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Visual Anthropology

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Performance Context as a Molding Force: Photographic Documentation of Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong Sau Y. Chan

To cite this Article Chan, Sau Y.(2005) 'Performance Context as a Molding Force: Photographic Documentation of

Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong', Visual Anthropology, 18: 2, 167 — 198 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/08949460590914840 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08949460590914840

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Visual Anthropology, 18: 167–198, 2005 Copyright # Taylor & Francis, Inc. ISSN: 0894-9468 print=1545-5920 online DOI: 10.1080/08949460590914840

Performance Context as a Molding Force: Photographic Documentation of Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong

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Sau Y. Chan As the most traditional form of performing art in Hong Kong, Cantonese opera has accumulated rich stylistic characteristics that are shown by its practitioners but not necessarily comprehended by either insiders or outsiders of the profession. Borrowing ideas from ‘‘evolutionary musicology,’’ which assumes that music originated from mating and communicating behaviors, and music has been functionally deployed by men for enhancing their survival, this article puts forward the idea that many stylistic elements of Cantonese opera are products of the genre’s negotiation with its performance context, where physical, cultural, and human factors play important roles in shaping the genre’s stylistic characteristics. This article discusses in detail the use of audio elements such as: high-pitched falsetto singing, penetrating melodic instruments, and resonating percussions; the strategic deployment of improvisations; the use of visual elements such as ‘‘enlarged’’ and exaggerated gestures and on-stage movements, symbolic space, time and stage property, in terms of how such stylistic conventions and characteristics solve problems for the practitioners and further enhance the performance. As the focal attraction within a series of rituals that are held to celebrate religious events, traditional Cantonese opera often features plots with happy endings. In short, the traditional repertory of Cantonese opera has been shaped to adapt to its environment. With a selection of 35 photographs for illustration, this article concludes that one can understand the stylistic characteristics of Cantonese opera only within its performance context. Images of Cantonese opera performance can be intelligible only when they are documented meaningfully within their context.

INTRODUCTION From an evolutionary point of view, as noted by Charles Darwin, music and body decoration might have their roots in the animal instinct of ‘‘competing for reproduction,’’ which involves at least three stages: attracting the potential mate’s attention, repelling rival mate-competitors, and arousing and exciting a strong

SAU Y. CHAN has been teaching at the Chinese University of Hong Kong since 1987; he is currently Professor in the Music Department. His research interests include Cantonese opera, fieldwork methodology, and cognitive aspects of music processes. The photos used in this article are selected from the collection housed in the Chinese Opera Information Centre, Music Department, Chinese University of Hong Kong. E-mail: sauyanchan@cuhk.edu.hk

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Figure 1 Seen from a distance, a huge bamboo-tinsheet theater is built next to a group of high-rises. This particular temporary theater can accommodate up to 2000 seated audience and another 1000 standing in the side corridors. (9 April 1987; Tsing Yi Island; Birthday of the Real and Great King)

Figure 2 Looking from the backstage, the temporary temple is seen facing the performance. The bamboo scaffolding and three microphones slung from above are clearly shown. The curtains and carpets onstage, as well as the decorations offstage, are predominantly red, a color that symbolizes happiness. (8 February 1990; Ting Kok village, the New Territories; Birthday of King Gwan, the God of War and Righteousness)


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emotion in auditors [Storr 1992: 5 and 11; Miller 2000: 332 and 338]. And as Darwin has suggested, the style and structure of such audio and visual arts evolve when ‘‘any slight variation,’’ perhaps discovered and produced through trial-anderror, is ‘‘profitable’’ to the realization of the mating goal [Darwin 1968/1859: 115]. Regarding sound, it is thus imaginable that stylistic and structural elements such as tempo, volume, timbre, rhythm, pitch and harmony have continuously and gradually evolved with changes in the physical environments that govern mating situations; such elements further evolve when sounds are superimposed on social meanings. Along this chain of thought but contrary to the mating theory, another theory of music’s origin proposes that ‘‘early man . . .when wishing to communicate with his fellows at a distance, discovered that he could do so more effectively by using a

Figure 3 Before the opera series start, the statue of the Queen of Heaven has been escorted from the temple to the theater and is being placed in the temporary temple built at the end of the theater. (11 May 1991, Hang Hau village, the New Territories; Birthday of the Queen of Heaven)


