The Feminine Performance and the Future of Cantonese Opera
The female emphasis expresses itself both on and off stage. A number of people (again, mostly women) take weekend singing lessons regularly, but most of the classes are created for performance - students usually start their classes a few months prior to the performance, whether to learn a new song or to review an old piece. In general, traditional Chinese plays can be divided into civil and martial plays according to their performance style. Civil plays emphasize singing, speaking, miming and light dancing, while martial plays foreground acrobatic skills. Actors usually begin their training at a very young age, and the basic training covers both vocal and physical techniques. Since most amateur performers did not start practicing the art until age thirty or even later, the training usually focuses on singing skills rather than acrobatic movements. As a result, the general performance style leans toward civil rather than military modes. An amateur performance usually includes mostly singing and light dancing (sometimes as a group spectacle done by youngsters), rather than serious acrobatic movements. When fighting scenes are staged, the fighting appears more moderate because the masters are well on in years and the amateurs are not trained in serious martial roles.
Cantonese opera is not only an art practiced mostly by women, it is also seen as a feminine art because of the popular female-oriented themes of the plays. Popular plays include The Red Chamber (a love story), The Sword Revenge (a woman's suicide), Emperor Han Meets Madam Wei (a love story), Dream of Sui Palace (a story about a princess), Li Huiniang (a female ghost's story), Flower Princess (a story about a princess), and Western Beauty (a story of a legendary beauty). Most of them have women as the leading characters, and their male counterparts are usually also played by women. Traditionally, impersonation by the opposite sex has not been seen as a limitation in performance style, as good actors can transcend gender to portray the opposite sex as well as or better than non-gender-benders. However, without an established training system, these women performers largely remain "women" on stage. Linda Lee (Lin Caihua), with her low voice and imposing stature, is the rare woman who is seen as a perfect male impersonator.
The dominance of women is an important factor in determining the repertoire. It is worth noting how much the content and performance style have changed since the first performance of Cantonese opera in the U.S. in 1852. The play bill of Tong Hook Tong's first performance consisted of four numbers: the opening piece Eight Genii was a spectacle with both male and female characters, the second and third pieces were plays about male heroes, and the fourth piece, The Defeated Revenge, is unidentifiable. Although at least two pieces were about male heroes, they were still performed in the civil style. However, two nights later, the ticket price dropped significantly, and an advertisement emphasized the company's "feats of skill, vaulting, tumbling and dramatic performance" (Alta California, October 20, 1852). Since Chinese singing was considered unbearable, the Chinese language unrecognizable, and Chinese stories unconvincing, fantastic acrobatics and gorgeous costume seemed to be the only attraction in Cantonese opera for non-Chinese in the early period. The aforementioned advertisement in Figaro (November 14, 1878) was for a "Dramatic, Acrobatic and Gymnastic Company." Spectacles and acrobatics have been the traditional way to reach non-Chinese audiences since the nineteenth century, whereas the "drama" is probably reserved for Chinese only. Without acrobatics and gymnastics, one might wonder if Cantonese opera would still be attractive to the contemporary U.S. general audience, tourists, or even ABCs.
Samuel Wong, a CPA, opera-lover, and regular patron of Cantonese opera performances, believes that new plays, performance spaces, and English translations are necessary for transmitting the traditional art to the next generation. Both he and his wife Elaine Wong are the main force behind the "Saving the Great Star Theater" campaign. He dreams of renovating the old theatre to include rehearsal and training space, as well as rooms to house visiting artists. Opera themes and stories, he argues, should be "modernized." The new bills, both in English and Chinese, should attract audiences both from inside and outside of the Chinese community (interview, July 8, 2001).
Stacy Fong, a major participant from the third generation, launched a website for the Bay Area Cantonese Opera artists in 2002. As the daughter of Emma Fong, an important figure from the middle generation, she has been "performing" small parts since childhood, but her more serious involvement started in 2000. Artistic (dance and piano), athletic (martial arts and figure skating), and multi-lingual (in English, Chinese, Spanish and Russian), Miss Fong is now pursuing a graduate degree in Business Administration. She thinks it is highly possible to make Cantonese opera as accessible to non-Chinese as Italian opera is. "The key is in driving Cantonese opera into the proper publicity channels and promoting it in the proper manner to the right audiences." That is the main reason she built the website, to "serve as a connection between the old tradition and the modern day, between the Chinese culture and the American culture." Although she is clearly the most active member of the third generation, she insists that she only does it "for fun and to relieve stress" (Interview, January 27, 2003). Who, then, is in a position to lead Cantonese opera to a brighter future?
As the population of Chinatown seems likely always to be renewed by new immigrants, one can imagine seeing the repetition of the three-generation pattern: the retired masters, the active second generation, and a small third generation. The first generation (Chinese speakers) passes on their professional art to the second generation (who read and speak both English and Chinese), but it is difficult to transmit the art to the third generation, as most of them will not even learn to read Chinese. Literacy (in Chinese) is important as all the songs are written in an archaic, poetic language. Even the vernacular dialogue is in an elevated style. Much of the meaning will be lost through the process of transmission (from Chinese-speaking, to bi-lingual, to English-speaking generation). The same observations apply to play appreciation among the audience. Unless there is a major influx of young professional actors from Hong Kong or China, Cantonese opera in the Bay Area has to rely on the middle generation and remain amateur. The amateur status reflects the Chinese American dilemma: it is essential for Cantonese opera to remain amateur for its survival, but will this status also mark the perpetual immigrant status for this art in the New World? Will Cantonese opera in the Bay Area always be seen as non-established and peripheral, as Chinese Americans, no matter how many generations later, are still seen as transient sojourners?