An endangered tradition

An endangered tradition

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Edward Wong
Lovers of Cantonese Opera - honoured by Unesco recognition - are determined to make sure the art does not disappear altogether, writes Zoe Mak.

Cantonese opera was recently listed by Unesco as an Intangible Cultural Asset of Humanity. Local opera lovers and performers are delighted, but warn there is still much to do to raise young people's awareness of this traditional art form in order to preserve it.

Coincidentally, the Chinese Civilisation Centre at the City University co-organised a Cantonese opera exhibition at the university's City Gallery with the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong. It has been running since the end of last month and promotes this traditional art to local university students.

Professor Cheng Pei-kai, director of the Chinese Civilisation Centre, says it's good that Cantonese culture and tradition is being recognised at an international level, adding that it should 'encourage people to seriously think about how this can be carried on'.

Cheng says local youngsters seem to be more familiar with foreign operas such as Madame Butterfly or Carmen rather than their own cultural heritage. 'Local university students should know more, but with the dominance of Western civilisation, this traditional art becomes old and outdated and they don't want to know,' he says. 'That is not very good because they don't have a sense of their own culture.'

The university's Cantonese opera exhibition has five themes - 'The Beginning', 'On Stage', 'Career on Charity', 'Nurturing the New' and 'Prospect'. Its numerous exhibits include historical photos, theatrical costumes and stage props.

But Cheng says there are not as many artefacts left as there might have been due to a lack of financial support and development.

'Some of the oldest artefacts are things like the school bell from an opera training school,' he says, adding the exhibition includes a statue of Wah Kwong, the patron god of Cantonese opera.

Cheng says many local Cantonese opera lovers and performers worry the art will eventually die out, because it is becoming commercialised and there is insufficient formal training. This means it is more of a hobby or leisure activity.

'Cantonese opera is not easy to learn. You need to start at a very young age, which is very difficult in modern society,' he says. 'Just like gymnastics, you need to start early. But if the government develops some kind of academic programme, equivalent to the programmes on the mainland ... then maybe the situation can be changed.'

The Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong has asked the Education Bureau to allow them to provide students with professional Cantonese opera training, the South China Morning Post reported last Thursday. The association sees this initiative as a first step into the tertiary syllabus available at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. The Education Bureau said it had been in touch with representatives from the city's Cantonese opera sector.

The exhibition is free and will run until November 1. For more details, call 3442 2477

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