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Divine Threads: The Visual + Material Culture of Cantonese Opera

Rosa Cheng of Vancouver Cantonese Opera performs a folk opera song, wearing traditional costume and makeup, at the book launch of Divine Threads at MOA in February 2019. Photo by Cyrus Wu.

In writing Divine Threads, my goal was to unravel the strands of memory embedded in a treasure trove of Cantonese opera costumes, props and stage dressings held at the Museum of Anthropology. The historic collection comprises some 800 opera goods dated mostly to the 1920s and 1930s. When I first inspected the collection, I was struck by the tangible traces of human bodies—the dark sweat stains around the torsos, the lipstick smudges on the collars, the tangled hair caught on the headdresses. I felt an unexpected intimacy, as if I had travelled back in time to the backstage of an early opera theatre.

The MOA collection is highly significant for many reasons. It is one of the largest, most well-preserved, and comprehensive sets of Cantonese opera stage objects to have survived from the pre–Second World War era. In addition, the bulk of the objects belonged to one troupe: the Jin Wah Sing Musical Association (est. 1934) of Vancouver. The collection includes rare sets of costumes and props that were used in a number of Cantonese opera’s most popular ritual dramas, such as Liuguo Da Fengxiang (Joint Investiture of a Prime Minister by Six Kingdoms), Tianji Songzi (The Celestial Maiden Delivers a Son), Baxian Heshou (The Eight Immortals Bestow Longevity), and Ji Baihu (White Tiger Worship). The works provide remarkable insight into the performative practices of early-20th-century troupes.

Cantonese opera peacock cape, by unknown maker (1910). MOA Collection: N1.627. Photo by Kyla Bailey.
Opera trunk with Cantonese opera costume pieces (1900–1930s). MOA Collection: N1.866a, N1.681a, N1.751a-b. Photo by Bill McLennan.

I was thrilled to take on the task of reconstructing these dramas as they appeared in early Cantonese opera, a multi-faceted performance art encompassing live instrumental music, storytelling, song and dance, martial arts, and sophisticated costuming. Since many of these dramas are only documented in oral histories or brief anecdotal accounts, the objects offer an exciting, first-time opportunity to visualize these performances as they appeared on stage. Along with archival photos and firsthand accounts from elder performers, the collection transports us directly into the sensorial world of the early operas.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, the collection speaks of Cantonese opera’s trans-Pacific migration from the opera stages of the Pearl River Delta to the Chinatown theatres of North America during the early 20th century (1900s–1930s). The costumes and props were continuously innovated as they moved overseas with the Chinese diaspora. Through bold experimentations in costume and stage design, the operas reflected the evolving social trends in China and abroad, including the changing status of Chinese women and the unprecedented rise of mass media culture.

Cantonese opera performance in Vancouver’s Chinatown showing Jin Wah Sing’s stage curtains (MOA Collection: Edz1823), circa 1930s. Courtesy of Vancouver City Archives: AM1523-S5-1-F100.

During the mid-19th century, Cantonese opera reached new heights with the explosion of Chinese emigration to the European colonial territories. Harsh living conditions and political unrest in Guangdong pushed local residents to seek better fortunes abroad. Hundreds of thousands of poor, bachelor males left their villages in Guangdong to work as unskilled “coolies” in far-flung gold mines and construction sites. This gave rise to the so-called Cantonese Pacific, a global network of Cantonese-speaking Chinese migrants linked by steamship routes and port cities. As a result, Cantonese opera became the first Chinese performance tradition to establish itself around the world. The Chinese communities’ extraordinary investment of resources, in both bringing these operas abroad and building the Chinatown theatres, is a powerful testimony to the opera’s prominent role in staging and negotiating diasporic identity.

The migrant trajectories of MOA’s historic opera collection remind us of the many localities, communities, and cultural practices that are woven together in the opera’s vast body of knowledge. Their stories illuminate the truly global nature of the opera’s diasporic heritage and its contemporary life as an evolving art form that continues to thrive around the world.

April Liu is an art historian and independent cultural programmer. She held the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellowship at MOA from 2015 to 2017. Her book, Divine Threads: The Visual and Material Culture of Cantonese Opera, is available at the MOA Shop ($60).
Excerpted from Divine Threads: The Visual and Material Culture of Cantonese Opera by April Liu. Copyright 2018 by Museum of Anthropology at UBC. Text copyright by April Liu. Excerpted with permission from Figure 1 Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.