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Arts

Making Cantonese Opera Great Again

Hong Kong composer Edward Li bids to revive a moribund art with a little help from The Donald

Trump on Show is a curious beast.   © AP

HONG KONG -- Mrs. Lam, an elderly Cantonese opera regular, is waiting for family outside Hong Kong's beloved Sunbeam Theatre on a drizzly Friday night.

The light from the venue's neon sign cuts through the murk and bathes the crowds in a dull orange glow. Some are heading to their homes here in the largely residential North Point district. Some are walking into the venerable Sunbeam to check out Edward Li Kui-ming's latest offering: Yuet kek dak long pou, or Trump on Show.

"I'm not sure if I'm going to like this, but I'm willing to give it a try," says Lam. She's an opera fan, and has been since she saw her first live performance in the 1960s. "I still enjoy a weekend show, but I just don't want to go all the way to the Xiqu," she adds, referring to the state-of-the-art Xiqu Centre in the emerging West Kowloon Cultural District, which has been positioned as the new home of Cantonese opera.

She shrugs when asked what she's expecting of the headline-grabbing show, which features American President Donald Trump as a key character. "I'd rather not see more of that man than I have to, but if it gets younger people to come and see an opera I'm fine with it. As long as the story works I'll have no problems. We'll see."

"We'll see" is the prevailing observation this opening night in mid-April. The sheer number of young people and Westerners attending is unusual for a Cantonese opera (English translations, which this one has, are rare). The inclusion of key moments in history, notably President Richard Nixon's famous summit meeting with Mao Zedong, helped pique interest.

Actor Loong Koon Tin dressed as Donald Trump stage a rehearsal of a Cantonese opera 'Trump on Show' on April 11.   © Getty Images

Li's calculated decision to attract new viewers by using the lightning rod that is Trump seems to have worked. "This is fascinating. It's definitely not traditional," says cultural industries doctoral student Jackie Yuen. She's watching through an academic lens, though she admits, "I'm not really a fan, and not many people my age are."

Edward Li Kui-ming manages the Sunbeam Theatre and is a feng shui master. (Photo by Elizabeth Kerr)

Yuen gave in to her curiosity because the content steers clear of rote material like hackneyed romances and literary legends. "I'm keen to find out how this is different from the traditional shows - or how it's similar. And I'm curious as to whether older people will accept new ideas in a Cantonese opera."

The greeting Li receives as he walks into the auditorium on the opening night would rival a Beatles reunion. He should also be reasonably satisfied with the critical reception. Writing in the Financial Times, Ken Smith said: "At nearly three hours and 40 minutes, Trump is in desperate need of pruning, but it scores bonus points for sheer audacity. And as [the] noisy, sold-out audience proved, the old form still shows signs of commercial life."

As just one type of Chinese opera, Cantonese opera blossomed when immigrants from Shanghai settled in North Point in the 1950s. In marrying Cantonese linguistic traditions and the accessible storytelling of working class people, the uniquely Hong Kong form of Cantonese opera was born. As entertainment, the form took off before movies and television captured audiences, and it was (ironically) also seen as a way to spread the gospel of the leftist revolution happening in mainland China as an opposing ideology to Hong Kong's colonial, Western mindset.

The local Cantonese version came to feature the traditional instrumentation (erhu, dizi, gaohu) as well as colonial influences like saxophone and guitar to go with the familiar physical gestures, acrobatics, martial arts and singing in nine tones that can send the high pitches to stratospheric heights.

The Sunbeam Theatre, established in 1972, is located in the North Point neighborhood of Hong Kong.    © Getty Images

More crucially, "Peking Opera... freezes history. Nobody wants to see anything that old," says Li at a meeting in his office. "It's facing the same problems, the same crisis of a lack of young people supporting the art. But we've always embraced modernity. In 1940s' Cantonese opera we related current events; Hitler appeared in Cantonese operas in the '40s, so it's been done before. We recognize that in the prologue too."

Best known as a feng shui master (some like to call him a soothsayer), the native Hongkonger, 64, started working in showbiz, as an actor in the 1970s and then as a screenwriter in the 1980s.

Long before the Hong Kong film industry fell on hard times after the 1997 handover, Li learned the art of feng shui and kicked off a 30-year career, writing an annual best-selling almanac and advising the territory's rich, famous and powerful.

