November 29, 2020

Modern revival of an ancient art

4 min read

THE Hungry Ghost Festival is one of the celebrations I look forward to every year as a little girl living in a small town in Perak.

I was not waiting for the Door of Hell to open so that I could bump into supernatural incidents, but the Cantonese opera troupe to perform at a field behind my house.

The opening show was always the Liu Guo Da Feng Xiang (Su Qin is made the High Minister by the Six States), based on history in the Warring States period (475BC to 221BC).

It tells the story of how Su Qin, an influential political strategist, persuaded the kings of six kingdoms to unite against the Qin Empire (the kingdom of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who unified China).

As a child, I did not know what the performances were all about then, I was only fascinated by the beautiful costumes worn by the performers and their unique make-up. Out of curiosity, I sneaked backstage to see how they coloured their face.

After the stage was set up, my grandmother would tie a bench to the wooden fence and this was our super VIP seats to watch the shows for free.

Sometimes, when the bench was removed, when she would make me go to the field early and place our chairs to occupy the golden viewing spot before the crowd arrived.

Looking good: Ye and Li putting on make-up and headgear before their performance.Looking good: Ye and Li putting on make-up and headgear before their performance.

And we were not the only ones doing this as as dozens would be squeezing along the fence near the stage to get a prime spot.

The troupe stopped coming in the 1990s, probably because they lacked support financial and the crowds were getting smaller.

Although the Hungry Ghost performance went on as usual, the stage was turned into one with modern decorations for the young performers singing to the pop tunes.

Today, the Cantonese opera show has almost vanished from the limelight in Malaysia.

It is sad that we were unable to keep this traditional cultural performance alive.

But in the southern part of China, especially in Guangdong province, the art is well-preserved and flourishing, thanks to the locals who have taken the task of passing down their knowledge.

One of them is Ye Miaoling, a 50-year-old member of a Cantonese opera amateur group in Guangzhou.

“I have learned Cantonese opera for three years and I come here at least three times a week to practice with other like-minded friends.

“We also organise activities and discuss ways to promote the art.

“It brings people from all walks of life and ages together, ” she said, when met at the Cantonese O pera Art Museum in Guangzhou.

The hawker said she was influenced by her parents, who were big fans of the cultural heritage.

“I have always wanted to learn the art but was always busy with work and house chores. Now that I have more free time, here I am, ” she added.

Asked how long it takes for an adult to learn the skill, Ye shook her head and smiled: “It is not as easy as you may think.”

“It’s easy to learn but hard to master. It takes at least eight years of professional training until one is able to perform on stage, ” she pointed out.

The Cantonese opera has made its way into the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity a decade ago.

Li Kunting, 56, said Cantonese opera played an important role in passing on good moral values and history in the olden days when most people were illiterate.

“The stories are based on history and people’s daily lives, passing down by mouth among the opera performers, ” said the leader of the amateur group.

Li, a fashion wholesaler, and his like-minded buddies performed at an open air theatre of the Cantonese Opera Art Museum for visitors for free.

A heart patient, he said he was quite depressed when diagnosed with the disease but Cantonese opera provided him happiness.

“I found a hobby, I want to enjoy it as long as I live and hope my little effort can help promote the art further, ” he added.

Li said he was glad that they were able to keep the cultural heritage alive and attracted many youngsters to join them.

“We have many young performers here, they have to work so you don’t see them around now, ” he explained.

The Cantonese Opera Art Museum, located in a Lingnan (Cantonese) garden architectural building, opened its door to the public in 2016.

It showcases the history of the art, differences in characters and their dresses as well as type of make-up to the visitors.

The museum also introduces the famous plays and top stars including Luo Pinchao, a Guinness World Records holder for being the Oldest Opera Singer at the age of 93.

Luo (1912 to 2010) spent 80 years on the stage before he died in 2010.

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