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singing voice rather than a speaking voice.’’ While a singing voice features the prolongation of sounds and the raising of pitch, in addition to the achievement of a communicative function, it also triggers pleasure in both the singer and the hearers [Storr 1992: 11]. The two theories of music’s origin that are briefly mentioned above, namely, the mating call and communication theories, are at best postulates and literally conjectures, given that some archaeologists suggest that music might have originated some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago [Wallin, Merker and Brown 2000: 10]. Yet such theories are interesting in suggesting that music, and decorative art to a certain extent, were functionally deployed by our ancestors before these two art forms were encoded with other complicated social, symbolic, and aesthetic meanings. With Chinese opera, a huge family consisting of some 400 regional genres that are defined by dialect and regional musical style, a functional approach contributes to the understanding of its general stylistic characteristics, which may have been evolving since proto-operatic performances originated in rituals of the remote past [Liang 1985: 51; Dolby 1976: 1; Leakey 1995: 140]. Though hardly

Figure 4 To facilitate the temple deity’s view of the opera, a ‘‘sacred box’’ for accommodating the statue of the deity is built and placed above the audience, facing the stage. A ‘‘bilingual’’ poster is also seen at the back: the four Chinese characters tell people ‘‘spitting is not allowed’’; I suspect the English version, ‘‘no speaking,’’ is a misspelling of ‘‘no spitting.’’ Apparently this ‘‘bilingual’’ poster caused little misunderstanding since very few opera-goers read English. (21 March 1990; Ping Shek village, Kowloon; Birthday of the King of Three Mountains)


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linked to mating or reproduction, proto-operatic rituals might have enhanced our ancestors’ chances of survival by converging their emotions and thus strengthening their coalitions [Leakey 1995: 141]. As I demonstrate later in this article, evolutionary concepts and ideas are useful in the apprehension of how Cantonese opera as a genre has evolved and formulated its stylistic characteristics through negotiating its physical and cultural environment. It is interesting to see how a sophisticated art form, manifested in audio and visual dimensions, wrapped by layers and layers of physical, social, and cultural codes that

Figures 5 and 6 The ritualistic context is filled with activities that compete for the attention of participants. Among such activities, banqueting and gambling are the most popular. Actors thus must ensure their voices reach marginal audience members to maintain the latter’s enthusiasm for the performance. (The banqueting was captured on 25 February 1990; Lung Kwu Tan Village, Tuen Mun of the New Territories; Initiation Rite for the Queen of Heaven’s Temple. The mahjong playing was captured on 9 March 1987; Kau Sai village off the coast of Sai Kung, the New Territories; Birthday of the Sacred God of the South Seas)


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Figures 5 and 6

Continued.

invariably keep outsiders at a remote distance, is in fact highly intelligible under a functional and structural analysis. Intensive fieldwork observation and contextual photographic documentation are primary tools in carrying out such a task.

THE PERFORMANCE CONTEXT In post-World War II Hong Kong, gigantic theaters built with bamboo and tinsheet have been the hallmark of Cantonese opera referred to as dai hei1. (‘‘big plays’’ or ‘‘grand theater’’) in the Cantonese dialect. Known as hei pang (‘‘theatrical scaffolding’’) which can accommodate up to 5,000 people, these gigantic theaters are the venues in which a series of operatic performances are staged to highlight the celebratory activities of traditional religious events [Figure 1].2 As in other


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Figure 7 Traditionally, religious performance of Cantonese opera is open to the public, who can enter the bamboo-tinsheet theater from any direction. The theater is thus an open venue that features a vague boundary between audience and nonaudience. The top portion of the theater is usually decorated with a banner that tells the title of the event, the name of the troupe and names of the major actors and actresses. (26 March 1991; Ho Sheung Heung village, Sheung Shui, the New Territories; Birthday of the Sacred God of the South Seas)

areas of the Pearl River Delta region and other parts of mainland China, there has been a robust tradition by which members of a community voluntarily contribute money to hire a troupe to perform operas during a religious or secular communal event — festivals such as New Year, Dragon Boat and Mid-Autumn, the Rites of Purification for Thanksgiving and for the Ghost Festival, the Initiation Ritual for Temples, and the Birthdays of Deities [Chan 1991: 5–7]. Whether the event be religious or secular, traditional customs prescribe that the operas be performed to please the deities. Hence, in Cantonese dialect, the term sen gung hei (‘‘opera as sacred merits’’) refers to both this specific performance context and the unique style of performance. As the late anthropologist Barbara E. Ward noted, ‘‘traditional Chinese social custom does indeed give high significance to the performance of mutual services and the exchange of gifts,’’ including gifts of ‘‘food and entertainment’’ [Ward 1979: 24]; thus operas staged for the deities are regarded as gifts. People who offer such gifts obviously expect the deities to grant blessings in exchange. In order to ensure that ‘‘staging opera as sacred merits’’ can be realized beyond being mere ‘‘lip-service,’’ the tradition has institutionalized a number of conventions to facilitate the deities’ enjoyment of the operas. The enforcement of such conventions is


