As I have been researching Greek theatre, rituals and dance these days, it struck me that as a Chinese, I do not really know much about our own similar arts culture, Cantonese opera 粵劇 (Yue-ju). While Greek theatre has been known for its ritualistic nature and chorus, and as the successor of ancient Spring dance ritual, not many studies have been done on Cantonese opera. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between these two art forms, despite one being from the west and the other from the east. Most importantly, Cantonese opera was listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009, which renders it vital to be studied. So, I started exploring the artistic culture of my own roots a bit more.
The beginning of Cantonese opera can be dated back to the ancient theatre during the Yuan Dynasty. Although they were not like the ones we have now, ancient artistic performances during the Yuan Dynasty were called 雜劇 (Tsa-ju), which consisted mostly of songs, dance and acrobatics, and as a form of comic entertainment. Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of Ching Dynasty, Yue-ju was developed into a form of ritualistic play, where stories of the gods were performed during auspicious days or when a new temple, honoring a certain god, was established.
It was surprising to find that the popularity of Cantonese opera actually originated from Hong Kong and Macao. From the end of the 18th century, Cantonese opera was often being performed in Hong Kong, mostly during ritualistic celebrations, such as the feast day of the heavenly queen, at temples dedicated to her. Then from the beginning of the last century, the words used in Yue-ju became more colloquial Cantonese, causing more people in Hong Kong and Macao to be able to appreciate the art.
There was a period of time, between the 1930s and 1950s, before the development of the movie industry in Hong Kong, when Cantonese opera acting was a great career, and a number of classic plays were written at that time. However, not many new plays seemed to be created after the 1950s. In fact, from a quick search of once famous Cantonese opera actors, those that are still remembered by existing generations are being remembered as TV stars instead of opera stars, who presumably had to switch career due to the declining demand for opera plays. So, what caused the decline of Cantonese opera?
Firstly, most young people find Cantonese opera very interesting the first time they watch it, with its bright colours of customs, extravagant make-up, and interesting movement of hands and eyes of the actors, which are actually a form of dance for the opera theatre. However, it wouldn’t be taken as a form of regular entertainment because most people do not understand the play. Even when they are performed in Cantonese, a lot of the plot has to be understood from the movement of the actors, so it is not easy to empathize with the characters and capture the full attention of spectators.
Secondly, with the development of the cinema industry in Hong Kong from the 70s, most people choose to watch movies instead of opera theatre as leisure entertainment. So, Cantonese opera, from being a huge form of entertainment in the first half of the 20th century was reduced back to ritualistic plays on special Buddhists occasions.
However, there is still a zealous Cantonese opera group in Macao who practice regularly and occasionally ‘self-publish’ a few shows at the Wing Lok cinema. Perhaps, if the younger generation is educated more about the complexity and beauty of this art, Cantonese opera can bloom again. It is, after all, our cultural heritage.