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Periphery Matters: A Cultural Biography of Peking Opera in Hong Kong

Pui Lun Chan defended his thesis on 12 September 2017

Pui Lun Chan
12 September 2017
Leiden Repository


What constitutes “Hong Kong identity”? How does the city’s ever-changing socio-political environment, especially in relation to the Chinese mainland, relate to the invention and maintenance of this identity? Since the late 1970s, when the prospect of the 1997 sovereignty handover from the British to the mainland-Chinese authorities began to loom large, scholars have discussed heterogeneous cultural manifestations of “Hong Kong identity”. These discussions have regained momentum in recent years, when politically charged voices emerged that call for an attention to local identity.
The search for local identity as embodied in cultural forms such as cinema and popular music has resulted in rich scholarship. For example, Stephen Teo writes extensively about martial arts movies and action movies in Hong Kong, examining in particular how they articulate locality via filming techniques and cinematic languages. Scholars like Wong Chi-wah and Chu Yiu-wai have produced a series of books that discuss the “local-ness” in Canto-pop lyrics. But relatively little work has been devoted to studying local identity as this manifests itself in the realm of traditional art forms, such as Chinese theatre.
It is not the case that traditional Chinese theatre in Hong Kong has not received scholarly attention. There is a wide range of works that focus on the field (mostly on Cantonese Opera) from artistic, cultural and social perspectives. However, the study of identity is marginal in these works. As traditional Chinese theatre is still an important component of the Hong Kong cultural spectrum, this leaves an incomplete picture of identity-building in the cultural realm. I aim to partly remedy this issue by investigating how “Hong Kong identity” is invented, interpreted, maintained, and challenged by traditional Chinese theatre in Hong Kong. However, rather than Cantonese Opera, I have chosen to write about Peking Opera in Hong Kong, as I was intrigued by the duality of Peking Opera’s presence on the Chinese mainland and in Hong Kong. What happens when the “national” genre of Peking Opera travels to Hong Kong, whose cultural scene seemingly has no place for it?
First and foremost, this dissertation serves as the first comprehensive history of Peking Opera in Hong Kong. Adopting a cultural-biographical approach and an actor-network model, I identify various actors within Peking Opera networks in Hong Kong across time, analyze how the actors evolve and interact in their respective networks, and investigate their valuations of Peking Opera. This informs my inquiry about the development of Peking Opera in Hong Kong since the early twentieth century. Despite the lack of scholarly attention to this subject, I have found that Peking Opera is more visible and significant in Hong Kong than has been realized to date. Rather than existing as a stand-alone genre, Peking Opera has become intertwined with, and influenced, other
local performing arts such as Cantonese Opera and martial arts movies. Echoing my research interest in the articulation of “Hong Kong identity” in traditional Chinese theatre, this dissertation goes beyond the reconstruction of the art form’s history in Hong Kong. I also argue that various individual and institutional stakeholders envision and embody their versions of Chinese identities through practices of Peking Opera in Hong Kong. In particular, I show how Peking Opera has become a space for authorities and performers in Hong Kong to negotiate their identities between the “local” (i.e. Hong Kong) and the “national” (i.e. The People’s Republic of China) after the 1997 handover. On the one hand, they subscribe to the national discourse of Peking Opera and perceive it as the “national drama”, which has to be introduced to Hong Kong audience as a symbol of a homogenious “Chinese culture”; on the other hand, they claim a degree of local-ness by differentiating themselves from the Chinese mainland and, hence, carefully positioning themselves in the pan-China atlas of traditional Chinese theatre. This identity negotiation consequently affects their stance toward, and practice of, Peking Opera. Furthermore, some of these identity-driven practices have made an impact on presentational conventions of Peking Opera in mainland China. In other words, I also observe a “reverse impact” made by the “periphery” on the genre’s “home”.
As such, this project makes a scholarly contribution in the sense that it highlights the notion of “multi Chinese-ness” in discussions of Chinese identity, and exemplifies how a local, “Hong Kong” identity can be situated in, and related to, a national Chinese framework. It creates new perspectives on Hong Kong as an important player in the network of Chinese cultural transmission, and refines our understanding of the position of Hong Kong in a greater cultural-Chinese frame of reference.
In terms of theoretical implications, this dissertation introduces a new dimension to Igor Kopytoff’s Cultural Biography approach. By treating Peking Opera as a composite entity and studying its ascription of social meanings from various angles, this study stimulates discussion on the applicability of Cultural Biography to intangible performing arts. At the same time, my approach introduces new tools to the field of Peking Opera studies, driving the focus away from primarily or exclusively performer-oriented paradigms.
My narrative is constructed through the life stories of six individuals who are significant to the topic in various periods and respects. Chapter two features Peking Opera legend Mei Lanfang 梅蘭芳 (1894-1961). His career in the 1910s and 1920s throws light on the “nationalization” of Peking Opera. I also discuss his 1922 Hong Kong tour that literally brought the genre to Hong Kong. Chapter three concerns Chen Feinong 陳非儂 (1899-1984), a renowned early-twentieth-century Cantonese Opera
performer. I discuss how he and several fellow artists facilitated the extensive adoption of artistic devices from Peking Opera into Cantonese Opera in the 1930s. Chapter four focuses on Jackie Chan, the movie star. The story of his training in a local Peking Opera training school in the 1950s and 1960s, together with stories of mainland performers staying in Hong Kong in the 1940s, tells us a lot about Peking Opera in mid-twentieth-century Hong Kong. Chan’s career change from a Peking Opera trainee to a stuntman and then a movie actor also shows that Peking Opera in Hong Kong was
intertwined with, and had great impact on, local cultural forms.
Chapters five to seven concern Peking Opera in post-1997 Hong Kong. In chapter five I use the life story of Liang Hanyong 梁漢勇 (born 1960) as a case study to demonstrate how the post-1997 Hong Kong government has supported Peking Opera as an instrument of cultural nationalization, and how local troupes have benefited from this. In chapter six, I look at how Tang Yuen-ha 鄧宛霞, a local-born performer, has worked toward a “Hong Kong way” to facilitate the local reception of Peking Opera with her invention of an unconventional, interactive mode of stage performance. I also discuss
how this local invention has influenced mainland performers, by making them revisit the ways in which they try to facilitate the reception of Peking Opera by young people in contemporary China. Chapter seven tells the story of Yeung Ming 楊明 (born 1941), who has been rearranging Cantonese Opera plays through extensive use of Peking Opera devices, and created an intriguing artistic ambiguity for the trans-genre presentation of Peking Opera in twenty-first century Hong Kong. In conclusion, chapter eight offers a comparison between Peking Opera in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, foregrounding the unique sides to my narrative.
More work can be done on this topic. Amateur circles of Peking Opera in Hong Kong, for example, is something I would very much like to look into, but have no data on as of yet. Meanwhile this  dissertation also serves as an important step in my larger research trajectory as a scholar specializing in identity articulations in Chinese performing arts. It inspires new ideas to view other local art forms, such as Cantonese Opera and Chinese orchestral music, from a similar perspective. In line with scholarship by, for example, Rey Chow, David Yen-ho Wu, Len Ang and Allen Chun, who question the homogenization of Chinese identity, this dissertation hopes to create space in the broader discussion of “multi Chinese-ness” for the fascinating practices of Chinese performing arts.

Supervisors: prof. dr. M. van Crevel and prof. dr. W.L. Idema

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