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2020, Hong Kong Chinese opera’s year of mischance (for that matter, same to all performing arts and other arts fields). Since early 2020, COVID-19 quickly turned a global pandemic causing lockdowns of almost everything. A year back, 2019, Hong Kong Chinese opera enjoyed a blossoming year beginning with the January grand opening of the magnificent West Kowloon Cultural District Xiqu Centre. 2020, the industry was like being thrown into an apocalyptic dystopia of contagion. New productions, large scale shows, ritual drama performances, overseas and non-local troupes’ visits, educational and promotional activities were all drastically shrunk, rescheduled, relocated to virtual space, or simply cancelled. COVID-19 cancelled culture, in a sense, amongst other things in everyday life. Hong Kong Chinese opera practitioners have been syncretic, flexible, and enduring in face of the devastating pandemic. Some turned more to social media platforms, some grabbed any chance of face-to-face meeting live audiences whenever circumstances allowed, and some strived for raising fund to help sustain the industry.
With COVID-19 entering the stage in the role of a game changer, Hong Kong Xiqu Overview 2020 opens with a general review chapter, followed by another chapter listing the year’s important events in the shadow of the pandemic. In the third chapter Lum Man Yee traces the origins and transformations of ritual drama, consulting primitive sources as far back to the 11th century, and examines the current existential conditions of this old tradition. Based on her fieldwork in 2019 and 2020, Lum examines how the local Chinese opera industry has been debilitated by COVID-19, and the industry’s response to this incessant pandemic with various tactics of survival. Chan Yee Lam in the fourth chapter reflects on the private sector’s contributions to the transmission of the art of Chinese opera. Attention was paid to the pandemic’s impact on these private groups’ survival. Chan summarized their technological tackling of the challenges, marking aspects of how the transmission of Chinese opera was still being managed in the time of COVID-19. The last chapter by Arthur Pang reviews Hong Kong Chinese opera’s artistic-administrative practices, contrasting the Chinese opera programs in 2019 and 2020 with respect to social stability and instability, and mapping the strategies of programming regional Chinese operas of the Chinese Opera Festival and the Xiqu Centre.
A stubborn cultural structure in Chinese opera for 800 years (counting from the maturation of traditional Chinese theatre in the Mongolian dynasty from the 13th century) is that, unlike European drama that has privileged tragedy since the ancient Greeks, there is necessarily, almost always a happy ending. Even when occasionally there emerged a play with a sad ending in which good people suffered and got unjustly killed in tragic sublime, the dejected ending will be altered and replaced by a comic resolution in later adaptations with a full happy reunion. Thus lived Hong Kong Chinese opera.
Centre for Cultural Research and Development, Lingnan University
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Li, S. L., & Yu, S. W. (Eds.) (2022). Hong Kong xiqu overview 2020. Hong Kong: Centre for Cultural Research and Development, Lingnan University.