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Figure 8 To provide percussion music for accompanying the stage movements, which are often acted-out improvisatorily, the leader of the percussion section pays close attention to every gestural detail onstage. His instruments include several woodblocks and drums of different sizes; he is assisted by two other players who perform on the cymbals and gong. (9 March 1987; Kau Sai village off the shore of Sai Kung, the New Territories; Birthday of the Sacred God of the South Seas)

symbolically important, so that the blessings as promised by the deities can be realized. These conventions are briefly described below. Perhaps the most important architectural consideration in the construction of a temporary theater is to locate it right in front of the temple that serves as the center of the celebratory or ritualistic activities, so as to allow the deities to enjoy the operas from the temple. If for geographical or other reasons the space in front of a temple cannot accommodate a theater, a temporary temple must be built at the end of or outside the theater [Figure 2]. Before the performance starts, statues of the deities are escorted from the temple and placed in the temporary temple [Figure 3]. In case there are further factors that hinder the building of the temporary temple, a ‘‘sacred box’’ is constructed and placed above the audience to accommodate the deities’ statues [Figure 4]. Hence, all members of the troupe and the audience are conscious of the presence of the deities during the operatic performance.


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Figure 9 Players of the big gong and big cymbals are accompanying the actors’ stage movements. (19 June 1991; the old town center of Tai Po, the New Territories; Birthday of the Village God)

The presence of the deities however does not create a solemn atmosphere, as in a Christian church. In the theater, anyone is free to move around and engage in a variety of activities: greeting and banqueting with one’s old relations, commenting on the performance, predicting what is going to happen onstage, offering incense or praying to the deities, looking at people who play mahjong (a traditional game played with tiles) or other forms of gambling, and even joining in the gambling [Figures 5 and 6]. Hence, though considered ‘‘sacred merits,’’ the staging of sen gung operas is invariably carried out in a casual and secular atmosphere, where ideally men and deities are being entertained simultaneously.

GENERAL FEATURES OF CANTONESE OPERA PERFORMANCE The Vocal Style To outsiders of traditional Chinese culture including foreigners and paradoxically many local Hong Kongers, the high-pitched falsetto singing, as well as the loud and resonant percussion and instrumental playing in Cantonese opera, often


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Figure 10 Looking from stage left, the princess who is accompanying her own singing to entertain the barbarian duke in the play is in fact accompanied by a full ensemble of melodic instruments. The four instrumentalists captured in the photo are playing the two-stringed fiddle, saxophone in C, bamboo flute and amplified round-shaped lute respectively. (21 March 1990; Ping Shek village, Kowloon; Birthday of the King of Three Mountains)

discourage them from entering the theater. From a functional point of view, since the temporary theater is made of acoustically ineffective bamboo and tin-sheet [Figure 7], resonating woodblocks, drums, gongs, and cymbals are employed to accompany the actors’ stage movement [Figures 8 and 9], whereas five to ten melodic instruments are led by the penetrating two-string fiddle to accompany the singing [Figures 10, 11 and 12]. Before the incorporation of modern amplifying systems in Chinese opera performance, singers of the principal male and female roles (who often play the protagonists in the plays) developed a unique style of vocal production to facilitate the projection of their voices to a large crowd. To enable the audience’s perception of the speech and singing, this unique style of vocal production features the use of falsetto and a high register, to allow the voice to reach the ears of the audience. Nowadays, although most Chinese operatic genres are performed with amplification in mainland China and Hong Kong, this unique vocal style has been preserved and is considered the essence of Chinese operatic singing. In Cantonese opera, all young female roles are spoken and sung in this traditional style while the young male roles employ a natural voice production and lower vocal register. The adoption of the natural voice to replace the falsetto style among


