A trip to Hong Kong taught me why Cantonese opera and ca trù singing, which I once thought boring, are so important to cultural identity.

By Minh Truong 

Like many young people, I used to consider ancient art forms to be boring and old-fashioned. A recent trip to Hong Kong changed all that.

The trip brought me closer to my cultural roots and opened my eyes to the value of endangered arts forms like Cantonese opera and ca trù singing, which are ancient but still critical to cultural identity.

Cantonese opera

While in Hong Kong in June as part of a class trip with Ryerson University, I produced a documentary on Cantonese opera.

Also known as “Guangdong Drama,” Cantonese opera dates back to the Ming Dynasty in the 16th century. Today, it is listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Yet, despite its historical significance, Cantonese opera is disappearing.

My documentary features interviews with individuals who are concerned about this decline and are working to reverse it.

Stella Ma, the founder of the Cha Duk Chang Children’s Cantonese Opera Association, spoke with me about her desire to bring an ancient art form to a younger demographic.

“I used to think Cantonese opera was something for my grannies,” she said. “When I looked deeper into it, I found there was a lot more to it than I thought.”

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(All photos by Minh Truong)

“It includes so many Chinese cultural elements, like drama, dance, literature and acrobatics,” Ma explained. “That’s when I thought, maybe I can do something to convince young people to love our art form?”

My documentary teammate Benjamin Cohen interviewed Martin Lau, dean of Chinese opera at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.

Lau grew up in Seattle. His father taught him to perform Cantonese opera as a way of connecting with his origins.

Lau sees Cantonese opera as an important way for people to connect to their cultural identity.

“We’re trying to allow Cantonese opera to be something that’s for our emigrated friends in the diaspora, something for them to connect with,” he said. “If you look at the future of Cantonese opera, that’s where it needs to be.”

cantonese opera ca trù
Cantonese opera performers rehearse at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts

Ca trù singing

My work studying the Cantonese opera led me to reflect on ca trù singing, an ancient art form from my own hometown, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Listed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List since 2009, ca trù singing is a Vietnamese traditional sung poetry that is more than a thousand years old.

Like Cantonese opera, ca trù is also in urgent need of safeguarding.

When I was young, but I didn’t like ca trù that much. I found the traditional entertainment form boring.

But my trip to Hong Kong and exposure to Cantonese opera gave me a renewed sense of the importance of learning about and passing on art forms from our personal heritages.

Unlike in Hong Kong, where the Bureau of Education is implementing Cantonese opera into the music curriculum, ca trù singing is not institutionalized: it’s passed on only through family traditions.

Thus, I have a unique responsibility to preserve my own cultural identity — to bridge the gap between generations.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. What is Cantonese opera?
  2. The author’s documentary work led to what personal realization?
  3. Which historical art forms or practices are important in your culture?

Minh Truong is a freelance videojournalist and a student at Ryerson University School of Journalism in Toronto, Canada. A visual storyteller, he thrives to captures cultures and communities around the world. He recently visited Hong Kong as a part of an international reporting project in June.

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