Telling a Hong Kong Story through Cantonese Opera: A Conversation with Man-wah
‘Many opera performances and stories are inspired by local folklore and landmarks. In Gui Opera (桂劇), there are stories about the God Elephant (象郎), which is a legend associated with Guilin’s Elephant Trunk Hill (象鼻山). In Hangzhou‘s West Lake, the Leifeng Pagoda (雷峰塔) and Broken Bridge (斷橋) were central to the classic Legend of the White Snake(白蛇傳). What about Hong Kong and its folklore and legends? What about places such as the Lion Rock that are so symbolic? What are its stories?' said Man-wah (文華).
Her answer to this question lies in the original Cantonese Opera Plum Blossom under the Lion Rock, which she co-authored with Chow Kit-ping. Among the many shows, lectures and tours I scheduled for fieldwork in July, Plum Blossom was the only one that took place before strict social distancing and prevention measures were reintroduced following a spike in Covid-19 cases.
above: map locating Lion Rock, Amah Rock and Hung Mui Kuk in Hong Kong and view of Lion Rock from North Point (drawing and image by author).
The Lion Rock is located between Kowloon and New Territories. The shape of its peak resembles a crouching lion and is prominently visible from most of the Kowloon peninsula and north side of Hong Kong island. It is located close to other famous landscape features such as the Amah Rock, Pat Sin Leng mountain range and Hung Mui Kuk (literally translates as the Valley of Red Plum Blossoms). These places are associated with local folklores and referenced in the opera.
The TV series Below the Lion Rock (獅子山下), which first aired in 1972, portrayed the everyday lives and stories of the city’s inhabitants, who lived under the shadow of the lion-shaped peak and took pride in living by the ‘Lion Rock Spirit’ – the belief where a hardworking, ‘can-do’ attitude paves a sure path for the improvement of one’s quality of life. The theme song of the TV series (獅子山下), sung by Roman Tam encapsulates this vision:
'In the same place, far beyond Hold hands and flatten the ruggedness We wrote with our arduous hardwork that Forever Hong Kong'
同處海角天邊 / 攜手踏平崎嶇 / 我哋大家 用艱辛努力寫下那 / 不朽香江名句。
(translation Blundy 2017)
Thus when I came across Plum Blossom as I researched and planned for my fieldwork, it immediately evoked powerful ideas about Hong Kong, the city’s collective identity and its ‘Lion Rock Spirit’ – not just for the industrious baby boomer generation that witnessed the city’s incredible economic growth, but also for the younger generation today that is searching, re-capturing and defining the contemporary ‘Lion Rock Spirit’. From the title, this production felt relatable, which is not the usual appeal for Cantonese Opera performances. As such, it felt like the perfect introductory piece for a newcomer to the traditional art form, like myself.
above: (left) House programme for Plum Blossom under the Lion Rock on the right half of the page, (right) Man-wah as Blue Lion. (photo courtesy of Man-wah, reproduced with permission. Click here to visit source album.)
Plum Blossom tells the story of the Blue Lion (青獅), played by Man-wah, which was the ride for the Manjushri (文殊菩薩, the bodhisattva of wisdom). The Blue Lion once turned a blind eye to people in mortal danger and was in turn banished to the human world to prevent a catastrophe before he could return to the divine world. There are many Cantonese Opera productions based on classic legends and historical tales, but Plum Blossom is one of the few original Cantonese Opera productions that are in and about Hong Kong, befitting this research project’s interest in performing arts and its interplay with the city’s place identity. Read performance synopsis here.
