Issue 2.1 Homepage

Article Contents
·The Early History of Chinese Immigrants and Chinese Immigrant Theatre
·Gendered Performance for a Gendered Audience
·Women Then - On and Off Stage
·Women Now - On and Off Stage
·The Feminine Performance and the Future of Cantonese Opera
·Works Cited

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Daphne Lei, "Can You Hear Me?: The Female Voice and Cantonese Opera in the San Francisco Bay Area" (page 5 of 7)

Women Now - On and Off Stage

The 1906 earthquake virtually eliminated San Francisco Chinatown. A Chinese community was established in Oakland before a new Chinatown was rebuilt in San Francisco. Today's Chinese communities spread across the East Bay and the Peninsula. With the boom in the Silicon Valley, new Chinese wealth has usually gathered outside of San Francisco, as many newcomers prefer to reside in the suburbs. San Francisco's Chinatown, continuously visited by tourists, has actually become a token Chinatown, both for Chinese and non-Chinese.

Although Chinese immigration to the Bay Area has continued for over a century, the recent major influx of Cantonese opera artists started in the 1980s, after China's promulgation of its Open Door Policy. Master Pak Chiu Hung (Bai Qiuhong) and Madam Lam Siu Kwan (Lin Xiaoqun, Pak's wife), Madam Liang Jing, and Master Wong Chi-Ming (Huang Zhiming) are the major senior figures, the master teachers, the sifu (shifu) in the Bay Area Cantonese opera circle. Once glittering stars, these retirees now devote their time to educating local people, hoping to perpetuate this old theatrical tradition. Most of them have established their own theatre organizations, teach Cantonese opera classes on weekends, assist students in productions, and occasionally perform themselves.

At first glance, the three schools (Pak and Lam, Liang, Wong) are gender-balanced, but a closer look at the people who are actually involved (whether in the classroom or in productions) reveals that women play a much more significant role than men in today's Cantonese opera circle. In general, three generations of people are involved in this art: on the most senior level are the sifu masters, most of them now in their sixties or even seventies. The youngest generation is the so-called ABC (American-born Chinese) generation, for whom English is a native language. But the major power in preserving Cantonese opera today comes from the middle generation, which consists mostly of middle-class, middle-aged women. Most of them came to this country when they were young children and grew up listening to Cantonese opera songs, which were "pop music" for their parents or grandparents. For many of them, the familiar sound of Cantonese opera is the only memory of their Chinese home. Many find themselves revisiting their childhood memories of Cantonese opera after they are socio-economically established, and taking on the transmission of the traditional art in a rather non-traditional way.

Although casual gatherings for Cantonese opera karaoke-singing take place fairly often, the practice of amateur Cantonese opera in the Bay Area is more often production-oriented. Performers start taking weekend singing and movement lessons from the sifu-masters months before the performance. Cantonese opera productions in the Bay Area today are very costly for a few reasons: there is not enough local technical and musical support, so set, costume, and musicians have to be imported; the lack of rehearsal and performance space increases the expense significantly; the lack of professional actors and the short runs (usually one performance) make it impossible for box office receipts to cover production costs. Therefore, fund-raising becomes the most important aspect of a production. Wealthy patrons are essential, and very often, these patrons are performers themselves.

The middle generation is crucial for the survival of Cantonese opera in the Bay Area. Nancy Wong, a registered nurse by profession and a major "player" in Cantonese opera (both on and off stage), identifies two kinds of women from the middle generation. The first are professionals, mothers, and housewives who pursue Cantonese opera as a pastime outside of their busy schedule. This group consists of performers and volunteers who donate time, energy, and money collectively. The second category is women from affluent families who have the means to hire professional stars from Hong Kong or China and stage big shows. Very often, they star in one or two scenes themselves. Without this kind of generous support, audiences would not have a chance to see "pros" in the Bay Area. After a typical period of "drifting away from Chinatown" in her youth, Ms. Wong "revisited" Cantonese opera in 1985: "[I] just happened to be in Chinatown one day, and saw a poster of an opera troupe from Mainland China, and that got me started all over again. Now a "Cantonese opera nut," she sings and supports her friends by donating hours or purchasing tickets. She even traveled to Hong Kong to see her favorite actors perform (interview, February 11, 2003).

Laura Ma, another important player from the middle generation, was the producer of a Tri-Valley charity performance in 2001 (July 8, 2001). Although she calls herself a non-active member because of her status as a "full-time mother, worker, and housewife," she managed to perform in two scenes (Taming of the Royal Princess, Parts I and II) and raised money for two charity organizations and three hundred tickets for senior home residents (interview, February 11, 2003). At the rehearsal I attended, she proudly showed me the headpiece she had just acquired from China at a cost of $400. She pointed out the "expensiveness" of being in a production: performers are responsible for their own costume and headpieces, singing lessons, and sometimes tickets for friends and charity donation (interview, June 23, 2001). Ms. Ma will also star in a full-length play The Lioness Roars in July, 2003.

Less than a century ago, Cantonese opera was still a men's art, but now the survival of the art relies heavily on women in the Bay Area. What has happened? Why did this transformation take place? Nancy Wong thinks that the "more romantic and passionate species" really fall for the theatricality and romanticism of Cantonese opera, whereas men are "too macho for this type of the art" (interview, February 11, 2003). It is difficult for these women to believe Cantonese opera will ever become a gender-balanced art at the amateur level. According to Laura Ma, Cantonese opera is an art that requires a lot of "patience, pressure, learning effort, money and time," which seems an impossible task for a man (interview, February 11, 2003). But is it really some intrinsically feminine quality of the art that attracts women?

To answer this question, I consider it illuminating to look at two aspects from the opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean: the immigrant mentality (which resembles the "frontier spirit" in certain respects) and the Confucius value system. Both systems reinforce patriarchy: men should be at the forefront to support the family financially, to participate in society, and to be responsible for the family's reputation. Women, on the other hand, should stay in the domestic realm and act as supporters for the frontier-builders. Man and woman work together as a family. This belief is still strong, and even established women I have talked to often express their success in subordination to their husbands. A wife in a family business often considers herself as a person "merely helping out" rather than an equal business partner. Participation in Cantonese opera can be viewed in this light. On the surface, it appears that women enjoy Cantonese opera because they are attracted to this "feminine" art; their husbands do not object because this is a "healthy" pastime for "wealthy" wives. Men, on the other hand, will not devote their time and energy to this art because they have to concentrate on "making it" - for themselves and for the family. At a different level, women's participation in Cantonese opera also provides a social, economic, and political connection to the Chinese community, which also benefits husbands and families. The performance program provides space for advertisement for a husband's or family's business while donations to charities secure prestige and social status for the family. The performance thus weaves an interconnected web for the Chinese community: in addition to enjoying themselves in singing and preserving a dying art, the women participants also contribute a great deal to the consolidation of their community. The domestic supporters in the family now have become the public supporters for the community. In this public arena of Cantonese opera, women are no longer "wives" or "mothers," they are legendary beauties, princesses and goddesses; sometimes they are even "men" who dominate - scholars, officials, or princes.

S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.