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Figure 11 For enhancing the overall sound volume of the melodic accompaniment, the violin and saxophone in C have been commonly used in the Cantonese operatic ensemble in Hong Kong since the 1930s. (26 March 1991; Ho Sheung Heung village, Sheung Shui, the New Territories; Birthday of the Sacred God of the South Seas)

young male roles was introduced during the 1930s when amplification was first used in performances of Cantonese Opera. Up to the late 1990s, when contact-microphones were still not widely used in Cantonese opera performance in Hong Kong, actors had to rely on one to three microphones that were either put on stands or slung from above. As a performance invariably involved complicated and sophisticated stage movements, actor-singers often had to speak or sing in positions that were several feet away from the microphones [Figure 13]. Hence they had to control the positioning of their lips and teeth, and project their voices vigorously by expelling sufficient air through their wide-open mouths [Figure 14]. This explains why even though amplification has been employed in Cantonese opera performance for several decades, professional


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Figure 12 A closer look at another saxophone player. (6 June 1990; Pak Ngan Heung village, Mui Wo, Lantau Island; Birthday of the Civil and Military Gods)

Figure 13 The song and speech of two actresses are disseminated through two suspended microphones. (19 June 1991; the old town center of Tai Po, the New Territories; Birthday of the Village God)


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Figure 14 To cater to the audience in all directions and distances, actors often put on exaggerated facial expressions during performances. Though his or her mouth is often widely open to facilitate voice projection, a professional actor (especially of the female role) must also skillfully refine the shape of his=her mouth to maintain a certain degree of elegance. (18 April 1990; Leung Shuen Wan, High Island; Birthday of the Queen of Heaven)

actors of Cantonese opera still maintain a tedious daily regimen of practices and drills to keep their voices in shape; student actors must also go through a long process of vocal training before achieving a professional status.

THE IMPROVISATORY STYLE When asked how an actor is rated by both his or her colleagues and the audience, professional actors invariably identify ‘‘voice’’ as the primary criterion; it is followed by ‘‘appearance’’ and ‘‘performing technique.’’ Specifically, they are very


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Figure 15 The comic role actor who plays the ‘‘turtle demon’’ is improvising a series of comic episodes. (9 April 1989; Cheung Chau Island; Birthday of the King of the North)

conscious of the fact that when performing in a ritual theater where the audience’s attention could easily be diverted to other activities, a penetrating voice is indispensable in capturing the attention of the audience. Other than a good voice, actors also believe that the ability to improvise a short episode —be it comical, sorrowful, or affectionate; be it purely gestural or with speech or singing —is essential in attracting the audience. This belief is consistent with the present writer’s fieldwork observations: on occasions where an auction, a communal feast, lion-dance, or other activity is about to draw some audience members away from the performance, it is often the comic-role actor’s improvisatory jokes that delay their departure [Figure 15]. In one of my previous studies, I described and analyzed an episode which was improvisatorily added to a performance in order to prolong a joyful atmosphere within a scene. The episode lasted for six and a half minutes and included a passage of patter speech (accompanied by a series of pulses produced by the large woodblock), a sung passage (accompanied by violin, saxophone, and other melodic instruments) and numerous segments of plain speech interpolated at various points within the patter speech and sung passages. Instead of improvising


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Figure 16 Because limited land is available in urban areas, a small bamboo-tinsheet theater is erected here. Originally built in a suburban area decades ago, the temple is now surrounded by high-rises. (21 March 1990; Ping Shek village, Kowloon; Birthday of the King of Three Mountains)

Figure 17 The backdrop, wooden table and chairs are seen behind two actors. The accompanying ensemble is located at their right side. Some young fans are attracted to the proximal positions. (13 April 1990; Sai Wan on Cheung Chau Island; Birthday of the Queen of Heaven)


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Figure 18 Time and space are treated symbolically in operatic performances. Words that a character speaks to herself in her own mind are conventionally and stylistically delivered with the actress raising one of her arms and sleeves to create a symbolic ‘‘compartmental space.’’ Functionally, the actress’ primary task is to speak to the audience. (22 March 1989; Ap Lei Chau Island, south of Hong Kong Island; Birthday of the Sacred King of the South Seas)

