About two hours and a little less than halfway through my first Cantonese opera, I looked surreptitiously around me. My long Texan legs were cramped into a tiny plush seat near the side of the theater, hemmed in by neat rows of old Hong Kong dames intently staring at the stage. I hated to disturb them, but there was something I absolutely had to do.
When I stood up, I felt like a big blond Amazon towering over the black-bunned heads and bumbling towards the aisle. I paused briefly at the door, taking in the strains of music. Out in the lobby I moved like a thief in the night, avoiding the odd stray employee or person on a bathroom break. Flying down the stairs and out the front doors, I let out a sigh of profound relief.
I had escaped.
I should have taken that Cantonese Opera Appreciation class offered by the Hong Kong Tourist Board after all. Maybe then I would have been able to get through the five hours of incomprehensible caterwauling. At the very least, I might have known better than to go in the first place without being good and drunk.
The thing is, I usually pride myself on being open-minded about new experiences. I play the piano, the guitar, and the trumpet, all quite poorly. I’ve endured an amateur bagpipe festival, a satiric southern version of Italian opera, and my high school choir’s performances, and thought nothing could cow my enjoyment of music. When my guidebook actually recommended a performance, I figured that it would be one of the highlights of my visit to Hong Kong.
I can’t say that I wasn’t warned. A fellow classmate in a cake-making course told me, with a meaningful arch of the eyebrow, that Cantonese opera was “special.” Another woman explained that I should try to find a performance in English, so that I could at least follow the plot. A good friend and consummate expat told me to avoid it at all costs. But my curiosity was stoked: how bad could it be, really? The posters were intriguing, displaying men and women dressed up in brightly-colored silks and wearing the jeweled equivalent of diamond-dripping three-tiered wedding cakes on their heads. In stark red-and-white clown makeup, the women appeared gorgeous and the men terrifying, all their faces tied back with ribbons into expressions of surprise or disdain, in a temporary facelift. The names of the operas were sheer poetry: “Peony Pavilion,” “Reincarnation of Plum Blossom,” and “Romance of the Phoenix Chamber.”
Panting and sweating through the June afternoon humidity, I went downtown and bought a ticket to see a performance at a theater in the New Territories. That was unfamiliar territory, as was this entire venture into Cantonese culture.
On the day of the performance, in my nicest backpacker skirt and button-up shirt, I took the subway as far as I could go, then trudged through town with my ticket, camera, and map carefully stowed in my purse. The streets I walked were strange: this was definitely not the touristy part of Hong Kong, and I felt completely out of my element, uncomfortable in a way that I had not yet felt in the teeming masses of Central or even the markets of Kowloon. I passed a street full of florists’ shops sitting side by side with tombstone-carvers, which added to my unease, especially after crossing a street and nearly being hit by a car. I finally found myself facing a gigantic superhighway right across my path. Like a horse looking for a place to ford a river, I wandered up and down the interstate until at last there was a pedestrian bridge. At the top, I could see cars plummeting down into a tunnel that would eventually lead them to Hong Kong Island.
The theater was waiting for me on the other side of the highway, a modern but unprepossessing and utilitarian building offering sanctuary from the chaotic streets, as well as the arctic blast of air conditioning that you often feel wafting onto the steamy streets of Hong Kong from open doorways.
Unsurprisingly, I was the only westerner in sight. I milled across the lobby trying to find my way, getting curious kindly looks as I went. An usher took pity on me, and offered to find me an English translation of the opera, “The Reincarnation of Plum Blossom.”
The curtain went up.
How could this not be the fun experience of a lifetime?
I’ll tell you how: if the sound of stray cats being held by their tails and beaten to death against a wall is fun for you, then you don’t even need to attend the appreciation class. And that’s exactly how the opera sounded to my unattuned western ear. A two-stringed bowed fiddle, oboe, flute, viola, dulcimer, drums, and cymbals clanged, twanged, and shrieked away, while the heroine, Huiniang, entered to belt out her first tune over an extraordinarily loud crackling speaker system. Her high-pitched voiced whined into the upper octaves with a bleat that I found almost unbearable. When the hero came on stage, I could barely distinguish his soprano from that of the women. I quietly turned on my camera’s video setting, so that I could record some of the surreal sounds coming from the actors.
Huiniang’s elaborate coiffure, costume, and cosmetics were impressive, but it seemed that her main stage action was to fiddle with her water sleeves – essentially the sleeve equivalent of bell-bottoms. These draped to the ground, and she dropped them, slowly gathered them back up again with circular wrist motions only to methodically drop them again. I noticed that all of the characters were preoccupied with their sleeves, spending the majority of their time mincing about on high heels and flapping the sleeves around like overgrown bats.
I later learned that various movements of the water sleeves represent different emotions, much as certain gestures can comprise a whole language in dance or theater. Maybe they teach that at the Opera Appreciation Class.
I will not try to describe the plot. To begin with, I’m not even sure what it was, despite the translation sheet. Suffice it to say that it was very convoluted and involved a bunch of girls falling in love with the same guy. And why not? Who could resist a guy wearing a pink silk dress, white platform shoes, and way too much makeup? As the opera progressed, the audience got more and more into it. They laughed, gasped, murmured, and clapped. I could only guess why, since I speak not one word of Cantonese and my sole inclination throughout was to cringe. I tried to imagine to myself what the characters might be saying:
“Look! Look what I can do with my sleeves!”
“My beard feels soooooo good when I stroke it like this!”
“I can’t believe they made me wear this ridiculous hat. It does not match my eyeshadow!”
“Can I just please wear my sneakers next time?”
I wanted to enjoy it. I really did. I had every intention of appreciating this performance as the cultural highlight of my Asian trip. Instead I sat crammed into my too-small seat wondering why on earth the guidebook would recommend this form of torment for the uninitiated. Did the author really enjoy the music, and if so, what was wrong with me? If not, then surely the author had a particularly sadistic sense of humor.
When the end of the second act arrived and we were only about one third of the way through the plot material, I realized I was not going to make it. That’s when I began my embarrassing scrabble to escape. I had thought I was the only non-Chinese person at the theater, but as I was walking across the plaza in front of the theater, I saw another blond Caucasian woman fleeing the opera house, her face a mirror of the guilt and relief that I felt.
We exchanged a sympathetic smile, then got out of there as quickly as our feet could take us.