Singer passes on, but her legacy lives on

The chal­lenge is on to find a new flag bearer for Can­tonese opera fol­low­ing the sad and sud­den de­par­ture of the inim­itable Hong Xiannu. Xu Jingxi re­ports in Guangzhou.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SUNDAY PEOPLE -

Brav­ing cold rain, more than 3,000 peo­ple paid their re­spects to Hong Xiannu ( 1925- 2013), a renowned Can­tonese opera ac­tress, at a farewell cer­e­mony held in Guangzhou, pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Guang­dong prov­ince, on Dec 17.

Hong Xiannu, born as Kuang Jian­lian, passed away at 8:35 pm on Dec 8 from acute my­ocar­dial in­farc­tion at the age of 89. Party chief Xi Jin­ping, Pre­mier Li Ke­qiang and the other five mem­bers of the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee of the Po­lit­i­cal Bureau of the Com­mu­nist Party of China Cen­tral Com­mit­tee sent wreaths.

Zhu Xiao­dan, gov­er­nor of Guang­dong prov­ince; Le­ung Chun- ying, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Hong Kong Spe­cial Ad­min­is­tra­tive Re­gion; Wan Qingliang, Party chief of Guangzhou; and mayor Chen Jian­hua at­tended the fu­neral. Also present were Hong Kong ac­tor Andy Lau, and fa­mous Can­tonese opera ac­tresses Liza Wang and Tse Suet-sum.

At the cer­e­mony, the mayor spoke highly of Hong’s “life­long ef­forts” of pro­mot­ing Can­tonese opera at home and abroad and pass­ing on the art to younger gen­er­a­tions.

Dressed in a tra­di­tional Chi­nese red gown with gold em­broi­dery of im­ages of a dragon and phoenix, Hong lay in peace in a glass cof­fin. Praise of Ly­chee, one of Hong’s clas­sics, was played in the fu­neral hall, arous­ing mem­o­ries of her sil­very voice and on­stage el­e­gance.

Wear­ing the same gown, she sang the same song at the gala evening of a grand gath­er­ing of Can­tonese-speak­ing Chi­nese around the globe in Guangzhou on Nov 13, less than a month be­fore her heart at­tack.

On one hand, it shows Hong’s love for Can­tonese opera and her de­vo­tion to the art’s de­vel­op­ment. On the other, it re­flects the wor­ry­ing sit­u­a­tion that no one mea­sures up to Hong as Can­tonese opera’s flag bearer.

To com­mend her con­tri­bu­tions to Chi­nese cul­ture and art, the city gov­ern­ment of Guangzhou funded the Hong Xiannu Arts Center in 1998 to cel­e­brate the 60th an­niver­sary of her ca­reer.

Ded­i­ca­tion to her art

Hong used to work as the center’s di­rec­tor and saw to ev­ery­thing per­son­ally to de­velop the center into not only a mu­seum of her achieve­ments but also a school for young pro­fes­sion­als, a fo­rum for Can­tonese opera troupes all over the world to meet up and ex­change ideas on the art’s blue­print.

Lian Xing­cun, the center’s deputy di­rec­tor, says that Hong re­garded the center as more im­por­tant than home.

“She came to the center ev­ery day. Her work was her whole life,” Lian says.

Lian re­calls that ev­ery time a Can­tonese opera troupe vis­ited Guangzhou and put on a show, Hong would ask the staff to buy a ticket for her with her own money. She would re­peat­edly tell the staff not to ask for tick­ets for free from the troupes.

“Hong Xiannu would get onto the stage and per­form for fans or show her sup­port for Can­tonese opera troupes as long as her health al­lowed,” Lian says.

The geron­tic woman was al­ways hale and hearty on­stage with her eyes shin­ing be­hind a pair of tawny glasses un­der her white hair. How­ever, she needed some­one to hold on to when alight­ing the stage.

“Her big­gest hobby in her spare time was Can­tonese opera. She of­ten came to the center to sing to live ac­com­pa­ni­ment by mu­si­cians,” Lian says.

On week­ends, she gave Can­tonese opera lessons free of charge to kids, hop­ing to carry on the na­tional trea­sure from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion.

The mas­ter spared no ef­fort to train young tal­ents in Can­tonese opera, ac­cord­ing to Yu Yong, pres­i­dent of Guang­dong Can­tonese Opera The­ater.

“Al­most all the lead­ing young and mid­dle-aged Can­tonese opera ac­tors and ac­tresses in China to­day are Hong Xiannu’s stu­dents,” Yu says.

