Cantonese opera, also known as daai hei (great theatre), loh gu hei (theatre with percussion), Gwongdong hei (Gwongdong theatre), Gwongfu daai hei (great theatre of Guangzhou), or Gwongdong daai hei (great theatre of Guangdong), is one of 14 existing xiqu genres in China’s Guangdong Province, and one of approximately 400 xiqu genres within China.
Due in large part to increased population mobility, Cantonese opera has spread to south China as well as to those overseas communities that are predominantly from Guangdong. Although Hong Kong was a U.K. colony from the mid-19th century until 1997, because of its close geographical proximity Guangdong Chinese have always represented the city’s dominant population. At the same time, similarities between the two regions in terms of both culture and custom have enabled Cantonese opera to establish itself as one of the major cultural activities in Hong Kong since its colonisation.
Based on the literature, two major performing contexts of Cantonese opera existed in the 19th century: ritual performance and theatre performance. Ritual performances were organized by local villages for the purposes of celebrating birthdays of gods, festivals and other rituals. The performance venue was a temporarily built theatre of bamboo and iron sheets. Ritual performances have a long history in Hong Kong’s rural and urban areas; they are regarded as important folk rites. On the other hand, theatre performances only appeared when such buildings were established in urban areas in the second half of the 19th century. Compared with ritual performances, theatre performances are relatively stable events in terms of their popularity, attracting a consistently high audience. Since funding mainly relies on ticketing, theatre performances tend to be highly commercial and entertaining in nature. This can perhaps be said to reflect the contemporary development of Hong Kong as a business-driven city.
The 1920s and 1930s represented the climax of Cantonese opera development in Hong Kong. The Cantonese dialect holistically substituted the previous Jungchau dialect, while many new plays were written. Numerous great troupes performed in south China. Eminent artists, such as Sit Kok Sin and Ma Si Jang, competed with each other on stage. All in all, this was the Golden Age of Cantonese opera in Hong Kong.
Another critical era for Cantonese opera was the 1950s. Following the changing political system in China, Hong Kong and the mainland developed their own unique styles. Hong Kong initiated many creations of its own. Among the more commercial examples were Cantonese opera movies and records that enjoyed extensive circulation during this period, to the point that they became highly representative of Hong Kong culture. Developments such as these have continuously influenced the history of Cantonese opera.