Sunday, November 2, 2008

Cantonese Opera in Chinatown

On a magnificent clear sunny day beneath the hustle and bustle of New York City’s Chinatown lies a different world, of semi-darkness, sound and music. Every Sunday at New York Chinese School on 62 Mott Street the doors are opened to the general public for performances on Cantonese Opera. I came as one of the spectators to support one of the musicians.

When my father retired five years ago I got really worried that he would get bored. His job at his Chinatown restaurant occupied so much of his time, six days a week at over twelve hours a day for the past two decade in New York City that he did not have any time to develop personal interests and hobbies. Not yet sixty years old, he feels old and worn out, and he has been through a lot. In the mid 1950s his parents left him and the poverty stricken Taishan village in southeastern China. At six years old, alongside his three siblings he had to learn to take care of himself. Growing up he experienced famine in China and got very little education. In his life he only knows of the three things: thirty years of farming in China, twenty years of working in a restaurant in New York, and how to care for his family. After I graduated from university and both my elder brother and I were supporting ourselves, my dad made the decision to quit the stressful restaurant job and finally start living; he joined a music group for retirees in Manhattan Chinatown.

In the basement auditorium, both on stage and in the audience are filled with senior citizens in theirs 60s to 80s. There are half a dozen singers and eight musicians playing various instruments: the er-hu (Chinese violin), the flute, violin, gong, bells, etc. All of them share the similar background as my father, recent or long time immigrants from China these former workers from Chinatown restaurant or garment factory all spent many years slaving behind the restaurant stove or a factory sewing machine. After their children grew up and left the house these immigrant had the rare situation of having to find something to do with their time. This is how, like my father they came to be performing on stage.

Despite living in America for many years, the oversea Chinese immigrants hold on to the Cantonese Opera culture that they know of from China. As a kid, I grew up listening to Cantonese Opera and understand it very well. On stage with makeup concealing their old age, the 70 and 80 year olds look like 20 somethings dressed up in traditional Chinese outfits. The singers are not just merely singing out words, there are also facial expressions and hand movements. The Cantonese Opera stories are taken from ancient love stories from Chinese history and from famous literary masterpieces. The best stories are the tragic ones. One story performed was taken from one of the four Chinese classics, Outlaws of the Marsh about Lin Chong, a chief military instructor of the late Northern Song Dynasty who was framed and sent into exile. Sitting in the audience if you understand Cantonese Opera and know the stories, you feel a sense of comfort and familiarity. But even if that’s not case and it’s your first time, it’s ok too. You can still appreciate the experience, by absorbing the music, emotions, gestures, and the whole atmosphere.

At 5:00PM the show comes to an end, and I stood up to give a hearty round of applause to my father and his fellow Cantonese Opera performers. I applaud them not just for that day’s performance, I also applaud them for their energy, their motivation and their will. From garment factory workers to restaurant workers, from a job that is behind the scenes to something that is on stage they have reincarnated in one lifetime. These retirees all had no musical background, and now they’ve all learned to play instruments. It is truly inspiring to know that we can never stop learning, no matter what age and what background. Some people say life ends with retirement but for these retirees, life only starts. Next time you are in Chinatown do stop by for a Cantonese Opera show, you’ll be surprised to find what you can learn.