Impressive debut for Xiqu Centre in West Kowloon Cultural District, Cantonese opera's new Hong Kong home

February 3, 2019
The opening production at the first major venue to be ready at Hong Kong's new arts hub -- the much delayed, publicly funded and over-budget West Kowloon Cultural District -- needed to impress. That the venue concerned is the Xiqu Centre presented its own particular challenge.

It is a centre of Chinese opera, especially the local Cantonese variety, which some would say is the artistic equivalent of the durian fruit -- a lot of people are crazy about it, many others avoid it like the plague.

The Reincarnation of Red Plum, directed by the venerable Pak Suet-sin, was a safe opening act, both for artistic and crowd-pleasing reasons.

This Cantonese opera classic is very much made in Hong Kong. Both the music and the libretto were written by the late Tong Tik-sang, whose short and prolific life ended abruptly when he died from a brain haemorrhage in the middle of its premiere 60 years ago, staged just around the corner from the Post's present-day office at the old Lee Theatre in Causeway Bay.

The production staged at the centre's 1,073-seat Grand Theatre from January 20 to 30 was adapted from a star-studded version performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui in 2014. The 90-year-old Pak, who played the female lead in the 1959 premiere -- accompanied by the late Yam Kim-fai -- reprised her role as artistic director and supervised changes such as the speeding up of the transition between scenes.

Every night, as Pak made her way to her seat in the full house, the crowd erupted and she was mobbed by ecstatic selfie-seekers.

Connie Chan Po-chu, a student of Yam's and one of the Chinese-speaking world's biggest film stars in the 1960s, was still convincing as the irresistibly handsome scholar Pei Yu and sang with a fine pinghou (male voice). She and Yam were playing male parts well before the concept of gender fluidity became fashionable, but the fervour of her largely middle-aged female fans is undimmed.

At her side was Mui Suet-see, another student of Yam and Pak, who plays the two women Pei Yu falls in love with. Mui's harsher notes can be challenging for the uninitiated, but her delivery of the spoken segments (sort of like recitatives in Western operas) is unrivalled. It was certainly a reminder of why she is nicknamed Ah Deh, or Miss Coquettish. Old-stagers Yau Sing-po and Liu Kwok-sum also put in solid performances.

The extravagant set was designed for the 2014 production by the late Ewing Chan, who died suddenly at the age of 40 just a few days before that production opened, an echo of Tong's demise. (The centre's architect, Bing Thom, also died in 2016 without seeing his creation open).

In the Grand Theatre, the dramatic staging, accompanied by an exceptional musical ensemble, had the wow factor befitting the most extravagant theatre ever built for Chinese opera in Hong Kong.

A new generation of stars held their own against the stage legends. Twenty-four-year-old Alan Tam Wing-lun (not to be confused with the Canto-pop star of exactly the same name) shone brightly with his confident portrayal of the arch-villain's equally evil nephew. The two young female performers, Wong Hai-wing and Leung Fei-tung, were also impressive.

This is the most encouraging aspect of the production. Women over 60 made up more than half of the audience, at least, on the night we attended (January 28), which really tested the already generous allocation of female lavatories during the intermission. Part of the Xiqu Centre's raison d'Ítre is to elevate the art form, but just how much its relatively high rents, ticket prices and formal theatres can help popularise the art form is debatable.

More importantly, perhaps, the centre will build the careers of young performers and promises to educate the public with workshops and condensed, shorter productions in its smaller Tea House Theatre.

"Hong Kong has an obligation to promote Cantonese opera because it has been the home of Cantonese operas since the second world war. Even if nobody here plays the piano or the violin ever again, Western classical music will survive. But if Hong Kong doesn't help Cantonese opera to grow, nobody else will step in and it may disappear one day," says Lau Chin-shek, the former legislator who joined Pak's theatre troupe as a volunteer when he was a teenager in the 1960s and who is now an adviser for Sing Fai Cantonese Opera Troupe, where children as young as four are being trained.

There is still a large segment of the population who need convincing of Cantonese opera's merits, however. And work has only just started on making it more accessible to people who do not read or speak Chinese.

Still, as an opening show at the Xiqu Centre, The Reincarnation of Red Plum was suitably impressive and did not disappoint.

South China Morning PostBy Enid Tsui