Ou Kaim­ing, gen­eral man­ager of the Guangzhou Can­tonese Opera Group and a state first-class artist, is one of Hong’s most out­stand­ing stu­dents.

He had been work­ing in a lo­cal Can­tonese opera troupe in the Guangxi Zhuang au­ton­o­mous re­gion be­fore he was trans­ferred in 1991 to Guangzhou Red Bean Can­tonese Opera Troupe, which was founded by Hong in 1990.

An en­dur­ing in­spi­ra­tion

Hong dis­cov­ered Ou’s po­ten­tial as a Can­tonese opera star af­ter watch­ing Guangxi TV Sta­tion’s broad­cast of the mi­dau­tumn fes­ti­val gala. She went to Guangxi in per­son for Ou’s job trans­fer.

“I was sur­prised that Hong Xiannu, such a no­table, re­spected char­ac­ter, would come for me as a young, un­known ac­tor at that time. I’m grate­ful that Hong Xiannu took me to a big­ger stage,” says Ou, who later be­came the coun­try’s top Can­tonese ac­tor for both mu­si­cal and kung fu plays and the di­rec­tor of Guangzhou Red Bean Can­tonese Opera Troupe.

“I will in­herit my teacher’s spirit of al­ways en­deav­or­ing to do bet­ter and hold­ing art and the stage in awe and ven­er­a­tion,” Ou says.

Hong re­quired Ou to read through the Tur­bu­lent Stream tril­ogy by Chi­nese writer Ba Jin (1904-2005) as she did when they were pro­duc­ing an opera based on the first book of the tril­ogy, The Fam­ily.

“I’ve learned from Hong Xiannu that act­ing is much more than mem­o­riz­ing the script. It re­quires in- depth knowl­edge about the au­thor, the char­ac­ters and the story’s so­cial back­ground,” Ou says.

She also set a good ex­am­ple for Can­tonese opera artists to keep up­dated on the lat­est so­cial changes by read­ing eight to 10 news­pa­pers ev­ery day, he adds.

In Ou’s eyes, Hong was both a strict teacher and a lov­ing mother. When Ou was busy stag­ing shows at home and abroad, Hong took care of his son, treat­ing him as her own grand­son. The good friends — de­spite the great dif­fer­ence in age — dined to­gether the day be­fore Hong’s sud­den de­par­ture.

Hong joined Ma Sze-tsang’s Can­tonese opera troupe trav­el­ing across Guang­dong prov­ince and Guangxi dur­ing the War of Re­sis­tance against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion (1937-45), to boost the army’s and peo­ple’s morale and raise money for the re­sis­tance.

She started her ca­reer on the big screen in 1947 in Hong Kong and starred in more than 90 movies in the fol­low­ing eight years.

It was sur­pris­ing when the Can­tonese opera and movie star gave up her fame in Hong Kong and de­cided to re­turn to the main­land in 1955 upon then pre­mier Zhou En­lai’s in­vi­ta­tion.

Hong of­fered great sup­port to the de­vel­op­ment of Can­tonese opera in Hong Kong, al­though she left. For ex­am­ple, she at­tended the re­open­ing cer­e­mony of Hong Kong’s Sun­beam The­ater and sang Praise of Ly­chee last May at the age of 88.

The Can­tonese opera in­dus­try, the me­dia and the pub­lic have all been dis­cussing the fu­ture de­vel­op­ment of the art af­ter the ban­ner bearer’s death. How­ever, Yu hopes that the dis­cus­sion on re­ju­ve­nat­ing the in­dus­try will con­tinue.

“Hong Xiannu passed away with con­cerns about the short­age of new plays closely re­lated to con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety and young tal­ents, es­pe­cially scriptwrit­ers. Solv­ing th­ese prob­lems re­quires our long-term ef­forts,” says Yu from the Guang­dong Can­tonese Opera The­ater.

“Hong Xiannu had been work­ing hard to bring forth new ideas to the tra­di­tional art to make it ap­peal­ing to young au­di­ences.”

Ban­ners that read “Her life be­longs to art” and “Her art be­longs to peo­ple” hung from the two sides of Hong’s cof­fin at the fu­neral.

“This is the most apt de­scrip­tion of my mother’s life,” Ma Dingchang, Hong’s son, says.

“Now she can rest. I be­lieve she is con­soled to have re­ceived con­do­lences from the Party, the coun­try and the peo­ple.” Con­tact the writer at xu­jingxi@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

Hong started her ca­reer on the big screen in 1947 in Hong Kong and starred in more than 90 movies.

MO WEINONG / FOR CHINA DAILY

More than 3,000 peo­ple at­tend the farewell cer­e­mony.

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