‘‘freely,’’ the seven actors involved in the creation of the episode composed lyrics that consistently, coherently and interestingly elaborated the plot, and at the same time followed the structural constraints which include the number of syllables in a phrase and line, the rhyme scheme, the pitch content of the chosen mode, and the scheme of cadential notes [Chan 1998; 199–218]. Referred to as bau tou (‘‘exploding one’s belly’’), an actor is judged to be a good improviser not only when he or she is ‘‘adequately stuffed with materials’’ in his or her ‘‘belly,’’ but is also able to control the outburst and resultant ‘‘explosion.’’ THE STAGE MOVEMENTS Actors of Chinese opera often describe their gestures and stage movements as symbolic, formulaic, patterned, and dance-like; some actors characterize such gestures and movements as ‘‘beautification of those of real life.’’ As in vocal training, professional actors spend hours daily to practice and refine their gestures and movements, often following the aesthetic principles they have learned from their teachers. The aesthetic principles, however, do not prescribe every single detail of the gestures and movements. Rather, an actor has ample room to fill in


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Figure 19 A male general wearing a helmet and armor. The six ags at the back of the armor are emblems of his command. The general holds up a horsewhip with his right hand to symbolize that he is now on horseback; his left hand holds a symbolic rein. (18 February 1988; Sam Mun Tsai Village of Tai Po, the New Territories; Birthday of the Village God)

details as long as he or she follows the framework of the gestural and movement patterns and formulae. Actors are very conscious of the fact that no matter how hard they have practised and rehearsed, the quality of their performances depends greatly on their improvisatory elaborations, in which they take into consideration factors such as the predominant mood and tempo of the scene, and the space and time available. The size of space available to actors onstage is directly proportional to the size of the bamboo theater. Before the Hong Kong property market started to collapse in 1998, to ďŹ nd a piece of land for erecting a theater was by no means easy, especially in the urban areas. Nowadays, while traditional communities in the New Territories, outer islands, and suburban areas have more opportunities to build large theaters on public playgrounds, communal areas and construction sites awaiting development, many ritual operas staged in urban areas must be staged in smaller theaters [Figure 16]. In other words, Cantonese opera actors must adapt to different sizes of theater and stage. The amount of space onstage is further curtailed by the presence of the stage setting, stage properties, and other actors. To utilize the available space fully,


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Figure 20 Martial arts are major attractions in Cantonese opera performances. The feathers extending from the helmets of the female-role and male-role actors indicate that they are generals. This exaggerated symbolism enables the audience to identify the characters even from a distance. (18 April 1990; Leung Shuen Wan, High Island; Birthday of the Queen of Heaven)

Figures 21 and 22 With her helmet removed, the defeated empress is holding her weapon and a horsewhip; the latter symbolizes that she is riding a horse to ee for her life. In Figure 22, the empress has been captured by her rival. To express anger and agitation, the actress kneels down and twirls her hairpiece in the air for almost a hundred circuits. (25 February 1990; Lung Kwu Tan village, Tuen Mun of the New Territories; Initiation Rite for the Queen of Heaven’s Temple)


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Figures 21 and 22 Continued.

traditional Cantonese opera employs a minimal stage setting: the physical venue (e.g., a forest, a riverside, an imperial court, and so on) is represented by an image that is painted on the backdrop, in front of which are a wooden table and two chairs that collectively symbolize a bridge, a mountain, the emperor’s royal seat, a bed or other props [Figure 17]. The symbolic stage setting reinforces a symbolic use of space. For example, an actress singing or speaking in the front-stage area does not specify her actual location. She is regarded as speaking outside a house (and thus out of sight of people in the house) before she makes a movement crossing a symbolic threshold; only after such a stage movement can the audience tell that she is now in the house and may be seen by other characters. Unlike everyday life where we constantly ‘‘speak’’ silently to ourselves in our minds, words that an actor speaks to him or herself are delivered to the audience, with the actor raising his or her sleeve to create a symbolic ‘‘private space’’ [Figure 18]. In a battle scene where a general leads his soldiers to travel a long way, the actors walk in a circle onstage to signify their journey. Holding his weapon and horsewhip in his hands, the general goes through symbolic movements to mount and dismount his horse, which is in fact nonexistent [Figure 19]. The fight between rival parties is then performed using dance-like martial arts that often attract a large audience [Figure 20]. A defeated warrior is invariably symbolized by the removal of his helmet. Upon being


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Figures 23 to 28 A female-role actress is in the processes of applying her makeup: (23) spreading a creamy foundation on her cheeks and forehead; (24) putting blusher on her cheeks, eyelids and both sides of the nose; (25) darkening her eyebrows and drawing eye-lines and eye-shadows; (26) pasting hairpieces around her face to create an oval-shaped look; lipstick has been put on prior to this; (27) placing hairpins on the hairpieces. The final look is seen in Figure 28. (20 May 1987; Tai O of Lantau Island; Birthday of the Queen of Heaven)

captured, he repeatedly twirls his hairpiece in the air to express his anger and agitation [Figures 21 and 22]. Frequent opera-goers readily perceive the symbolic meanings of the gestures and stage movements. However, to guarantee that audience from all distances and directions could perceive equally well, the tradition prescribes that actors perform all gestures and movements in an exaggerated and magnified manner. Similarly, the actors’ makeup [Figures 23–28], face painting [Figures 29–30], and costumes [Figures 30–32] often employ sharp contrast in color, so as to allow an easy grasp of the actors’ facial expressions by the audience.


