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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Into the Floating City...

Red Boats in the Floating City. Illustration by author.

May marks the beginning of the fieldwork period for this project. I will be documenting my project on this website as it progresses over the fieldwork period. To begin with, I will be writing about research, drawings and design ideas gathered over the past 7 months.

I begin with the project title: Red Boats in the Floating City, and its relationship to Cantonese Opera and Hong Kong, the topic of this thesis.

Red Boats (紅船) - specially designed timber sailing barges that were believed to be painted red (the colour and associated symbolisms have drawn various speculations from historians and researchers) - used to transport Cantonese Opera troupes around the Pearl River estuary to deliver performances to towns and villages. A full-sized opera troupe typically requires a a pair of Red Boats, namely Heaven Boat and Earth Boat, to accommodate all members.

According to Ng, who authored The Rise of Cantonese Opera (2015), the "era of the red boat" rose to its peaks before the end of Qing dynasty (around the turn of the 20th Century). During this time, over 30 full-sized troupes were active in the region, extending the reach of the theatre to the masses and solidifying its position as the dominant element of their social and cultural lives. The itinerant practice gradually fell into the background as troupes began to root themselves in rapidly growing urban centres, such as Hong Kong, in the early decades of 20th Century. Many Red Boats were later destroyed in the Japanese invasion of China in 1938, leaving little physical trace in the present day. Nevertheless, the term "Red Boats" continued to symbolise traditional Cantonese Opera, encapsulating its rich traditions, customs and artistry. It is both the literal and figurative vessel for the transmission and dissemination of this traditional artform.

The Floating City refers to Hong Kong - a city of transients and a transient city, "a port in the literal sense" according to Hong Kong scholar Ackbar Abbas. The term is perhaps most famously known through the title of Xixi’s novel, Marvels of a Floating City 浮城誌異 (1999), and has since become the poetic shorthand for Hong Kong - the pervading state of rootlessness, cultural hyphenation, and the inhabitants' collective yearning for an anchorage. The transitory, schizophrenic and oddly ephemeral character of the city makes the notion a local cultural identity particularly problematic, but is also fertile ground for open-ended imaginations for the city's possible futures via literature, film, and in the case of this project, Cantonese Opera.

Selected excerpts from Marvels of a Floating City (English translation to come):





何福仁. 2008. 浮城1.2.3: 西西小說新析. 香港: 三聯書店(香港)有限公司.

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