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Curtain falls on landmark Hong Kong opera house

Hong Kong's last dedicated Cantonese opera theatre will hold its final performances before closing this week in what art lovers see as another commercial nail in the coffin of 300-year-old tradition

AFP, Sunday 19 Feb 2012
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The Sunbeam Theatre has been synonymous with the operatic heritage of China's southern Cantonese-speaking minority since it opened in 1972.

The 1,000-seat venue 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.

But after years of fending off Hong Kong's all-powerful property developers, it will see the curtain come down for the last time on Sunday when the Sunbeam stages its final, sell-out performance.

Opera star and playwright Yuen Siu-fai, 66, says the Sunbeam's fate typifies the loss of Hong Kong's cultural heritage to the pursuit of profit.

"This is a huge blow for Cantonese opera," he says. "We are losing a cultural landmark, we are losing our main theatre. 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 as the Sunbeam has done over four decades.

Businessman Francis Law bought the 80,000-square-foot (7,432-square-metre) theatre 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 it 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 recognised 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 favourable terms for the opera house, but the landlords still demanded almost HK$700,000 ($90,256) a month, or more than twice the previous rate, according to local media.

Toyo Mall spokeswoman Rosanna Liu says Law had yet to decide what to do with the site, dismissing media reports that it will become a shopping centre.

She says Sunbeam's managers had cancelled the lease "even though we were not planning to raise their rent".

The theatre's management turned down requests for an interview, saying only that the closure was a "pure commercial decision."

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Lawmaker Jennifer Chow, the local district councillor who had launched a campaign to save the theatre, says Sunbeam has been losing money. "They decided to discontinue the tenancy," she says.
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 theatres do they have?" asks 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.

Sunbeam's final show is the story of Justice Bao, a tale of an honest official's struggle for justice and integrity.

Other than its southern dialect, Cantonese opera differs from mainland operatic traditions in its use of percussion instruments like gongs and cymbals. Actors wear elaborate costumes and make-up, and must be adept at elaborately choreographed martial arts as well as singing.

Wedged below residential apartments in an eastern neighbourhood, the Sunbeam has an elderly tribe of loyal fans who have regularly packed out performances. A huge red "sold out" sign often sits outside the lobby.

"It's very sad we're losing this landmark theatre in Hong Kong," says 65-year-old housewife Leung Lai-ming outside the theatre before a show.

"But what can we do if the rents are just too high and beyond affordable levels?" she asks after posing for photos with friends in front a poster of white-and-pink-faced opera stars.

The government, stung by criticism that it has failed to do enough to nurture local art, is backing a massive new cultural complex which will include an opera house of 1,100 seats.

But that theatre is not scheduled to be completed until 2016, meaning fans like Leung 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.

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