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Figure 24 A female-role actress is in the process of applying her makeup: Continued.

The Repertory The plays staged in a series of religious performances fall into two categories. ‘‘Ritualistic items’’ are plays that any troupe is required to perform; they include ‘‘Birthday Greetings from Eight Immortals,’’ ‘‘The Dance of Promotion,’’ ‘‘The Heavenly Maid Delivers Her Son,’’ ‘‘The Investiture of the Prime Minister of Six States,’’ and ‘‘Sealing the Stage’’ [Chan 1991: 54–58]. In addition, in case the bamboo theater is erected on a piece of land that has never been used for staging Chinese opera, the item entitled ‘‘Sacrificial Offering to the White Tiger’’ must be performed [Chan 2002b]. While the last two items involve religious taboos, the first four items all symbolize a search for good fortune in the forms of gaining longevity, promotion, prominence and male offspring. These four plays are usually performed at the first evening of the series; the first three plays are also performed in the afternoon of the main day. While the longest ritualistic item (i.e.,


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Figure 25

A female-role actress is in the process of applying her makeup: Continued.

the Investiture of the Prime Minister of Six States) takes one to one-and-one-half hours to perform, the shorter items are highly condensed, abridged and symbolic; the shortest ones often last for two minutes or less. Besides ritualistic items, a troupe hired for a series is also required to perform a number of main items, which contain long and elaborate stories, last about three to four hours, and are chosen by the community. The choice of the community depends on its members’ preference for subjects and the specialization of the actors whom they hire. Yet subject matter involving a happy reunion (whether on earth or in heaven), the birth or survival of a son, and the rise to an extremely prominent position, are often welcome to the audience. Such ‘‘formulaic’’ endings or climactic episodes however do not always undermine the quality of such major plays. No matter what type of subject matter is portrayed, such plays invariably unfold complicated, elaborate, dramatic and emotional details that


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Figure 26 A female-role actress is in the process of applying her makeup: Continued.

never fail to move their fans. To classify such plays broadly into types of subject matter, like ‘‘tragedy’’ or ‘‘comedy’’, is too simplistic. The popular repertory of the Cantonese opera in contemporary Hong Kong includes hundreds of plays. Though new plays are created from time to time,3 most of the popular items were created or adapted in the 1950s and 1960s; only a few items can be traced back to the 1930s. Plays such as The Floral Princess (1957) [Chan 2002a], The Purple Hairpin (1957), The Reunion Led by the White Rabbit (1958), Indebtedness, Hatefulness and Endless Love at the Phoenix Chamber (1962), Battling the Barbarians amid Thundering Sounds of Gongs, Drums and Windpipes (1962) [Chan 2002c] and The Swallow Returns (c. 1978), are among the most beloved ones. While all of these six plays portray happy reunions at their conclusions, The Floral Princess, White Rabbit and Battling the Barbarians concern the survival of the heir, The Swallow Returns and Endless Love concern the birth and survival of sons.


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Figure 27

A female-role actress is in the process of applying her makeup: Continued.

It is interesting to note that a number of evolutionary psychologists have been studying the adaptive relationship between human behavior and emotion. For example, some researchers propose that the emotional label of ‘‘happiness’’ might be rooted in our ancestors’ sense of satisfaction in achieving their goals or subgoals [Sloboda and Juslin 2001: 76–77] in pictoAs an emotional label, ‘‘goodness’’ is expressed in the form of graphs dated 3,000 years ago in the Shang Dynasty (1600–1027 B.C.) of China. The pictograph simply portrays a baby boy in the arms of a woman, and later became the Chinese character , the word for ‘‘goodness.’’ Perhaps this explains why a Cantonese opera that concludes with the reunion of the father and his baby boy in the arms of his wife never fails to please the audience [Figure 33]. Moreover, music, dance and drama offered to the deities are deemed sources of ‘‘happiness’’ and ‘‘enjoyment,’’ probably because the Chinese character has a


