Hong Kong’s last dedicated Cantonese opera theater is holding its final performances before it closes this week, in what some art lovers see as another nail in the coffin of a 300-year-old tradition.
The 1,000-seat Sunbeam Theater has been synonymous with the operatic heritage of China’s southern Cantonese-speaking minority for 40 years since it opened in 1972.
It has earned landmark status on Hong Kong’s art scene, standing in stoic defiance of the former British colony’s transformation into a flashy, ultra-modern hub of finance and banking.
However, after years of fending off Hong Kong’s all-powerful property developers, the curtain will come down for the final time today, when the Sunbeam stages its last, sell-out performance.
Opera star and playwright Yuen Siu-fai (阮兆輝), 66, said the Sunbeam’s fate typified the loss of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage to the pursuit of profit.
“This is a huge blow for Cantonese opera,” he said. “We are losing a cultural landmark, we are losing our main theater. Where do we go? This is another great example of how we don’t preserve our historical buildings.”
Other all-purpose venues around Hong Kong will continue to stage traditional opera performances, but none has dedicated itself exclusively to the art like the Sunbeam has over four decades.
Businessman Francis Law (羅守輝) bought the 7,432m2 theater in 2003 through his real estate and investment firm Toyo Mall, with reported plans to replace it with a shopping mall.
The Sunbeam escaped the bulldozers initially, but has been fighting soaring rental prices ever since and was nearly shut down twice.
When its last lease expired in 2009 — the year Cantonese or Yueju opera was recognized as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” by UN cultural agency UNESCO — the landlords reportedly more than doubled the rent.
The government stepped in to help achieve more favorable terms for the opera house, but the landlords still demanded almost HK$700,000 (US$90,256) a month, or more than twice the previous rate, according to local media.
The theater’s management turned down requests for an interview, saying only that the closure was a “pure commercial decision.”
District Councilor Jennifer Chow (周潔冰), who has launched a campaign to save the theater, said Sunbeam had been losing money.
“They decided to discontinue the tenancy,” she said.
Whatever the reason for the closure, opera lovers are in no doubt that property developers are to blame.
“New York and London are known for their sky-high rentals too, but look at them, how many theaters do they have?” asked Yuen, who has played in some of the Sunbeam’s final shows and started his opera career at the age of seven. “The heritage and historical values of a property should not be killed by its commercial value.”
Tickets for the Sunbeam’s closing performances have been sold out for weeks, testifying to the enduring popularity of traditional opera in a city usually associated with Canto pop music and the kung fu movies of Bruce Lee (李小龍).
Stung by criticism that it has failed to do enough to nurture local art, the government is backing a massive new cultural complex that will include an opera house of 1,100 seats.
However, that theater is not scheduled to be completed until 2016, meaning fans will have to wait at least four years before they can see the heroes and heroines of the Cantonese stage perform in a new home.