MU Connect issue 2 (May 2022) page 20 and 21

Home About HKMU University Publications MU Connect MU Connect issue 2 (May 2022) page 20 and 21

Dr Kelly Chan — zealous 'promoter'

of the art of Cantonese opera

The School of Arts and Social Sciences launched a General Education course Cantonese Opera Culture: Appreciation and Experience last summer. Dr Kelly Chan, Associate Professor of the School, said heartily, 'When I got wind of the plan to have this new course, I immediately raised my hand and recommended myself to take part in it!' As a translation professor who loves singing Cantonese opera, Dr Chan has devoted herself to the study of Cantonese opera translation and the cultural roots of individual operatic titles in recent years. She has also been participating in the University's Cantonese opera promotional activities.


Experience sharing from senior professionals

In view of the large gap between the new generation and this traditional art form, Dr Chan hoped that the course would be conducted in a lively and interesting manner, giving young people a basic understanding. 'If some of the students continue to enjoy Cantonese opera after taking the course, I would say we have already done a good job,' she says. There were 64 students in the class, some of whom had learned Cantonese opera when they were kids, while the rest had little or no knowledge of it. As some classes were held online, it was inevitable that the atmosphere was a bit lukewarm in the beginning.

As the course coordinator, Dr Chan worked hard to make the lessons more interactive. 'I mainly taught about the relationship between Cantonese opera and literature. When we came to the topic of common Cantonese slang words used by the older generation, I tested students on their knowledge of them to generate discussion,' she recalls.  Veteran instrumental musician Leonard Wong Shing-chuen was invited to teach, explaining stage techniques and roles such as 'pushing a carriage' and male 'hua dan' (young female character portrayed by man) with video clips, as well as playing musical instruments in class. Since some students knew how to play the guitar, they had something in common to share with the speaker and this triggered an interesting discussion. Maestro Choo Heng-cheong also came to teach and show students how to play musical instruments, providing them with an invaluable learning experience. In addition, Dr Chan had arranged to have five lessons conducted at the Xiqu Centre of the West Kowloon Cultural District, where full-time performers and instrumental musicians gave demonstrations on a variety of topics. As part of 'experiential learning', students even got the chance to watch a Cantonese opera show supplemented with detailed explanations. Alumnus and Cantonese opera actor Edgar Ng Lap-hei was also present to show his skills and share his experience of joining the profession as a young person.

Encouraging singing to develop the interest

The course also covered basic Cantonese opera translation to enrich students' knowledge. Dr Chan has always attached great importance to inspiring and motivating students when she teaches, using a carrot-and-stick approach to ensure that students take their studies seriously. 'I enforce strict rules to help low-performing students with little interest in learning to correct their behaviour,' she explains. Dr Chan was pleased that postgraduate students on the literary translation programme were keen to learn more about this niche area of academic study. 'They were assiduous, conscientious and eager to respond to questions, showing a genuine interest in the quest for knowledge,' she says.

In summary, Dr Chan was glad to see some positive results from the course. 'Although the students were unfamiliar with Cantonese opera, they persevered,' she recalls. 'Five or six students were particularly enthusiastic and have continued to develop their interest in this art form.' This General Education course will be offered again this and next year. Classes held at the Xiqu Centre will cover more topics and become more colourful, with more illustration of vocal styles (or cheunghong) to encourage students to have a go at singing Cantonese opera. 'While I shall demonstrate singing in class, students should also participate to experience it themselves,' says Dr Chan.

Moving upstream in research despite hurdles along the way

Looking back on her childhood, Dr Chan used to be annoyed by loud sounds of the gongs and drums of Cantonese opera. 'It was too noisy for my ears,' she says blithely. Fascinated by Chinese literature since a young age, Dr Chan discovered by chance the charm of the lyrics of Cantonese opera and tried to get closer to it. After she began teaching at university and singing under the guidance of colleagues who were fans of Cantonese opera, it has gradually become her number one hobby. 'My interest grew as I sang more,' she says. 'I think many people will like Cantonese opera and won't find its sounds piercing once they know more about its structure and characteristics.'

Having studied literary translation for years, Dr Chan acknowledges that Cantonese opera translation is really difficult as it contains dialects, rhythms and traditional customs. Although it is not a popular area of academic research, Dr Chan decided to plunge into it as she believes that the academic world should allow different fields of research to flourish. 'I will continue to irrigate the soil diligently, hoping that flowers will bloom in the cracks,' she says. Dr Chan is conducting a research project titled 'Innovating and Inheriting Cantonese Opera Singing Styles and Schools: 1930s – 1970s', exploring the historical evolution of various schools of vocal styles. She will interview professionals and scholars in the field. 'Students on this course will also be interviewed and their views will be included in the study,' she says. In the meantime, Dr Chan has started working on the setup of a repository on the University Library's website to introduce research on Cantonese opera singing styles. She hopes that a Cantonese opera research centre can be established to draw more public attention to this art form, and that the University will take up a more important role in this area of study.