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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Culture of Bamboo Theatres in Hong Kong: Conversation with Kai-Kwong CHOI

As briefly described in the introduction to this website, this thesis is an attempt to explore Hong Kong’s cultural landscape and placemaking practices through the specific lens of Cantonese Opera.

The cultural heritage of Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong as a traditional performing art harks back to the vast and rich Chinese traditions, it has long been an integral element in ritual festivals that honour local deities. Since rooting itself in the urban arena, the genre has also continually adapted itself to the changing circumstances in rapidly developing Hong Kong, and played a prominent role in local popular entertainment and cultural imaginations in the early 20th Century. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr Choi to learn more about the development and culture of Cantonese Opera and bamboo theatres in Hong Kong.

The Culture of Bamboo Theatres in Hong Kong by Kai-Kwong CHOI, photo by Karen Young

Mr Choi is a seasoned researcher in the field of traditional Chinese Operas in Hong Kong (including Cantonese Opera, amongst others), as well as cultural activities that take place in bamboo theatres and festivals. He has conducted field research and documented bamboo theatres and associated cultural activities in Hong Kong for over a decade, and has recently authored The Culture of Bamboo Theatres in Hong Kong (written in Chinese, the original title is香港戲棚文化).

During our discussion, Choi provided insightful observations and comments regarding the challenges in preserving of the operatic culture and technique of constructing bamboo theatres as a folk tradition, the new speed bumps that had appeared despite (or because of!) the resurgence of interests in protecting artform as an officially recognised Intangible Cultural Heritage, the role of the youth and other institutions and programmes in this preservation effort, and his speculation of this culture’s future trajectories. While Choi noted a nascent “renaissance” of Cantonese Opera in the recent decade, catalysed by the inscription of Cantonese Opera (Yueju) as one of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage items, he also cautioned that the statistics that simply reflect the abundance of performances put on each year, without a more detailed breakdown such as the number of new audiences and demographics engaged, might mask the underlying issues that matter more significantly to understanding and assessing the on-going development of Cantonese Opera’s cultural ecology.

As an active researcher in this field, Choi has generously shared how he approaches his own fieldwork documenting the transitory spectacles of operatic performances in bamboo theatres. He also enlivened the conversation with interesting anecdotes about the innovative ways in which festival organisers have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, they have adapted the architecture of bamboo theatres and improved natural ventilation by constructing a more porous envelope with less metal sheeting, adopted socially-distanced seating arrangements, and has even persisted to put on performances with no live audiences due to COVID-19 restriction measures, in order to ensure that the auspicious nature of such festivals are maintained – as the saying goes,「好頭好尾」, literally meaning a good beginning and a good ending (note: this was a one-off arrangement for the final performance at Cheung Chau Pak Tai Festival, following the implementation of new requirements to reduce gatherings). After all, the primary audience of such ritual performance is the deities, and the objective is to honour them and make offerings. As Barbara Ward has observed in her study of Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong between 1950 and 1981, “since the plays are for the gods’ delight”, the mortals who take part “[are] a kind of bonus, a sharing in the offering”[1].

To this day, both ritual and theatrical performances endure, although often overshadowed by modern forms of entertainment. Speaking of the future of the bamboo theatres, Choi noted the precarious state of this unique art in contemporary contexts and the challenges that lay ahead, but he is also confident that this traditional craft will survive.

Note: The interview was conducted in Cantonese. The translation of the discussion was made by the author.

[1] Ward, ‘Regional Operas and Their Audiences: Evidence from Hong Kong’, 176.

Ward, Barbara E. ‘Regional Operas and Their Audiences: Evidence from Hong Kong’. In Popular Culture in Late Imperial China, edited by David G. Johnson, Andrew J. Nathan, and Evelyn Sakakida Rawski, 161–87. Studies on China 4. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

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