When one transports an opera set in 13th-century Florence to early 20th-century Shanghai, as Opera Hong Kong did for the comic opera half of this weekend’s double bill of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, one can expect some textual inconsistencies. Puccini’s only outing in opera buffa tells a story hinted at in Dante’s Inferno: of an out-of-towner who tricks a wealthy family out their inheritance by will-tampering. The story might have come from the pages of the South China Morning Post, so audiences on the whole seem willing to overlook the references to Tuscany. The setting allowed for a number of (quite funny) culturally-specific sight gags.
Whether or not you agree with the arguments of Hong Kong’s student activists, everyone can agree that their emergence has been one of the biggest changes to Hong Kong’s political situation for at least a decade.
The Opium Wars are probably the only actual shooting wars in history that are named after a drug. They may be the only major wars between countries that are named after a commodity of any kind. Britain and Iceland had their cod war, but that hardly counts. The United States had a Whiskey Rebellion and Australia had a Rum Rebellion. France and Mexico fought a desultory Pastry War in 1838 that cost Santa Anna his left leg and catapulted the rest of him to dictatorship. But the Opium Wars set the trajectory of the East Asian interstate system for 100 years and resonate in historical memory to this day.
Knowingly or not, anyone who has spent much time at all on what used to be called the “China Coast” will surely have come across the paintings of the George Chinnery, an English artist active in Macau in the second quarter of the 19th century. Whatever profile Chinnery may have in the broader painterly pantheon, in Hong Kong and Macau he is the closest to an artistic native son that the Western colonial tradition has.
Most places other than those where English is the main language are usually—in terms of literature—defined by works in the local language; English-readers view this tradition via translations. But the situation in Hong Kong is reversed: because Hong Kong Chinese works are so rarely translated, and because there is a considerable body of Hong Kong writing in English, Hong Kong has come to most non-Chinese readers via the English rather than the Chinese tradition. Translated Hong Kong Chinese literature remains all too uncommon, so the small (but numerous) morsels in Cantonese Love Stories, a collection of twenty-five short pieces by Dung Ka-Cheung, are very welcome.
All too many places have the form of democracy—elections—without the substance. Hong Kong, just about uniquely, has the opposite: most of the substance—a free press, independent courts, rule of law, privacy protections, etc.—without the form. The territory suffers having a significant democratic deficit, a situation that Christopher Patten, the “last governor”, famously called “liberty without democracy”.
The reportedly increasing average age of opera audiences—or the flip-side of a purported lack of appeal to new and younger audiences—is a cause of ongoing angst among opera circles the world over. Regardless of whether the reports of opera’s death may in fact be exaggerated, it is encouraging when someone deliberately sets out to do something about it.