Young Cantonese Opera Star Strives to Preserve Unique Art Form in Hong Kong

Choi Wai Shan wants young people to fall in love with the region’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’

By Jiang Jiaxuan, Lu Ying, Wang Feifan & Zhao Shiyue

December 2019

Choi Wai Shan arrived four hours early to prepare for her Cantonese opera performance at the Ko Shan Theater in the Hong Kong neighborhood of Hung Hom.

For this Friday-evening show in November 2018, Choi – whose stage name is Chin Shan – would perform in the “The Moon Pavilion,” a Cantonese opera classic. Her usual role: a male character named Sheng, was a well-mannered, cultivated and gentle scholar who falls in love with a young woman during wartime.

“Acting is a tough career,” Choi, 27, said before her performance, while layering on make-up for more than two hours. Her typical pre-show routine starts with stretching her eyebrows back with tape, followed by drawing uplifted eyes and coloring thick black brows. After spreading a white-colored foundation over her face, Choi paints rouge on each cheekbone and lipstick around her mouth. The final preparation is to slip into multiple layers of her costume and adorn a delicate headpiece.

“Although it may appear fancy, it’s not uncommon to get a headache or feel nauseous,” Choi said about the elaborate preparation, head wear and costume.

Choi says she started training in Cantonese opera when she was 12 in the troupe headed by opera master Man Chin Sui. After graduating in linguistics from University College London, CHoi furthered her studies at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, majoring in Cantonese Opera Performance.

With a strong determination to preserve traditional Cantonese opera, Choi said she works to foster its innovation, hoping it can resonate with contemporary society as well as a younger generation. As part of the effort to broaden the art form’s appeal, she has set up a non-profit called Shan Opera that runs workshops to promote Cantonese opera locally and globally.