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HK Central Library exhibition showcases Cantonese operatic cantatrices in old Hong Kong

     Famed Cantonese opera singer Xiao Minxin was known for her unique voice and a singing style that featured a touch of sadness. Her famous songs like "Autumn Tomb" and "The Sentimental Swallow Returns" not only captured the hearts of fans but also influenced the singing style of subsequent Cantonese opera singers. She and three other "nuiling" (female singers), Xu Liu-xian, Zhang Yue'r and Zhang Hui-fang, were acclaimed as the Four Masters of Pinghou (male voice impersonators) from the 1920s to the 1930s. It was very popular for the opera singers to perform in different "getan" (singing forums) at various teahouses, and the charges at the teahouses varied according to the appeal of the "nuiling".

     An exhibition entitled "A Reminiscence of Cantonese Operatic Cantatrices in Old Hong Kong", organised by the Hong Kong Public Libraries of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, is being held until February 29 at the Rare Book Reading Room on the eighth floor of Hong Kong Central Library.

     The exhibition, mainly in Chinese, features the development of "getan" in the old days. Archival entertainment newspapers, old gramophone records, film tune manuscripts and lyric sheets of Cantonese opera songs are on display to take readers down memory lane to find out more about the "getan" at teahouses.

     In the past, one of the main leisure activities for the public was enjoying dim sum at teahouses while listening to the "nuiling" singing at the "getan". The first Chinese restaurant that included "getan" on the premises was located in Sheung Wan, and the business flourished in many teahouses in the 1930s.

     The culture of "getan" was further developed with the emergence of gramophone and radio stations. Many famous "nuiling" also recruited some opera songwriters to write new songs for their performances. Famous songwriters such as Wong Sum-fan, Ng Yat-siu and Wu Man-sum emerged in this period. Wong, drawing on his knowledge of literature, injected literary elements into his songs. Both Ng and Wu wrote a lot of Chinese ditties, Wu even adapted Chinese lyrics to Western melodies in his songwriting.  

     Audiences attending a "getan" would receive a sheet of paper printed with lyrics and sometimes a photo of the "nuiling" stationed at the teahouses. One of the precious exhibits is an album of lyric sheets of Cantonese opera songs printed by a restaurant in Sheung Wan. The lyric sheets were compiled by local renowned calligrapher Ho Shuk-wai over more than 60 years.

     Other exhibits include the publication "The New Moon", published by the New Moon record company in the 1930s, and "Qian nian wan zai" (The Millennium), a bulletin produced by the EMI record company. Archival newspapers on display include the Hong Kong Evening Post, which focused on news and critics' writing on Cantonese opera stars and was the first local evening newspaper, having been published since 1921, and the China Star, a tabloid in old Hong Kong. 

     A collection of old gramophone recordings by different "nuiling" is also featured in the exhibition. They are "Album of Xiao Minxin", covering four popular Cantonese opera songs; "Kou hua hua xia juan", featuring the popular songs of humorous singing queen Zhang Yue'r; "The spotlight", a masterpiece of Zhang Hui-fang; "Guan Gong Kills Cai Yang" from singer Fei Ying; and "Memory of Xiao Minxin", written by Ng Yat-siu as a tribute to Xiao Minxin. Also on display is the manuscript of the title tune for the Cantonese film "A Melancholy Melody", composed by Wu Man-sum; "Mourning of Wong Sum-fan", a Chinese calligraphic work written by Ho Shuk-wai; and an autographed copy of "Xing yun xin qu", written by Wong Sum-fan.

     Admission to the exhibition is free. For enquiries, please call 2921 0323.

Ends/Tuesday, December 6, 2011


An album of lyric sheets of Cantonese operatic songs is on display at the "A Reminiscence of Cantonese Operatic Cantatrices in Old Hong Kong" exhibition.


An old gramophone recording of "The Spotlight" is one of the highlights of the "A Reminiscence of Cantonese Operatic Cantatrices in Old Hong Kong" exhibition.




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