On the day of the performance, I was easily the youngest member of the audience. This vouched for the common assumption that Cantonese Opera is old school and therefore unappealing and impenetrable to younger audiences. The auditorium at the New Wing of Ko Shan Theatre, a dedicated venue for Cantonese opera, was only partially full as every other set of seats were tangled in cordon tape as part of the Covid-19 social distancing restrictions. The show began with the deafening sound of crashing cymbals and gongs, and the loud sturdy beats of the drums – an unmistakable characteristic of Cantonese Opera.
above: Ko Shan Theatre, auditorium and the curtain call (photos by author)
Last week, I was very glad to meet Man-wah, virtually. We discussed the story of ‘Plum Blossom’ and how the world of folklore and fictional imaginations intersected with the city’s landscape. We also talked about stage design, choreography and creative adaptation of traditional operatic techniques and the use of modern stage technologies. We explored the challenges and changes in staging Cantonese Opera and its preservation in Hong Kong over the past decades and the operation of opera companies within Hong Kong’s cultural landscape.
Man-wah is the founder and executive director of Tin Ma Music and Opera Association. She is not only the mastermind behind Plum Blossom as the playwright, she also played the lead male role (文武生), co-ordinated stage production and set design for the performance. In addition to her first degree in Chinese Language and Literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, she was also a member of the first cohort of graduates from the HKAPA’s Diploma programme in Cantonese Opera in 2001. Man-wah’s experience has followed the ups and downs of the development of Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong. In the recent years, she has been under the mentorship of the directors at the Cantonese Opera Young Talent Showcase (粵劇新秀演出) organized by the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong (香港八和會館) as part of their effort to facilitate the succession of Cantonese Opera. She is also involved in Cantonese opera outreach, education and promotion activities by delivering lectures, workshops and lessons to schools and organisations.
There may be various accounts for the folklores and legends about the Lion Rock, Amah Rock and other places, but Plum Blossom is likely the first creative endeavour to weave these stories together in an original playscript for Cantonese Opera, a genre that is no stranger to tales of gods, divine creatures and their interactions with the human world. Man-wah recalled that from her initial conception in the early 2000s, which was when the young SAR government started directing resources to local cultural productions such as Cantonese Opera, it took nearly a decade to receive funding and realise Plum Blossom. It was – and probably still is – an uphill task to bring in original Cantonese Opera productions, partly because the audience have less confidence in them as compared to classic repertoires, but also because experienced practitioners, equally, are wary of the risks these experimental productions entail. Since its premiere in 2011, the journey of Plum Blossom is a snapshot of the timescale required in introducing ‘new’ elements into the traditional practice, and the challenge of designing productions that could resonate with contemporary sensibilities. Now returning to the stage for the 6th time, Plum Blossom staged in July 2020 was all in all a spectacular performance by the leading actors and members of the Sensational Sprouts Cantonese Opera Association. The performance challenged many of the common criticisms about the genre and its perceived decline.
For example, it has been noted in this interview but also in my conversations with other researchers and practitioners in the field, that traditional Cantonese Opera performances that can last for 4 hours or even more, is not compatible with the pace of contemporary lifestyle, deterring seasoned opera-goers that are likely to have other commitments, and discourages new audiences from giving this a try. There is, of course, the alternative of excerpts performances (折子戲), which are significantly shorter as only short pieces selected from different plays are performed and audiences are assumed to have knowledge of the stories. The Tea House Theatre Experience at Xiqu Theatre operates in a similar way and provides 1.5 hour long performances as a taster. Yet the obvious drawback is the absence of a full story.
To condense the show, Man-wah’s strategy was to ensure smooth scene changes. This vision, which has become a signature for productions of Man-wah’s opera company, allowed the audience to see the performance unfold like a movie, and not be jolted back and forth between reality and the operatic world. This sounds like a simple strategy that could be realised with careful planning and rehearsing. Yet, in reality, it was challenging to implement especially for performances that have limited funding resource, which also meant that time for preparation and rehearsals in the theatre is tight. She noted that some classic performances, where most actors are already familiar with the run-down, could be set up in the afternoon and performed in the same evening. This arrangement, she said, is far from ideal if the goal is high-level artistic sophistication. Plum Blossom was roughly 3 hours long – which is not uncommon for other forms of performances – but with well-paced storytelling and meticulous orchestration of scene transitions, it hardly felt that long. The actors’ skilful delivery of traditional routines combined with new choreography was compelling, the storytelling and message were clear, and the performance as a whole was delightful. Furthermore, from my perspective as an audience, it certainly helped that subtitles were displayed on both sides of the stage.
