25 February 2020
The opening of the West Kowloon Cultural District can provide a big boost to Cantonese opera. Photo:
The opening of the West Kowloon Cultural District can provide a big boost to Cantonese opera. Photo:

Technology to spur Cantonese opera revival

Cantonese opera is undoubtedly a part of the cultural landscape of Hong Kong. It’s on the streets, on TV, and in village performances, enriching the film, music and visual experiences in the city.

But the art has been on the backburner; young people undoubtedly have become distant, a worrying specter for advocates.

Enthusiasts could look to the experience of the United Kingdom – in particular, Shakespearean plays that have been revitalized with digital initiatives, relevant political themes, star power from Hollywood actors, and keeping the Bard’s works in focus. To stay popular, art forms must maintain their relevance.

There is an ecosystem for Cantonese opera in Hong Kong – Yau Ma Tei, Ko Shan and Sunbeam Theatres form the nucleus of this still vibrant community. The government has been steadily increasing its support for Chinese opera in the last decade, and the next step is opening the West Kowloon Cultural District (WCKD) later in the year.

Xiqu is an umbrella term for Chinese Opera, and the new center will place Cantonese opera at the forefront, particularly as it has recently become a UNESCO-recognized art form. But the battle is to fight for the eyeballs of an increasingly disinterested youth. Can the Xiqu Centre do this?

On paper, it indeed features an impressive design, with an atrium on the ground level to serve as community gathering point. Upstairs is a Grand Theatre and a smaller Tea House Theatre on the first floor. Its impressive design and mixed-use facilities might just be the tonic for people jaded by controversies surrounding recent public projects.

The Xiqu Centre serves as a litmus test, and its reception will be critical to seeing how the public perceives the district overall. Of course, a building in many ways is just a symbol. The most important challenge is having the talent and then being able to push Chinese and Cantonese opera into the digital realm.

“For me, the most imminent thing we need to do is get the performers. To train the people to have the right artistic qualities takes time, to digitize something, it doesn’t take time. Once we have good content, we can do things like streaming. We carried out a live streaming of a teahouse performance which was well received, it was 70 minutes, we broadcasted it through YouTube and Facebook with English subtitles, and had 40,000 viewings,” Louis Yu, executive director, performing arts, of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, told me on site at the WKCD.

For Yu, digital initiatives are essential, but it is important to keep at the forefront the essence of the experience. “Even small venues can attract large audiences in the digital world, if you do it right. For us, working in performing arts, we need to make a decision, whether we want digital culture to help us engage people or do we want them to come and see the show in person?” says Yu.

The key is finding a balance between tradition and technology. “It’s like sports 30 years ago. For performing arts, we are finding a model for this, but sooner or later the technology will help us make this decision. With VR and technology advancement, people will see something like 90 percent of the real experience in 10 to 20 years’ time. But not now, we want people to feel the togetherness, and we think live performance and digital performance will make peace with each other,” Yu adds.

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EJI contributor