Cantonese opera: Roles, techniques and traditions
The Chinese love naming things in the most poetic, brief way possible. The roles, techniques and traditions of Cantonese opera are no exception. If you haven’t caught a show before, learn these traditional concepts that explain the magic...
Four skills and five methods (四功五法)
The bread and butter. The tools of the trade for young performers and seasoned veterans alike. The ‘four skills and five methods’ refers to the four techniques a performer must master, which include singing, speaking, acting and movement, and the five bodily avenues with which a performer can express them, namely your hands, eyes, body, feet and hair. Note: with hair, swinging your ponytail expresses grief or anguish.
Types of plays
There are two main types of plays. There are mou (武) which are tales of battles and feature acrobatics and much physical movement. On the other hand, mun (文) are stories which emphasise scholarly or personal themes such as love and social struggles. Characters in a particular type of play must be dressed in certain attire. Look for the feathered antennae in mou plays which signify generals and warriors, or the water sleeves, which are long, white pieces of fabric that accentuate movement, in mun plays, which help emphasise a character’s elegance.
Types of roles
There are four types of roles usually found in Cantonese opera productions. These are the sang (生), the male roles including warriors and scholars, the daan (旦), which are the various female roles, the zing (淨), animal characters signified by more intricate face-paint, and the cau (丑), who are the jesters. Each of these roles has its own subdivisions depending on the opera, such as the mou dan (武旦) or the mun mou sang (文武生). Certain stars are known for playing particular types of roles well.
Cantonese opera: Who's who
With an almost 200-year history, Hong Kong’s Cantonese opera has seen its host of mega-stars. We select five of the absolute must-knows...
1. Yam Kim-fai (任劍輝)
Perhaps best known for her vocal versatility, Yam Kim-fai (pictured left) began formal training at the tender age of 14, though her interest began much earlier than that. She was among the migrant wave of performers who fled to Hong Kong and Macau when Guangdong fell under Japanese control during World War II. She was much-loved during Cantonese opera’s boom in the 50s and 60s, most frequently performing alongside fellow legend Bak Sheut-sin. She even received a ‘Google doodle’ commemorating what would’ve been her 103rd birthday in February.
2. Bak Sheut-sin (白雪仙)
Inseparable from her partnership with Yam Kim-fai, Bak (pictured right) was also part of the mid-20th century boom for Cantonese opera. She has received many awards for her contributions to the art form, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan in 2001 and a Gold Bauhinia Star in 2013. She is still alive at the ripe old age of 90.
3. Lee Hoi-cheun (李海泉)
Cantonese opera would be amiss without a great dose of humour and one of the greatest cauactors was Lee Hoi-cheun. He, like Law Ka-ying, transitioned well to film work too but he’s remembered most for his 1940 tour with the Cantonese Opera Company. It was on this tour that he became father to the greatest Chinese film icon of all time, Bruce Lee.
4. Leung Sing-bor (梁醒波)
Leung Sing-bor OBE first gained fame as a Cantonese opera actor in the 1930s and 40s, but is perhaps best known for pioneering TVB, becoming one of its first actors. He also chaired the seminal Chinese Artist Association of Hong Kong from 1965 to 1970, which was and is still instrumental in carrying on Cantonese opera as a cultural heritage.
5. Law Ka-ying (羅家英)
Perhaps the most recognisable legend on this list, Law Ka-ying is still active and still revered due to both his opera and film work over the years. Primarily acting in roles for comedy films with Stephen Chow and Ronald Cheng, he views himself as a ‘patron’ of the art, curating the annual iterations of the Rising Stars of Cantonese Opera.