Man-wah explained that part of the skill in putting together Cantonese Opera or xiqu performances is to marry realistic, descriptive sung and spoken elements with the figurative and highly symbolic gestures harmoniously. This is made possible by the wealth of standardised routines and gestures developed over the course of history, which forms part of the 4 elements of xiqu: singing, acting, narrating, and acrobatic fighting (唱做唸打). These are skills to be honed in by performers through their own training and are essential to every performance. On the other hand, however, it does take an educated audience to fully comprehend the nuances in these gestures, but Man-wah, having been involved in Cantonese Opera education, is confident that with an introduction to xiqu that would take less than an hour, a layperson could learn the key principles and begin to appreciate opera performances.
Man-wah highlighted that while these are the defining elements of xiqu and Cantonese Opera, there is room for innovation, such as adapting certain techniques to the specific plot and character, and experimenting with the stage technologies. For example, in the iconic scene of the Blue Lion battling the heavy seas on the way to rescue the missing villagers, Man-wah utilised the traditional technique of water sleeves in a new way. Water sleeves technique is typically used by female characters to represent emotional struggles and conflicted states of mind. To suit the Blue Lion, she gave it a masculine twist by incorporating other xiqu movement techniques to depict the Blue Lion engulfed in turbulent waters, represented by the 13-foot long water sleeves. In another scene, stage lighting was utilised to create the ominous atmosphere of the Red Dragon’s den. This projection and just a few props were all that was needed to convey the message.
above: Stills from Plum Blossom under the Lion Rock, click to enlarge. (photo courtesy of Man-wah, reproduced with permission. Click here to visit source album.)
Having been a part of the Cantonese Opera scene for two decades, Man-wah noted some important changes in the landscape and the succession of the craft. The teaching and learning of Cantonese Opera, gradually shifted from master-disciple system to institutions, such as courses organised by the HKAPA and the Chinese Artists Association. However, this is only sustainable if there were opportunities for graduates to perform, which is also dependent on the broader socio-economic climate at different points in time. Furthermore, the art of Cantonese Opera’s music, performances and literature were incorporated into general education (albeit an elective course in the current education system) and served as a means to make Chinese histories and cultural customs a more accessible topic for students. While there are funding opportunities in place for Cantonese opera productions, the sums are generally modest for small and medium scale productions. In our conversation, Man-wah shared her visions for how Plum Blossom could be refined and perfected should there be more support, such as costume design, more comprehensive rehearsals, and animation production to enhance the overall visual impact.
All in all, Plum Blossom presented the refreshing and curiously absent subject matter of Hong Kong’s folklores and stories to the Cantonese Opera scene. For young and new audiences to Cantonese Opera like myself, there was little barrier to understanding and immersing myself in the story of the Blue Lion. Perhaps for more trained eyes, this performance is a hint at the new possibilities as to how stories about Hong Kong, one of the key centres in the history of Cantonese Opera’s development, could be crafted and told via the indigenous art form. Plum Blossom could well be considered a medium through which the ‘Lion Rock Spirit’, which has been a highly symbolic anchor for generations of Hong Kong citizens, could be revisited through the platform of Cantonese Opera that bridges historical traditions with creative experimentation in the present. Having learnt about the hurdles that Man-wah and her team have overcome to arrive at the successful performance at Ko Shan Theatre, I believe that they, too, have demonstrated core characteristics of the ‘Lion Rock spirit’ by being diligent, resilient, adaptive and creative.
Note: The interview was conducted in Cantonese and English. Above mentioned points about topics discussed are translated by the author.
Blundy, Rachel. 2017. ‘Lion Rock Spirit Still Casting Its Spell on Hong Kong’. South China Morning Post, 22 April 2017, sec. News. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/education-community/article/2089601/lion-rock-spirit-still-casting-its-spell-hong.