Backstage in Sai Kung’s bamboo theatre
Words and pictures by Hannah Grogan and Cherrie Yu.
It’s Saturday night and Sai Kung’s bamboo opera theatre is filling up. Families are gathering to take their allotted seats, their names hand-written on labels attached to the seatbacks. Outside, people mill around temporary market stalls set up opposite Steamers selling balloons, jewellery, snacks and desserts.
We are escorted through the growing crowd and led backstage. Tonight we are getting a privileged peek behind the scenes into the tradition-bound and beautiful world of Cantonese opera.
For a few weeks in early summer, Sai Kung town is transformed. Traffic is rerouted, the basketball court is cleared and a huge bamboo theatre springs up across Yi Chun Street. The opera is in town.
Thousands of people turn up for the five days of performances, some sitting enthralled for hours, others standing for just a few minutes, fanning themselves furiously or nipping out to chat with friends. It’s one of Sai Kung’s biggest annual events.
The opera is part of the Tin Hau Festival and has been a Sai Kung tradition for more than 60 years. It’s usually held up to a month after the festival for entirely practical reasons: to limit traffic problems and to ensure the organisers can hire the best crew.
The bamboo theatre takes 10 days to construct and five to remove and is built without a single nail.
“Locals still prefer to go to the bamboo theatre,” Cheung Shuet-ying of Wai Yip Scaffolding says. “They love watching Cantonese opera while eating their favourite food and chatting with their neighbours.”
“Everything was much simpler back in the day. Villagers would drag their chairs or sofas to sit around the stage. Elders tell me that, during the festival, villagers would call friends or relatives who work in Sai Kung and sleepover at their homes or even sleep in the audience area” says Li Fuk-hong.
Tickets are sold in sets of six, starting at $2,000 for one session. This year more than 80 per cent of tickets were sold ahead of the event. “We really appreciate the villagers, who are very supportive when the festival time comes around. Everyone pitches in [money] to enjoy the opera,” Li says. “There is no need to advertise; people simply come to the office and donate. It’s tradition.”
It costs up to $1.2 million to build the bamboo theatre and pay the actors and crew. With no government funding, the event is entirely funded by the local community through donations and ticket sales. Tickets are sold in sets of six, starting at $2,000 for one session. This year more than 80 per cent of tickets were sold ahead of the event. “We really appreciate the villagers, who are very supportive when the festival time comes around. Everyone pitches in [money] to enjoy the opera,” Li says. “There is no need to advertise; people simply come to the office and donate. It’s tradition.”
Venturing backstage is a shock to the senses. Like a cross between an elaborate street market and a travelling circus, it’s busy, gaudy and beautiful. We are transfixed by the colours, sights, sounds (sort of) and the sheer spectacle of it all. Costumes dangle from the ceiling and fill the corridor. There are irons and hangers everywhere. Backstage is divided into three sections: the curtained-off main performers’ dressing rooms containing their personal chests and photos, a corridor filled with props and supplies, and a group dressing room. Assistants help performers with their hair and layers of clothes, but each actor does his or her own makeup – it’s an essential part of their training.
Tonight Candy Wai Chun-fai is playing the leading male role. A popular performer in the local Cantonese opera scene, she has been performing for around 30 years.
“Sai Kung is simply a fantastic location. I have performed a few times here and each stay is like a holiday for us all,” she says fondly, before turning away to finish getting ready. Behind the scenes, there’s a last-minute rehearsal between the leading cast members Franco Yuen Siu-fai (an opera child prodigy), Yan Fei-yin and Wai Chun-fai. The chaos pauses momentarily as they practise their staged movements. Moments later the performers don shoes and hats ready to go onstage, and we scurry away to take our seats. Curtain up.
More about Cantonese opera
Yau Ma Tei theatre is a dedicated Cantonese opera theatre, presenting performances year-round as well as courses. English options available. 6 Waterloo Road, Kowloon, 2264 8208
If you missed the Sai Kung opera, look out for a bamboo theatre at Pak Sha Wan in mid-July. This annual event celebrates Kwun Yam festival and, instead of selling tickets, visitors are encouraged to come along for free.