Visitors to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum will have an opportunity from tomorrow (October 19) until May 18, 2009, to feel the atmosphere of Cantonese opera theatres in their heyday and the glamour of opera stars in their prime.
"The Majestic Stage: The Story of Cantonese Opera Theatres", an exhibition which features more than 200 photographs, architectural plans, seating plans, admission tickets, models and other valuable exhibits, revives the long gone but still familiar opera venues to Hong Kong people, such as Tai Ping Theatre, Ko Shing Theatre, Lee Theatre, Central Theatre, Astor Theatre and Prince's Theatre.
The exhibition was opened today (October 18) by the Deputy Director (Culture) of Leisure and Cultural Services, Mr Chung Ling-hoi, the former owner of the Tai Ping Theatre, Ms Beryl Yuen Bik-fook, the Chairman of the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong, Dr Liza Wang, and the Museum Expert Adviser to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Dr Leung Pui-kam.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, Mr Chung said Cantonese opera was a signature symbol of local culture, and also a Chinese art form that was as refined as its popularity. Originally starting as street shows at the beginning of British rule, to its peak as a fixture on the stage in permanent and purpose-built theatres, Cantonese opera had been performed in a variety of performing venues. The evolution reflected social, population and economic developments in Hong Kong as well as the changes in leisure and entertainment that had taken place in the territory.
"In 2006 Ms. Beryl Yuen generously denoted more than 6,000 items from her theatre to the museums of our department. The Heritage Museum took charge of more than 1,000 artefacts from the donation, which have substantially enriched the museum's Cantonese opera collection. The new collection enabled the museum to come up with the idea for an exhibition of 'The Majestic Stage' to show in retrospect the changes and development of Cantonese opera theatres over the past 150 years in the era where mini theatres are the norm.
"Through the comprehensive display, the exhibition not only provides an in-depth look at the changes undergone by theatres and stage settings, but also the theatres' social functions, and their relationship with Cantonese opera troupes," Mr Chung said.
Cantonese opera, a representative performing art of Guangdong and Guangxi, is one of the traditional Chinese operas. In the early days, Cantonese opera was performed on makeshift stages set up in temples or in bamboo sheds erected as temporary theatres. From the middle of the 19th century to the early 20th century, a number of theatres specialising for performing Cantonese opera were built in quick succession in the major Chinese communities of Sheung Wan and Western District on Hong Kong Island. Following the booming of the economy and a growing population, the theatre business in Hong Kong was developing rapidly. More and more theatres were constructed in Central, Wan Chai, Causeway Bay and later in Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei in Kowloon Peninsula. Renowned Cantonese opera theatres included the Tai Ping Theatre, Ko Shing Theatre, Central Theatre, Lee Theatre, Astor Theatre and Prince's Theatre.
After World War II, the film industry in Hong Kong started to prosper. Theatres were not places only for live performances but also for film showings. To maximise revenue, theatre proprietors tended to lease the venues to the more popular and larger-scale Cantonese opera troupes. The smaller-scale troupes hardly had the opportunity to perform at theatres. It was not until the 1950s when several amusement parks were built and provided performing stages for smaller-scale Cantonese opera troupes. With the reconstruction of City Hall and the commissioning of town halls in the new towns, a variety of venues were available for Cantonese opera troupes.
However, rocketing land prices in the 1970s and 1980s led to many well-established theatres being demolished to make way for commercial or residential developments, and the number of Cantonese opera theatres suffered a dramatic drop. Nowadays, only the Sunbeam Theatre is still specialising in Cantonese opera. With more than 1,000 seats, it is the venue for many renowned Cantonese opera troupes. In 1993, Chung Sun Sing Opera Troupe had a season of 38 consecutive full-house shows at the Sunbeam Theatre, winning the theatre the title of "Hong Kong's Grand Palace for Cantonese Opera". In 2007, the Government decided to convert the Yau Ma Tei Theatre into a Chinese Opera Centre. On the other hand, a Xiqu Centre was proposed be set up in the West Kowloon Cultural District. Intended to safeguard the traditions of this performing art, these venues will usher in a new era of Cantonese opera.
