese operas in 2009 as an intangible cultural heritage. The tradition of bamboo theatres and temple fairs with Cantonese Opera has been and still are a living history and not only found in the museum.

Bamboo theatres have been alive and I might say as well kind of popular especially in the New Territories at certain local festivals. There is a tradition of a Temple Fair in Sai Kung to celebrate the birthday of Tin Hau just as one example and it is getting more widespread in the last years. I had the chance to see some Cantonese Opera stories being performed at a traditional Bamboo theatre in Ap Lei Chau this year.

Acrobatic scene at the Bamboo theatre in Ap Lei Chau