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The Rise of Cantonese Opera

The Rise of Cantonese Opera

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The Rise of Cantonese Opera
    Book Description:

    Defined by its distinct performance style, stage practices, and regional and dialect based identities, Cantonese opera originated as a traditional art form performed by itinerant companies in temple courtyards and rural market fairs. In the early 1900s, however, Cantonese opera began to capture mass audiences in the commercial theaters of Hong Kong and Guangzhou--a transformation that changed it forever. Wing Chung Ng charts Cantonese opera's confrontations with state power, nationalist discourses, and its challenge to the ascendancy of Peking opera as the country's preeminent "national theatre." Mining vivid oral histories and heretofore untapped archival sources, Ng relates how Cantonese opera evolved from a fundamentally rural tradition into urbanized entertainment distinguished by a reliance on capitalization and celebrity performers. He also expands his analysis to the transnational level, showing how waves of Chinese emigration to Southeast Asia and North America further re-shaped Cantonese opera into a vibrant part of the ethnic Chinese social life and cultural landscape in the many corners of a sprawling diaspora.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09709-6
    Subjects: Music, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    In the early twentieth century, what had been an emergent local opera¹ catering to the small market towns and village communities across the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong by itinerant companies expanded into Guangzhou and Hong Kong and captured a mass audience in commercial theaters. In the process, the genre acquired much local flavor distinguished by its own music and performance style, the use of Cantonese dialect (and its proximate variants) for sung and spoken delivery, and a substantial repertoire. This performance style became the Cantonese opera that subsequent generations of Hong Kong people—including my own—grew up with...


    • CHAPTER 1 Itinerant Actors and Red Boats in the Pearl River Delta
      (pp. 11-30)

      Colorful personalities and legends abound in the early history of Cantonese opera. One such individual was Master Zhang Wu. It is said that he was a highly skilled performer on the stage and was active in and around Beijing during the time of the Qing emperor Yongzheng (r. 1722–35). Zhang’s anti-dynastic views, however, caused him to flee from the capital area to Guangdong, where he settled in the vibrant township of Foshan, near Guangzhou. Traditions credit Zhang’s arrival with the transmission of important operatic practices and musical sources to the local performing community. Of particular significance were the system...

    • CHAPTER 2 Urbanization of Cantonese Opera
      (pp. 31-55)

      The year was 1919. It was the usual time for itinerant opera troupes to return to Guangzhou for their summer recess and for those in charge to begin assembling the rosters for the following season. Something unusual transpired as Liu Guoxing, a comedian (chou), reminisced some forty years later. While negotiating their terms of employment with the troupe Zhukangnian, several lead actors asked Hongshun, an opera business house (xiban gongsi), to delimit the performing circuit to the city theaters of Guangzhou and Hong Kong, in light of the deteriorating social conditions and alarming lawlessness in the surrounding counties and countryside....

    • CHAPTER 3 Urban Theater and Its Modern Crisis
      (pp. 56-78)

      One cannot but be amazed by the almost instant success of Chen Feinong upon his return from Singapore to South China in 1924. Chen was clearly very talented and had several years of rigorous training under the veteran performer Liang Yuanheng (1892–1964), but he had no prior exposure on the commercial stages of Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Chen adapted admirably alongside some senior actors at Liyuanle. Within a year, his career took off, earning him a reputation as an up-and-cominghuadanin Cantonese opera. His ascendance in the opera circle was interrupted, but thankfully not derailed, by the Hong...


    • CHAPTER 4 The Cultural Politics of Theater Reform
      (pp. 81-106)

      “Regarding actors of Cantonese opera (yueling), their knowledge is surely below sea level since they never quite comprehend the four [critical] matters of thought, sentiments, literature, and art. They live mostly depraved lives, their characters have never been disciplined, and their emotions are base.” So wrote an essayist in Guangzhou in 1929.¹ Never mind another disparaging passage vilifying the performers of the region’s highly popular commercial theater. As mentioned in Chapter One, Cantonese opera had amassed a fair share of detractors in the preceding century, especially among the elite literati and imperial government officials, who denigrated the emergent local theater...

    • CHAPTER 5 The State, Public Order, and Local Theater in South China
      (pp. 107-128)

      In the 1920s, a number of murderous incidents rocked the opera community. The first occurred in August 1921, when the well-regardedchoushengLi Shaofan was gunned down by an assassin on the stage of the Heping Theater in Hong Kong, right in front of some fellow actors and the audience.¹ The following May, the flamboyant and acclaimed Zhu Cibo fell victim to his assailants in Guangzhou. Zhu had just finished the evening’s program and emerged from the theater around midnight, when he was shot. Zhu had his bodyguards with him, like most high-profile actors who enjoyed success and visibility in...


    • CHAPTER 6 Popular Theater in the Diaspora
      (pp. 131-151)

      For Cantonese opera, the latter half of the nineteenth century witnessed an evolution toward a distinctive form of musical drama in its home region of the Pearl River Delta. Amazingly, the period also marked the dawn of a diaspora history whose geographical reach was unmatched by any other genres of traditional Chinese opera. On the Pacific shores of North America, it began with the arrival, in October 1852, of an acting company with 123 members in booming San Francisco. Referred to in the local press as Tong Hook Tong (and later on, by a host of other jumbled names and...

    • CHAPTER 7 Theater as Transnational Business
      (pp. 152-169)

      Award-winning Chinese Canadian novelist Wayson Choy vaguely remembers the many evenings he spent as a toddler with his mother and her friends at the Sing Kew Theater (Xingqiao) in old Shanghai Alley in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Choy has combed through old documents and inspected artifacts in local archives and museums for three summers, researching the activities of Cantonese opera troupes in the late 1930s and early 1940s. His efforts in recapturing his fading memories for the writing of his childhood memoir pay off handsomely. His chapter on what transpired in Chinatown theater—the mesmerizing performances on stage and the conviviality among...

    • CHAPTER 8 Theater and the Immigrant Public
      (pp. 170-188)

      During Lunar New Year of 1919, a local organization representing the acting circle (Youjie Huiguan) celebrated its fifth anniversary and published its roster of officers in theChinese Timesin Vancouver.¹ At first glance, the reported celebration and announcement in the Chinatown daily could not be more unremarkable, because similar items about various organizations appeared in the news routinely. Chinese immigrant communities were adept at organizing to advance and secure the well-being of their members. The Saltwater City was no different. The timing also appears to have been anything but unusual, for elections to offices—or what stood as elections...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 189-196)

    In the foregoing chapters, I have constructed a three-part narrative to chronicle the rise of Cantonese opera. At the outset, much information on the latter half of the nineteenth century is provided, and the imperial period also is covered as additional background, but the principal time frame is the early part of the twentieth century. It was after the turn of the twentieth century that the emergent popular theater of the Cantonese people pivoted toward the twin cities of Guangzhou and Hong Kong and soon became a highly commercialized entertainment with a sizable urban clientele. The development of commercial theater...

    (pp. 197-204)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 205-240)
    (pp. 241-256)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 257-266)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 267-268)