Innovation may be the key to preserving and promoting traditional art form to wider audience, especially among young people.
From sweeping hand gestures to calculated footsteps and nuanced expressions, a group of secondary school pupils is mimicking the movements of a Cantonese opera master. But he is not a real person – he exists in a software.
The system, comprising a camera, an array of sensors and an assessment mechanism, scores students on how well they have imitated the movements in a video played to them.
“This made me realise that Cantonese opera is different from what I had imagined,” said Lam Chun-kin, a pupil from Lok Sin Tong Wong Chung Ming Secondary School. “It is not old and rigid. It is actually fun.”
Developed by Education University, the method incorporates 3D kinetic sensing technology into Cantonese opera training. It is an example of how innovation can enhance and preserve traditional art forms under threat of losing their relevance amid a lack of instructors.
“In the old days, students stayed with their masters all the time, so the teachers could point out the mistakes immediately,” said Leung Bo-wah, who is director of the system and also head of the university’s department of cultural and creative arts. “Now students only have one class per week.”
Students learn by following a video demonstration, and a system of sensors score how well they have replicated the movements. Photo: Edmond So
Renowned Cantonese opera veteran Yuen Siu-fai, whose movements the software references, recalled a strict training regimen.
“Back when we had a one-on-one apprenticeship, similar to in kung fu, we were scolded and punished by our masters,” he said.
Yuen is also the vice-president of the Chinese Artist Association of Hong Kong, which represents more than 1,000 Cantonese opera performers and has nurtured more than 100 young performers in the past few years.
In 2009, UN heritage body Unesco listed Cantonese opera as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The century-old performance art is rooted in southern China and has spread to overseas Chinese communities that are predominantly from Guangdong province.
Since the UN’s recognition, the Hong Kong government has been actively promoting the art, creating new venues for Cantonese opera and sponsoring performances in the city.
“The key to preserving and promoting Cantonese opera is education, starting from primary school,” Leung said. “Our schools teach basic knowledge of Western music. But Chinese musical genres such as Cantonese opera are left out, even for selective courses.”
Under a university grant, Leung started work on the new training and assessing software platform in 2015. Powered by the kinetic sensing technology developed at the graduate school of educational measurement and statistics at the National Taichung University of Education in Taiwan, the platform is now used by three primary schools in Hong Kong.
“Now the biggest challenge is to get more schools who provide Cantonese opera courses on board,” Leung said.
The overall cost for the platform is about HK$1 million (US$127,000), including the hiring of research assistants and software development, according to Leung.
The three local schools using the platform are the Education University of Hong Kong Jockey Club Primary School, Christian Alliance S.Y. Yeh Memorial Primary School, and Ma On Shan Ling Liang Primary School.
Leung’s project led to the establishment of the Research Centre for Transmission of Cantonese Opera at Education University. At its opening ceremony on May 18, the centre will present a Cantonese opera interactive exhibit using virtual reality and kinetic technology in the hopes of drawing a broader audience.