Yunfeng Cantonese Opera Troupe: To Persist is to Inherit

It is 4:30 PM of June 10th. In Yuehai Seafood Restaurant in Shishu Road of Guangzhou, Jia Hua, the leader of Yunfeng Cantonese Opera Troupe, is guiding his staff to put way all instruments and equipments on the stage.

Under the stage, dozens of opera fans are still immersing the performance with aftertaste. Some fans start a chat with Jia Hua. Jia Hua know them well. Some have become their fans since the beginning of the troupe.

Yunfeng's performance in Yuefu Seafood Restaurant.[Photo/Jia Hua]

Yunfeng's performance in Ronghua Restaurant.[File Photo]

Yunfeng Cantonese Opera Troupe is the only private-owned troupe performing traditional Cantonese opera with full make up and costume. Yunfeng performs Cantonese opera from 2:30 PM to 4:30 PM every day since they moved here. Jia Hua introduced that all staff need to come here at least one hour before the performance for make up and costume.

In 2009, Cantonese opera was listed as “Masterpieces of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity in the world”, which has given a quick shot of energy to Cantonese opera and excited many Cantonese opera fans. But Jia Hua lately disappointedly found that acting as the living fossil of Cantonese culture, Cantonese opera faces shrinking room in urban areas, and the title of intangible heritage of humanity has not brought many actual helps to private-owned Cantonese opera troupes.

When talking about Yunfeng, Jia Hua feels mixed.[Photo/Fan Xiaowen]


From the Ronghua Restaurant in Liwan district, to Fengan Longsheng Restaurant in Haizhu district, and now to Yuefu Seafood Restaurant in Yuexiu district, Yunfeng has faced many twists and turns these years.

Ronghua Restaurant locates in Longjin East Road of Liwan District, and is one of the most famous restaurants with the longest history in Guangdong. Yunfeng’s performance with actors and actress wearing costume and makeup was one feature in the restaurant, attracting many fans to come and enjoy. But in August of 2013 Ronghua Restaurant closed, and Yunfeng had to move to Longsheng Restaurant later. “A friend introduced the (Longsheng Restaurant’s) boss to me. He is very interested in Cantonese opera and hope to promote opera culture.” In April Longsheng decided to end its business hours in the morning and afternoon. Luckily, Yuefu said yes to Yunfeng. As a result, Yunfeng moved to Yuefu Restaurant later in April. Now enjoying 2 hours Cantonese opera only cost you about 15 yuan.

Yunfeng's incomes mainly depend on the tips from opera fans and bonus from restaurants.[Photo/Fan Xiaowen]

Jia Hua admitted with pain that as far as he knows, all Cantonese opera troupes in Guangdong, both state-owned and private-owned, are struggling but seldom communicate or cooperate with each other. They have not received many supports from the government, and not from the society as well. They have to find restaurants for performances themselves, and also they need to seek for opportunities of commercial performances.

In 1950s, hundreds of private-owned Cantonese opera troupes were dotted around Guangzhou and Foshan. Later, due to economic development as well as the great changes in people’s way of life, only a few survived. At the end of 1990s certain time-honored brand restaurants such as Yunxiang Restaurant, Datong Restaurant and Ronghua Restaurant could stay to offer Cantonese opera performance. Now few restaurants can hold the costs for providing opera performances, and only 4 private-owned Cantonese opera troupes, Yunfeng the only one performing while wearing costume and makeup. 

Now Yunfeng is still in a hard time. Their incomes mainly depend on the tips from opera fans and bonus from restaurants. Besides, they also do some commercial performances in the countryside of West Guangdong and Pearl River Delta, which can just help their 40 staff make ends meet barely. Actors and actresses in Yunfeng are all in their 40s and 50s, which means once they lose their jobs in Yunfeng, they can hardly find other jobs.

But he said that because the whole society has paid more attention to Cantonese opera in recent years, they felt more relaxed in struggling to live, and some people offered them opportunities to commercial performances. Compared with the shrinking space in urban areas, Cantonese opera is welcomed in the countryside of Pearl River Delta and West Guangdong region such as Maoming and Zhanjiang. Every year around the Spring Festival and Double Ninth Festival, as a tradition villagers usually invite a Cantonese opera troupe to celebrate. Those performances are usually in the evening, therefore staffs in Yunfeng can finish their afternoon performance in restaurant before going to the countryside.

Most fans are old people, seldom young adults come to enjoy.[Photo/Fan Xiaowen]


Jia Hua worries about the shortage of young audiences. Now Yunfeng's fans are from all districts of Guangzhou, some of them even have followed Yunfeng for tens of years, and everyday some fans come to enjoy their performance from other districts. But nearly all fans are middle-aged and aged people, and rare young adults join them to enjoy Cantonese opera, “young generation knows little about Cantonese opera, and they do not like it”.

“Now young adults do not have patience to listen to an episode of Cantonese opera.” Uncle Liang is 68, and has become a fan of Yunfeng for about 10 years. He introduced that he was the only listener of Cantonese opera at home, since his son and daughter are busy working and his granddaughter prefers pop music and is not willing to accompany him to enjoy Cantonese opera in restaurants.

Uncle Xu, a tablemate as well as a friend of Uncle Liang, agreed with him. Uncle Xu said that he faced the same situation and they two usually watch Yunfeng’s performances together. He sighed with emotion, “I can’t image how many people can enjoy traditional Cantonese opera years later”.

This afternoon the opera fans under the stage are almost elderly people. The waiter there seem to take it as normal, “you are the only group of young adults here this afternoon, usually no young consumers come”.

Local media reported Jia Hua and Yunfeng troupe many times, but it has not brought many helps.


Lack of young successors also has become one big issue in Cantonese opera. Compared with state-owned ones, private-owned Cantonese opera troupes is much less attractive to successors. Now Yunfeng owns about 40 performers, with the youngest above 40 years old.

Moreover, the mode of "father-to-son" succession is less common in this aspect than ever before. Jia Hua’s daughter now is a Cantonese opera actress, and come to Yunfeng for help in some time. But descendants of actors and actresses in Yunfeng seldom choose Cantonese opera performers as their occupation. “I think the biggest issue is about money, since what we invest is not equal to what we get. This problem exist not only in Yunfeng, it’s very common in all opera troupes. Even the Cantonese opera school finds it hard to enroll excellent students.”

What depressed Jia Hua more is that nearly all new comers are not from Guangzhou, but from Guangxi and West Guangdong. They generally face pronunciation problems, as the dialect and accent in those regions are slightly different from those in Pearl River Delta. They may not satisfy picky audiences.

Jia Hua insisted that “I still want to try my best to keep Yunfeng go on”. Yuefu Restaurant locates in the old down town of Guangzhou, which is thought to be the original place for Cantonese opera. They moved back from Haizhu District, which to some extent is a kind of substrate regression.

As a private-owned Cantonese opera troupe, Yunfeng’s stick to performance everyday for tens of years is a best way of inheritance of Cantonese opera. Now Yunfeng has become one famous representative of Cantonese opera in Guangdong, even gaining fames overseas. Jia Hua has planned that if condition permits, he hopes to establish a performing place special for Yunfeng in each district of Guangzhou, so that all fans do not need to travel a lot for enjoying their performance.

(By Nan & Fan Xiaowen)



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