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Figure 28 A female-role actress is in the process of applying her makeup: Continued.

double meaning: ‘‘music’’ (pronounced ‘‘ngok’’) and ‘‘enjoyment’’ (pronounced ‘‘lok’’). In fact, in ancient China, ngok embodied instrumental playing, singing, poetry (i.e., formulaic uses of proto-language utterances in ‘‘prelanguage’’ eras), dance, acrobatics and drama [Liang 1985: 11, 54]; many scholars have also noted that ngok served as an offering to the gods and ancestors [Falkenhausen 1993: 27, 41] and played important roles in shamanistic rituals [Chang 1983: 47–48, 55].

CONCLUSION Judging from a functional point of view, the stylistic features of Cantonese opera are highly structured and closely tied to the performance context: the genre has been formulating, selecting, and preserving variations which have proved to be profitable to its survival. In other words, Cantonese opera constantly revitalizes


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Figure 29 The comic role actor of Figure 15 is painting his face to portray his special character: the turtle demon. (9 April 1989; Cheung Chau Island; Birthday of the King of the North)

Figure 30 A village girl dresses herself in a funny way and pretends to be insane so as to scare away the evil prime minister who forces her to become his concubine. The large bundle of beard symbolizes the advanced age of the prime minister, whose evil nature in signiďŹ ed by the predominantly white color of his face painting. (22 March 1989; Ap Lei Chau Island, south of Hong Kong Island; Birthday of the Sacred God of the South Seas)


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Figures 31 and 32 A princess wears elaborate hairpins, colorful silk-embroidered robes, whereas the daughter (32) of a duke who has lost his fortune and royal favor only puts on simple garments. (9 April 1987; Tsing Yi Island; Birthday of the Real and Great King; 8 February 1990; Ting Kok village, Tai Po, the New Territories; Birthday of King Gwan, the God of War and Righteousness)

itself by negotiating the performance context. During these processes of negotiation, many stylistic variations are being preserved in order to fulfill functional demands — to attract an audiences’ attention, withstand competition,4 and arouse strong emotions among the audience — before they are judged aesthetically. When isolated from their context, one can never account for the persistence of certain variations while others become extinct. As a tool of research and documentation, still photography ‘‘extends our perception’’ [Collier and Collier 1986: 5] and is as classic, basic, simple, user-friendly, retrieval-friendly, and powerful as a pen and a notebook [Myers 1992: 39], though its unique proficiency in capturing visual phenomena is counter-balanced by its handicap in documenting the dynamic and audio aspects of a genre of performing


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Figure 32

Continued.

Figure 33 The ďŹ nal scene of the play The Swallow Returns, which features the happy reunion of the prince, his wife and their baby. (9 April 1987; Tsing Yi Island; Birthday of the Real and Great King)


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Figure 34 As an elevated terrace, the stage enables the performance to be seen by a large crowd of audience. Occasionally young fans create their own vantage point by climbing up the staircase that leads to the stage. (27 August 1990; Yau Tong, Kowloon; Rite of PuriďŹ cation for The Ghost Festival)

Figure 35 Violating the contextual convention by advancing to a vantage point that is proximate to the sound sources, one of the younger fans is covering her ears to avoid the deafening percussion music and penetrating falsetto singing. (13 April 1990; Sai Wan on Cheung Chau Island; Birthday of the Queen of Heaven)


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art. However, some aspects of the unique soundscape of Cantonese opera performance — the deafening percussion, high-pitched and falsetto singing — are indirectly documented in photos that capture the reactions of some young fans [Figures 34 and 35]. The 35 photographs used in this article are the product of the research project entitled ‘‘Photography and Videography Documentation of Chinese Opera in Hong Kong’’ conducted by the author from 1987 to 1991.5 The 10,000 slides produced by the project were taken by Mr. Kenny Ip, a young professional photographer in Hong Kong, in collaboration with the author. Prior to the start of this project, the author conducted extensive fieldwork from 1984 to 1986 and had established significant rapport with the majority of Cantonese opera troupe employees. Photos taken by the author with amateur equipment were shown to and discussed with Mr. Ip during the briefing sessions. In the processes of the documentation project, Mr. Ip spent considerable time talking to various troupe employees and observing their activities both backstage and onstage. Thus, a ‘‘cooperative and collaborative photography,’’ as suggested by Eric Michaels [1991: 271–274], was employed. The documentation project attempted not only to capture Cantonese opera performance in its traditional context, but also to capture the unique ‘‘charisma’’ of Cantonese operatic artists. If the 35 photographs shown with this article have achieved this latter goal, perhaps they further reinforce Eric Michaels’ inspiring words: ‘‘It is an article of aesthetic faith that the product of . . . panicked [and premature] picture-taking will be images whose rhetoric presents the subjects as alien objects, which partly explains why there are so many bad pictures . . .’’ [Michaels 1991: 273].

