This Week in History

A Night at the Cantonese Opera

For the week of Monday, July 17, 2017

On July 23, 1885, Victoria’s Daily Colonist reported the construction of a theatre for Cantonese opera with space for 800 people. Cantonese opera was a central part of cultural life for Chinese immigrants and continues to be a dynamic artistic activity on the West Coast.

Cantonese opera, 1944
© Jack Long / National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada / PA-112790

Cantonese opera uses music, dance, and martial arts to tell stories based on history and legends. As well, it conveys moral lessons through themes of sacrifice, dedication, and loyalty. Artists incorporate improvisation, sound effects, elaborate costumes, and a variety of familiar songs and scenes into performances.

Theatres were owned by local merchants who hired actors from overseas. The theatres were often hidden, accessible through narrow alleyways or located above shops. Victoria had five theatres that served the Chinese community of about 1,700 people. At the turn of the 20th century, the Cantonese opera scene moved from Victoria to the mainland to serve Vancouver’s growing Chinese population.

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Cantonese opera performers during the Vancouver Golden Jubilee Parade, 1936
© James Crookall, City of Vancouver Archives

Opera troops were subject to exclusion-era policies and theatre owners were forced to pay a $500 bond upon each actor’s arrival. The bond, repaid when they left Canada, represented a significant investment for a theatre owner who might bring in a group of more than 20 performers.

Opera reminded Chinese immigrants of home and was thought to bring good fortune. Admission was affordable; in 1918, it ranged from 10 to 50 cents, depending on the performance and whether the patron attended the entire show or arrived late. It was also a way to raise money for charity. The theatres also became meeting places to discuss community issues.

With the advent of radio and cinema, professional Cantonese opera went into decline. The craft almost disappeared during the Second World War, but it rebounded thanks to the efforts of a number of amateur opera groups. Cantonese opera is performed regularly in Canada. Many of the stories seen today can be traced back to the 19th century or earlier.

Vancouver’s Chinatown and Victoria’s Chinatown are designated national historic sites. To learn more, read Vancouver’s Chinatown: a vibrant neighbourhood!, Victoria’s Chinatown: Not Enough Women, and A Gateway to Another Culture in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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