Cantonese Opera in America – A Hot Take

A humorous quote from a late 19th century editor Fitch who compared Cantonese Opera to the “clatter of the train”. Cantonese Opera had come stateside and he and other commentators judged it as far below the likes of a Shakespeare play.

There are two contexts for this: first off, this was an era of US hatred of Chinese people, and these editorials only served to confirm the prejudices of Americans at the time.

Second, Cantonese Opera, like all traditional theater, functions first and foremost as a sacred ceremony. The crashes of cymbals scare evil ghosts. The erratic movements are supposed to demonstrate the performer’s embodiment of the ancestors. The color palette is to propitiate the gods for good harvests, cure from plague, etc. When theater is divorced from its ritual context, then it becomes mere sounds and fireworks that have to be tamped down and reworked to become aesthetically pleasing to a global audience.

Hong Kong cinema is the result of this global distribution of Chinese opera, secularized and tamped down to appeal to a wide variety of tastes. Transitioning from the early 70s anti-Qing martial art films to the contemporary New Wave films of the 80s, you can see this aesthetic change, though there are still vestiges of sacred theater.

From The Rise of Cantonese Opera by Ng Wing Chung