Growing up in Chinatown in the 70s and 80s, I had abundant opportunities to watch Cantonese operas. They were staged on the streets, almost all year round, by the many Cantonese clans and associations around Chinatown. During the seventh to tenth lunar month of the year, they were especially visible due to the various festival celebrations, such as the Hungry Ghosts festival (中元节), Seventh Maiden festival (乞巧节), Mid-Autumn festival (中秋节) and the Nine Emperor Gods festival (九皇爺诞). Beyond the streets, we also followed opera troupes from Hong Kong and China whenever they staged shows at the Chinatown Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre (牛车水人民剧场), Yeung Ching School at Ann Siang Hill (养正学校) and the National Theatre at Fort Canning (国家剧场). We had to buy tickets for these shows. I remember the halls were all open-aired so people could stand outside the halls to watch for free. Some organisers ended up putting black curtains all around to dissuade outside people from crowding around the halls. By the mid-80s, Yeung Ching School and National Theatre were demolished. Only Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre survived to this day as a refurbished and air-conditioned venue for Chinese opera, patronised mostly by the elderly.
I remember I had a secondary school friend EK, who also liked to watch Chinese operas. We even talked about the operas in school. Our other schoolmates must have found us weird! As late as the 1990s, my then girlfriend (now my wife) and I attended two paid Cantonese operas together with this friend EK. One show was held at the Conference Hall at Shenton Way and another at the Victoria Theatre. I still remember the shows were the ‘Magic Lantern’ (宝莲灯) and ‘The Carp’ (鲤鱼) respectively. Thinking back, they were such weird dates with a girlfriend!
Today, I still like Cantonese operas, however I don’t follow them fervently anymore, and probably only watch one show every 2 to 3 years with my mother and/or with my aunt. Honestly, I still don’t catch the lyrics of the songs and continue to rely on the Chinese and English subtitles usually beamed on the sides of the stage.
Backdrops, Props, Lighting and Fighting inspired me
Back to the old days. While my aunt was captivated by the songs, dance-like movements, stories and characters, I was more intrigued by the backdrop, props, lighting and the fighting scenes. I loved the 3D effect of the backdrop and props. I loved the play of lights, curtains and quick changes in scenes. I was especially impressed by the ‘blink-of-an-eye’ morphing of one scene to another as the light dimmed or when the curtain dropped. While the music continued to play, an ornately decorated palace would morph into a misty mountain top. I also liked operas with lots of acrobatic fighting with spears and swords. I remember a scene in which an artiste jumped over a huge burning cauldron. The scene looked so real and awesome. Actually, the cauldron was just a flat piece of plywood cut into the shape of a cauldron and painted in 3-D effect. A flapping piece of red cloth shone under a yellow light simulated the flames. Dry ice added to the boiling effect. As to the artiste who jumped over the huge cauldron . . . he must be real?!
As I wrote the above paragraph, it dawned upon me that it was probably these scenes which inspired my style of art – realism and 3D effect. My street arts at Everton Road now seemed a reflection of me, captivated by the hand-painted backdrops and props of those bygone days.
Wouldn’t the above drawing of the Cantonese Opera stage make an interesting street art too?