Once a meeting place for fans of the art, the Cantonese opera theatres competed against each other for their audiences. To enhance their appeal they invited famous troupes to give special performances. The most acclaimed period in the history of the theatres ran from 1933 to 1941, during which the Tai Ping Theatre contracted Master Ma Sze-tsang to form the Tai Ping Opera Troupe, while the Ko Shing Theatre was home to Master Sit Kok-sin and his Kok Sin Sing Opera Troupe. Striving to outdo each other, the two companies created new repertoires and mixed Western theatrical and film elements into their productions resulting in improvements to stage settings, music and acting skills. The distinctive years of the "Sit-Ma Rivalry" are remembered as one of Cantonese opera's golden eras.
Cantonese opera theatres did not just offer entertainment for the general public. They were often used to receive foreign guests and royalty and to promote Chinese culture. In 1966, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, and Earl of Snowdon visited Hong Kong. The Cantonese opera troupe performed the opera "Princess Ping Yang" for Her Royal Highness at the Lee Theatre, the most luxurious theatre of the time. One the other hand, the theatres also played an active part in charity events, helping the community by offering a venue for functions, reducing theatre rentals and supporting patriotic and disaster relief campaigns.
To tie-in with the exhibition, a Cantonese opera stage will be set up inside the exhibition hall of the Heritage Museum where visitors can don Cantonese opera costumes and experience standing in the spotlight as a Cantonese opera artist, while a game entitled "The Little Prop Master" invites visitors to try mixing and matching stage setups and props from different Cantonese opera scenes.
Located at 1 Man Lam Road, Sha Tin, the Heritage Museum opens from 10am to 6pm from Monday to Saturday, and from 10am to 7pm on Sundays and public holidays. It is closed on Tuesdays (except public holidays). Admission is $10, with a half-price concession for senior citizens aged 60 or above, people with disabilities and full-time students. Admission is free on Wednesdays.
Car parking is available at the Heritage Museum. Those who prefer to use public transport may take the MTR to the Che Kung Temple station, which is within three minutes' walk of the museum.
For enquiries, call 2180 8188. For details of the exhibition, visit the Heritage Museum's website at http://hk.heritage.museum/.
Ends/Saturday, October 18, 2008
The auditorium of the three-story Tai Ping Theatre in 1909. Erected in Western District in 1904, the theatre accommodated more than 1,000 seats and was one of the most well-established theatres in the early-20th-century Hong Kong.
A crowd at the entrance of the Tai Ping Theatre in 1950.
The Prince Theatre in Nathan Road in 1956.
In 1966, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon and Earl of Snowdon visited Hong Kong. The Cantonese opera troupe performed the opera "Princess Ping Yang" for Her Royal Highness at the Lee Theatre, the most luxurious theatre of the time. The Princess is pictured presenting souvenirs to artists.
The postbill for the Performance of Kok Sin Sing Opera Troupe at the Ko Shing Theatre in 1940.
The opening ceremony of the “The Majestic Stage: The Story of Cantonese Opera Theatres” exhibition was held today (October 18) at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Pictured shows the officiating guests cutting the ribbon at the opening ceremony. They are (from left) the Chief Curator of Heritage Museum, Ms Belinda Wong Sau-lan, the Chairman of the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong, Dr Liza Wang, the Deputy Director (Culture) of Leisure and Cultural Services, Mr Chung Ling-hoi, the former owner of the Tai Ping Theatre, Ms Beryl Yuen Bik-fook, and the Museum Expert Adviser to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Dr Leung Pui-kam.
The opening ceremony of the “The Majestic Stage: The Story of Cantonese Opera Theatres” exhibition was held today (October 18) at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Pictured shows the Deputy Director (Culture) of Leisure and Cultural Services, Mr Chung Ling-hoi (centre), and the Chairman of the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong, Dr Liza Wang (right), accompanied by the Chief Curator of Heritage Museum, Ms Belinda Wong Sau-lan (left), viewing the exhibits after the opening ceremony.