Cantonese opera is a major type of Chinese opera. It is believed to have originated in the northern part of China and slowly spread to the southern province of Guangdong in late 13th century.
Cantonese opera involves singing, martial arts, acrobatics and acting.
'We have to sing and act in a certain way, and use our hands for gestures,' says Form Two student Natalie Chan Yuen-yue, 14.
'I used to think that Cantonese opera is boring and for old people, but actually it's challenging.'
Her classmate Jamie Lo Wai-ting has a lot of fun with the symbolic gestures.
'We have to use our hands to represent many movements, like riding a horse, and opening and closing a window. It's all very interesting.'
Both Natalie and Jamie study at the True Light Middle School of Hong Kong. They attend Cantonese opera lessons with Hong Hai, a professional Cantonese opera master or sifu from the mainland who teaches at the Academy for Performing Arts.
'In an EMI school, it's important to enhance students' understanding of Chinese culture. I want them to develop an appreciation of Chinese traditions and culture,' says the students' Chinese teacher, Yeung Wai-sze, who has been with the school for 15 years.
True Light is one of 11 schools that joined the HKU Cantonese education project. The project was launched in 2006 by the Centre for Advancement of Chinese Language Education and Research of the university's Faculty of Education. It is funded by the Yam Pak Charitable Foundation, the HKU Culture and Humanities Fund and the Cantonese Opera Development Fund.
'Cantonese opera can be integrated into the NSS curriculum. It covers the culture and personal development topics in Liberal Studies,' says Dr Ng Fung-ping, project leader and assistant professor of the Faculty of Education.
Since 2007, Form Two classes at True Light have been taking Cantonese opera classes as part of the school curriculum. They study well-known operas such as The Purple Hairpin.
Yeung believes the project has helped her students improve their Chinese language skills.
'When I sing an opera piece, I have to be careful with my pronunciation,' says Jamie.
'The scripts contain beautiful vocabulary. I have learned to use the expressions in my writing.'
Natalie says: 'It's fun to learn about the love stories and social concepts of the old days. As Chinese, I think we should understand our culture. The Cantonese opera lessons help us learn our history outside the classroom.'