I recently came back from a short trip to Hong Kong, during which I visited the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, a space dedicated to the cultural heritage of the former British Colony. The museum is located in Shatin, in the New Territories. What particularly attracted my attention was a temporary exhibit dedicated to Tong Tik-Sang (1917-1959), a playwright, and Yam Kim Fai (1913-1989), a performer, who worked together for many years and are said to be the most significant figures in Cantonese Opera. Tong Tik-Sang wrote over 400 scripts/plays/operas during his too short career, a number that can’t fail to impress even the most prolific of today’s writers. His plays have a reputation for having a tight plot with vivid characters and complex emotions, often featuring love stories between scholars and ladies of immense beauty. Tong became the most popular playwright in China and Hong Kong in the fifties. Many of his scripts were also made into movies, ranging from popular comedies to pieces of high artistic value. Something that I found particularly interesting was that Tong penned many tailor-made scripts. He worked with a number of artists and performers that he knew well, and was able to create a piece that would suit their personality and the colour of their voice. For example, he wrote “A Forsaken Woman”, “The Story of Tung Siu Yuen”and “Snow in June” for famous artist Fong Yim Fun; she played characters suffering great misery and sorrow, because of her vocal style characterised as heavy nasal tones and a sweet but sad voice.
Yam Kim Fai learned Cantonese Opera at the age of fourteen! She worked hard to develop her skills and was soon promoted to the principle male role. She is regarded as the most important performer to ever grace Cantonese Opera. She and Tong worked as a team for the delight of their audiences. Yam kept working in the industry over four decades, developing an interest in film. From 1951 to 1968 she starred in no less than 300 movies, another very impressive number. She played a very important role in the development of other Opera singers.
The exhibition is on until 27 September 2010. If you happen to be in Hong Kong, do not miss it. The exhibit shows a number of fascinating artefacts, including calligraphies and paintings by Tong as well as recordings of his plays, with Yam in the main role.