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Chinatown’s Red Beans set to shine in Canton opera gathering

19 October 2008 No Comment

By Guo Shipeng

Four of the Oakland Chinatown’s best Cantonese Opera performers will make their debut in November on the prestigious stages of Canton, the art’s birthplace in south China, in recognition of their artistic achievements.

The amateur performers from the Red Bean Cantonese Opera House will attend the 5th International Cantonese Opera Festival, a four-yearly event that attracts artists from around the world and features simultaneous performances on several stages every day in the week from Nov 10-16.

“I am certainly very proud that we can perform in Canton, but in the mean time I am quite nervous, because it is the orthodox and the ultimate authority in Cantonese Opera,” said Linda Lee, 62, Red Bean’s vice president and one of the four Canton-bound performers.

“We who learn to play here are definitely not as good,” Lee said during a break from her rehearsal on Saturday October 11 in the Red Bean Opera House on Webster Street.

 Laura Ma, 52, Red Bean’s treasurer who’s also flying to perform in Canton, had a more relaxed attitude. 

“It will be a performance as usual, with a different audience though,” said Ma.

In addition to the four performers, more than 30 Red Bean members would make the trip to Canton and for all of the Bay Area the number would be over 100, Ma said. 

“It’s like the Olympics in Cantonese Opera and it is a great party. We’ll go there shopping, watching the shows and seeing the big stars and the respected predecessors in the art,” said Ma, who went to previous Canton festivals with other Red Bean members but did not have the chance to perform.

Cantonese Opera is a main subtype of Chinese opera and like other subtypes, it involves music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics and acting and shares a centuries-old repertoire. It originates in areas near Canton, or better known as Guangzhou nowadays, capital city of the southern province of Guangdong where most of the Oakland Chinatown’s residents come from.

Founded by Liang Jing, a famous Cantonese Opera actress, in 1996, Red Bean now boasts a membership of about 50, but more than 100 people, including many volunteers, are involved in its activities every year, which culminates in its sensational annual performance in San Francisco in the summer. It mainly relies on donations from the Chinese community for funding.

“Almost all the members are over 40 years old,” said Lee, who had always played male characters since she started learning Cantonese Opera in 1995. “Before that we have jobs and kids to worry about. Now we are free to have some fun by devoting ourselves to the opera.”

Lee, who moved the U.S. from Hong Kong more than 30 years ago, and other Red Bean members cited their childhood memories back in China of accompanying parents to Cantonese Opera shows for their love of the art, but passing on that passion to the American-born young generation in the Chinatown was a difficult task.

“I am worried about the future of the art here, but what can I do?” Lee said. “It’s hard. Not so many kids read Chinese.”

Lee at least has done a perfect job on her youngest son Erick Lee, 25, who has been called a wizard in Cantonese Opera by assuming his first major role at the age of 13 and being able to tutor kids in Red Bean’s youth troupe now. 

“He has to memorize all the lines and moves because he cannot read the scripts,” Lee said. “But he loves it.”

For a traditional art that is also facing declining popularity among young people in industrializing, modernizing China, recruiting new talents off its home soils in the U.S. was done mostly through referrals, said Ma, Red Bean’s treasurer.

“It has never been a very hot art and the kids find it a little strange, so we turn to friends and friends’ friends,” said Ma. “The Red Bean has been fairly successful in this regard, considering the difficulty and the fact that none of us is professional.”

Jamie Ma’s two sons and daughter are among the two dozen teenagers trained by the Red Bean’s youth troupe scheme in recent years and have starred in a number of big performances.

“My sister works here. That’s how my children started Cantonese Opera and I followed their suit a year later,” said Jamie Ma, 50, a government clerk from Union City.

She now drives to the Oakland Chinatown every Saturday for her own practice and again on Sunday for her children’s training session.

Donald Lee, Linda Lee’s husband, said it was only a matter of time for Cantonese Opera as a traditional art to disappear in Chinese American communities with the generational changes.

 “But we hope to see the art prosper, or at least continue, for some more time in the rest of our life.”

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