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December 5, 2009

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Cantonese opera fights extinction

HONG Kong artist Christie To is only 16, but her aspirations to stardom are rooted in a centuries-old art form near extinction: Cantonese opera.

In frenetic, capitalist Hong Kong, where Cantopop and film stars hold most sway over teenagers, To is a rarity.

Cast in the main role of a man for a professional production of "Fearless Sword," normally performed by older actors, To is one of 10 young Cantonese Opera artists who have been striving to resurrect the ancient Chinese art form with modern audiences.

"We're trying to make Cantonese opera more youthful, to change impressions that it's an art for the old only," said Christie's mother, Marilyn To, who heads the government-funded Hong Kong young talent Cantonese opera troupe.

"There must be new life and the younger generation needs to take up the baton."

Cantonese opera, one of the major categories of Chinese operas, targets tens of millions of people speaking the lively dialect, mostly in Guangdong Province and the cities of Hong Kong and Macau.

Following a golden age in the 1950s and 60s when the leading practitioners of Cantonese opera -- which involves singing, acting and sometimes martial arts -- spilled into Hong Kong from Chinese mainland, the indigenous art form has been on a steady decline.

"My heart has slowly been turning grey," said old master Man Chin-Shui who has devoted 60-years of his life to practicing and teaching Cantonese opera, mostly in Hong Kong. "To revive Cantonese opera again in Hong Kong will be very difficult."

The United Nations recently proclaimed Cantonese opera as one of the "masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity."

But in Hong Kong, the recognition may be too late.

It has proven an uphill battle to find younger audiences and performers given its musty image, uncertain career prospects and extreme hardships in mastering the art form.

"If you don't put time into it, it's not meaningful," said Doris Kwan, one of the members of To's young opera troupe. "But it's very difficult to make a living," added Kwan, who holds two part-time jobs.

Man said the hope for the future is on the mainland.

"You can't rely on these youngsters as the next generation, I think the real successors for Cantonese Opera are in the mainland," he said.


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