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Narrating Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong 


This is an ongoing research about Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong, its histories and  contemporary challenges, the development of the city's cultural landscape, the morphology and typology of local sites, materials and construction techniques. This research grounds the design methods, thinking and speculations, which reciprocally influences future research, read more about design here.



The exact origin of Cantonese Opera is much debated. However, there is a consensus that it has emerged from a process of importing, synthesising, and localising styles and practices of other regional operas, often practiced by waijiang ban (troupes from other regions). Although this cross-fertilisation of styles was indispensable to the formation of Cantonese Opera as a distinct genre, the dominance of waijiang ban in Guangzhou also had a displacement effect on bendi ban (local troupes), whose performances were held in distaste by the elite class, and the operatic community was subjected to territorial, cultural and social marginalization. Bendi ban therefore gravitated towards rural counties surrounding Guangzhou and travelled on Red Boats to deliver performances. Operating from a peripheral position, bendi ban steadily won over the hearts of an expanding population and by early 20th Century, re-entered urban centres such as Hong Kong, where it enjoyed a relatively continuous development in the following decades, largely untrammelled by controls exercised over cultural productions. The creative processes in developing the artistry that will eventually become Cantonese Opera fashioned a genre that is fluid, all-embracing, and most importantly, entertaining and appealing to the masses.


The fundamental elements of Cantonese Opera’s choreography, gestures, vocal projection, melodic tunes and music are highly formalised, but with a mechanism that enables coordination between actors and musicians, performers are able to experiment with improvisation to enrich the performance. Although improvisation is a practice shared amongst xiqu, it has become integral to Cantonese Opera especially during its heydays of the early 20th Century, while many regional forms considered it a symptom of unsophisticated artistry. As Ho (2005) argued, the eventual flourishing of Cantonese Opera ‘owed much to its adaptability in meeting the changing demand, and taste, of general audiences’ (p. 311). This penchant to adapt, assimilate, and innovate enabled a Cantonese Opera to stay afloat amidst the tide of modern entertainment in the latter half of 20th Century.


Considering the sociocultural challenges that Cantonese Opera faces as it strives to position itself within the contemporary context, how might this traditional fluid, transitory and ephemeral mode of operation facilitate such navigation? What possibilities do this hold for spatial production processes in the urban context? For one, the mobility and tectonic versatility of the temporary bamboo theatres that hold ritualistic opera performances, seems oddly suitable to the ever densifying spatial context of Hong Kong.



Cantonese Opera became ‘city-based and city-bound’ upon settling in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou in the 1920s, during which the genre developed its most recognisable characteristics (Ng, 2015, p. 31). Troupes adapted traditional shengongxi(神功戲, ritual performances) that take place in temporary bamboo sheds, to xiyuanxi  (戲院戲,  theatrical performances) delivered in purpose-built theatres for public entertainment, such as Taiping Theatre. This implicated a series of shifts in theatrical practices, cultural content, mode of operation and dissemination to keep the Opera viable in the urban arena. Familiar with the flexible nature of Cantonese Opera, actors and entrepreneurial managers experimented with new possibilities offered by the development of electricity, printing technologies and new forms of media to take the genre beyond the physical domain of live performances.


The artform also proliferated throughout the urban arena via various media. As photography and print technology became more popular and accessible, printed media that ensured a connection between the performances that now take place in the separated auditorium to the public everyday that take place outside. Portraits of lead performers decorated the facades of major urban theatres, they were also published on tabloids, calendars and fanzines, and very much became a memorable part of the visual impression of the cityscape of early Hong Kong.


However, these urban theatres that once were significant landmarks in the city have gradually been decommissioned, demolished and rebuilt into more profitable offices and malls. The Sunbeam Theatre is the last private theatre for Cantonese Opera performances. This poses a threat to the survival of the artform nowadays as it becomes increasingly difficult to secure suitable venues, and displaces the local community’s collective memories as their physical traces are removed.


Apart from the studio project that is represented through drawings, models and other visual materials, the MPhil course also consists of a significant written component that supports the design proposition. These essays are supported by strong visual representation and interpretation of rigorously analysed and synthesised primary and secondary materials.


The design study and context essay is an initial exploration of the chosen topic of Cantonese Opera and its position in Hong Kong’s past and present cultural development. This had been supported by a carefully curated set of visual materials to illustrate the wider context the project is situated in.

The pilot thesis is a written argumentation that delves deeper into the condition of Cantonese Opera’s intersections with the rise of local popular culture, as well as the historic urban development of Hong Kong, ultimately questioning what the genre’s role may be in the contemporary context. 

The implementation essay presents a clear implementation strategy for the proposed studio project. The strategy addresses practical details such as legislative and regulatory requirements concerning land acquisition to the fulfilment of planning conditions, and is a broader reflection of the socio-political context under which the project operates.

The design thesis is the culmination of research conducted over the course of the MPhil degree. The written argumentation challenges the existing practices of cultural placemaking in Hong Kong through carefully examined case studies, and uses the investigation of Cantonese Opera to elucidate the contradictions and opportunities present in Hong Kong’s place-identity building. It is a presentation of the project’s core argument and informs the positionality and approach adopted in the design proposition.

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