ACKNOWLEDGMENT I would like to thank Professor Michael E. McClellan of the Music Department, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, for his suggestions in revising this article.

NOTES 1. Romanizations used in this article are according to the Cantonese dialect and based on the system designed by Wong Lik; see Chan [1991: xv]. 2. Though seldom explicity mentioned, such religious events are understood in terms of Taoism and Buddhism. With each of the photographs selected for this article, the date of photo-taking, the names of the community and ritualistic events are given for reference. 3. For example, 18, 31, and 38 plays were premiered in Hong Kong in 1999, 2000, and 2001, respectively. 4. Normally ‘‘competition’’ refers to other religious and secular activities such as banquets, gambling and so on. However, a few informants have reported that some Hong Kong communities decades ago had hired two troupes to perform on nearby stages; known as ‘‘operas in competition’’ such performances are still occasionally staged in well-to-do communities in mainland China. 5. I wish to thank Kodak (Far East) Limited for funding the final stage of this project.


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REFERENCES Chan, Sau Y. 1991 Improvisation in a Ritual Context: The Music of Cantonese Opera. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press. 1998 Exploding the Belly: Improvisation in Cantonese Opera. In In the Course of Performance: Studies in the World of Musical Improvisation. Bruno Nettl and Melinda Russell, eds. Pp. 199–218. London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2002a ‘‘To Die or to Survive: Evolutionary Aspects of Cantonese Opera Plots.’’ Paper delivered at the ‘‘Death and Life-world’’ conference organized by the Office of University General Education, held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 27 March 2002. 2002b ‘‘Evolutionary Aspects of Stage Initiation in Cantonese Opera: The White Tiger Ritual Revisited.’’ Paper delivered at the ‘‘Chime 2002 European Foundation for Chinese Music Research Conference’’ held at University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, 27 July 2002. 2002c ‘‘China Imagined in Three Plays of Cantonese Opera, 1950s–1960s.’’ Paper delivered at the ‘‘Chinese Traditional Civilization and the Contemporary World’’ conference organized by the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, held at Moscow, 27 August 2002. Chang, Kuang Chi 1983 Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press. Collier, John, Jr., and Malcolm Collier 1986 Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. Darwin, Charles Robert 1859=1968 The Origin of Species (edited with an introduction by J.W. Burrow). London: Penguin Books Limited. Dolby, William 1976 A History of Chinese Drama. London: Paul Elek. Falkenhausen, Lothar von 1993 Suspended Music: Chime Bells in the Culture of Bronze Age China. Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford: University of California Press. Leakey, Richard 1995 The Origin of Humankind. London: Phoenix. Liang, Mingyue 1985 Music of the Billion: An Introduction to Chinese Musical Culture. New York: Heinrichshofen Editions. Michaels, Eric 1991 A Primer of Restrictions on Picture-Taking in Traditional Areas of Aboriginal Australia. Visual Anthropology, 4(3–4): 259–275.


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Miller, Geoffrey 2000 Evolution of Human Music through Sexual Selection. In The Origins of Music. N.L. Wallin, B. Merker, and S. Brown, eds. Pp. 329–360. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press. Myers, Helen 1992 Fieldwork. In Ethnomusicology: An Introduction. Helen Myers, ed. Pp. 21– 49. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company Sloboda, John, and Patrik Juslin 2001 Psychological Perspectives on Music and Emotion. In Music and Emotion: Theory and Research. Patrik N. Juslin and John A. Sloboda, eds. Pp. 71– 104. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Storr, Anthony 1992 Music and the Mind. London: Harper Collins Publishers. Wallin, N.L., B. Merker, and S. Brown 2000 An Introduction to Evolutionary Musicology. In The Origins of Music. N.L. Wallin, B. Merker, and S. Brown, eds. Pp. 3–24. Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press. Ward, Barbara E. 1979 Not Merely Players: Drama, Art and Ritual in Traditional China. Man, (n.s.), 14(1): 18–39.

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