He was flirting with retirement when the 40-year-old Sunbeam found itself facing the wrecking ball in 2012. Fearing the loss of a major pillar of local culture, Li swung a four-year deal to keep the lights on. As composer and librettist, Li produced The Butterfly in 2014, and sent that show on the road, translated first as Peking Opera to Beijing, and later as Noh to Japan.

Thirty-four productions later, "I don't think Cantonese opera is dying. It just needed a new concept to reignite it," says Li. And he's shameless about his tactics. "Youngsters are coming to the theater because of Trump. It's their first time to see a Cantonese opera... I linked them together and it was like a chemical reaction."

The link Li is talking about is the one between Mao and Trump who Li claims is a mystery to younger generations. His concoction is a muscular, three-and-a-half hour, eight-act contemporary piece that rolls the turbulent geopolitics of the 1970s, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Sound of Music, ginseng-flavored Coca-Cola and the secret U.S. military base Area 51 into classic opera.

There's lots of gazing toward the audience and intensely mannered hand movements that freakishly "do" Trump almost as well as American comedian Stephen Colbert. Business suits and revolutionary Chinese uniforms replace the usual period costumes. The story begins with Ivanka Trump swanning around the Oval Office in 2017 and finding her father's autographed copy of Mao's Little Red Book, a relic of a previously-unknown trip to China in 1972 with Nixon. While there, he meets Mao, Zhou Enlai and eventual Gang of Four scapegoat Jiang Qing -- but never meets his own long-lost twin, Chuan Pu. Chuan works at a Kaifeng crematorium yet somehow makes his way to Washington D.C. in 2019 to stand in at a summit when Trump is abducted by aliens.

Trump on Show has moments of genuine humor and a few pithy jabs at current affairs.   © Getty Images

Trump on Show is a curious beast. It has moments of genuine humor and a few pithy jabs at current affairs. In one scene, Zhou and Trump discuss winning hearts and minds, and Trump comments on Zhou's willingness to sell lies as truth. By hilarious coincidence of fantasy and reality, the whole story was inspired by the half-brother of Trump arch-nemesis Barack Obama, who really does live in China.

Mao and Trump were both 72 years old when then started their one-man revolutions, as Li sees it, a significant number in Chinese philosophy. But there's a limit to Li's political commentary: there's talk of a trade war but, delicately, no mention of current president Xi Jinping. Li came under fire in Hong Kong for 2016's Chairman Mao (Yuet kek mou jek dung), which critics claimed whitewashed Mao's atrocities and perpetuated Beijing's alleged mission to rewrite the history of bloody disasters like the Cultural Revolution.

People walk by a poster for Trump on Show, which opens for a four-night run on April 12. (Photo by Elizabeth Kerr)

Li is careful when asked point blank if he fears reprisals from Beijing, but brushes off censorship concerns. "We're not doing this for money. I want to save Cantonese opera. And this is not meant to criticize Mao or Trump. I'm trying to give them a voice and explore what made them who they are."

Li calls the operation at the Sunbeam as "small potatoes" not worth Beijing's time to muzzle. But he admits Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" policy has already faded to myth. "I've felt no pressures up to now, but when I wrote the script I was careful with the more sensitive issues... But I'm not afraid of the Chinese government. I'm afraid of North Korea... I don't think Chinese authorities will feel this drama is that important. But," he pauses with a pointed look, "The press has made this a big drama. Some have inserted their own politics into their stories." He looks sanguine for a second. "But I'm 64. There's not much that scares me."

Besides, he has bigger fish to fry. "I think this could play on Broadway. I think the combination of the Mao and Trump is a very special commercial element." He pauses. "I think [Trump] would be inspired by my drama." At the very least he'd take credit for it.

Back on Friday night, Mrs. Lam strolls out of the Sunbeam with a grin on her face, stopping for a word before hailing a taxi. What did she think? "There wasn't that much Trump," she laughs. "But I liked the modern style more than I expected I would. I'm not sure about the alien stuff though. That was a bit much."

Trump on Show ran for four sold-out performances April 12-15 at the Sunbeam Theatre; additional performances have not yet been announced. For information visit www.sunbeamspot.com (Chinese) or www.cityline.com.

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