Story and multimedia by Benjamin Cohen, Clare Feng, Alya Stationwala and Minh Truong

Cantonese opera is in peril. Despite reigning as South China’s most popular form of entertainment for hundreds of years, it’s struggling to find its footing in the 21st century.

As global opera audiences age and experts fear the death of the Cantonese language, Cantonese opera, listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009, runs the risk of disappearing altogether.

But Hong Kong opera performers, scholars and government officials aren’t ready to let Cantonese opera fossilize. They’re fighting to evolve the artform and reinstate its ubiquity.

Martin Lau, dean of Chinese opera at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, says the future of Cantonese opera hinges on its proliferation outside China.

“We want to export Cantonese opera as an artform so that people can understand who we are,” he said.“We’re trying to allow Cantonese opera to be something that’s for our emigrated friends in the diaspora, something for them to connect with. If you look at the future of Cantonese opera, that’s where it needs to be.”

– Martin Lau, dean of Chinese opera at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts

The Cantonese diaspora is comprised of nearly 70 million native Cantonese speakers rooted all over Asia and the western world, not including generations of children who learned the language from their families. Canada alone is home to 565,275 residents whose first language is Cantonese, according to the latest census data.

Growing up in Seattle, Lau says his father taught him to perform Cantonese opera as a way of connecting him with his roots and ensuring he learned Cantonese.

“One of the dangers of emigrating to another country is that you end up assimilating into that culture so much, you lose who you are,” Lau said.

While Lau crafts Cantonese opera into a cultural anchor for expats, another Hong Kong opera devotee works to pass it down to the next generation at home.

Stella Ma, director and founder of Cha Duk Chang Children’s Cantonese Opera Association, admits she didn’t like Cantonese opera when she was young.

“I thought it was boring,” she said. “It was something for my grannies.”

Now, Ma calls the artform “a treasure.”

“When I looked deeper into it, I found there was a lot more to it than I thought,” she said. “It includes so many Chinese cultural elements, like drama, dance, literature and acrobatics. That’s when I thought, ‘maybe I can do something to convince young people to love our artform?’”

Ma realized it was the traditional Cantonese opera storylines that initially turned her away from the art. She said they didn’t interest her at the time, and believes the same is true for the youth of today

“I started writing new scripts for the children,” Ma said. “(They’re) not love stories, stories about revenge, stories about kings, generals, fights or battles. I started writing stories about children’s daily lives. Children can be naughty, they love to play, they love to be themselves, so these are the characters I develop in my stories.”

Ma was the first to tailor Cantonese opera to children, an idea which has materialized into a distinct brand. Since founding Cha Duk Chang in 2002, Ma has expanded it with its own line of opera-themed merchandise and a restaurant.

A decade into running her own school, she was finally acknowledged by Hong Kong’s opera cognoscenti.

“I was invited to a seminar on the future of Cantonese opera by an expert on traditional Chinese opera,” Ma said. “He knew me when I founded Cha Duk Chang, but it was only in our tenth year that he decided to invite me. I asked him, ‘Why did it take so long?’ and he said, ‘I had to make sure you could still continue with your interesting idea. I just wanted to check whether you could survive.’ It took 10 years to prove I could survive!”

Ma’s firm belief that the key to preserving Cantonese opera is to teach it to children, once a hard sell to traditionalists, was recently adopted by the Education Bureau of Hong Kong. Its latest Music Curriculum Guide encourages the teaching of Cantonese opera in primary and secondary schools. This is one of many efforts by the Government of Hong Kong to promote the artform, including providing grants to opera think tanks and facilitating the development and expansion of opera houses around the island.

Lau agrees that education is the best means of addressing the danger of Cantonese opera disappearing. “Why do you know Beethoven and Mozart? One of the biggest reasons is because hundreds of years ago, music school decided to teach their pieces,” he said.

Many older Cantonese opera practitioners, including Lau’s father, learned the art through oral tradition.

“When they pass on, their knowledge goes with them,” he says. “Our job is to extract all that information that might pass away and house it somewhere sustainable. But unless it’s funded properly, unless there’s government backing behind it, unless there’s infrastructure around it, it’s still going to get lost.”