Forgotten Hong Kong Icon: Crafting Cantonese Opera Headdresses by Hand

The scene opens on Temple Street with a backdrop of low hanging clouds and the steady pneumatic beat of roadwork. The neighbourhood’s usual players make their entrances and exits. Overhead, banners decorated with the flags of China and Hong Kong twist languidly in the tepid air. A discrete entrance sandwiched between fishmongers signals a scene change. 

On the fourth storey of a low rise tenement, we come to a rusting gate. Hooked haphazardly upon its steel bars are ornate opera headdresses, their baubles glinting in the wan afternoon light, faded pompoms collecting dust. A crooked plastic sign above this ersatz hat stand declares that this is Chan Yuen Kee (陳源記), home to Chan Kwok-yuen: master headdress maker for Cantonese opera.

A commotion is heard as Chan, known in the operatic fraternity as Brother Yuen, comes to the door. Spirited from sleep, the master rubs his eyes and bids us to enter in his gruff but friendly manner. Clad in a singlet and slacks, Chan navigates a confusion of shopping bags festooning furniture and cramming every available space. Peering through the translucent pinks and whites of plastic stretched to breaking point, it is possible to discern pompoms, beads and faux gemstones: the miscellany of Chan’s craft. 

Enthroned in a high backed wooden chair, the sifu proffers a bowl of oatmeal, then makes a declaration. “I eat, wake up and sleep very late,” he says. “I work until six in the morning and rise at one or two in the afternoon.” The master has been busy this past night. Wire, fabric, pliers and UHU glue sprawl across a table in front of him. Sitting atop this jumble is a magnificent Nine Phoenix Crown, fit for a Ming Empress. The headdress is bedazzled with costume gems and drips with strings of faux pearls. A jade-like amulet adorns the front and fabric birds, edged with gold thread, glint in the fluorescent light, their googly eyes jiggle maniacally as Chan gently handles the headpiece.

Born in Zhongshan, just across the Pearl River Estuary from Hong Kong, Chan has been creating ornate headdresses for over 70 years. He fled mainland China as a teenager in the wake of the Communist Revolution, only to find himself homeless and alone in Hong Kong. “It was very hard. I used to sleep at the Po Hing Theatre in Yau Ma Tei,” he recalls. Outside the theatre, Chan eked out a living as a hawker – but his luck changed when he was brought into the company as an actor. 

He was taken under the wing of a veteran sifu who had cut his teeth in the “red boat troupe” (hung4 syun4 hei3 baan1 紅船戲班) tradition – travelling opera troupes who navigated the waterways of Guangdong on red-sailed junks. Chan worked his way up to the position of spear carrier then found he’d go no further. “I acted until 1955,” he says. “Then I realised I would never become popular. It wasn’t meant to be, so I went behind the scenes.”

Chan underwent a second apprenticeship in headdress making. “I was relatively old so I had to make a living at the same time,” he says. “It was informal – I would watch, learn and assist whilst doing chores like going to the market and making deliveries.” Through imitation Chan picked up the craft, even managing to innovate along the way. “I tend to customise everything, even my own suits and ties. Clients enjoy the novelty.” Chan has invented at least three types of headdress, contributing to the evolution of the craft. “Some of my headdresses can be worn in several different ways. What was one headpiece can transform into several.”

Before long, Chan’s competitors copied his inventions, making them industry standard. “The others were more traditional than I was and, of course, I mastered the traditional techniques before building on them – but with many new methods and materials I was first.”

Cantonese opera costumes are invested with historical and cultural meaning. Each denotes the status of a character, the occasion and the prevailing dynasty. “Even in our industry, not many people fully understand the history and rules behind costumes,” says Chan. “There’s always [an] underlying meaning.” It is these proscriptive conventions which keep costumes consistent in terms of tone and time period from show to show.

Costumes bedecked with dragons are for emperors, but only if those dragons have five claws. Dragons with four claws are for high ranking royalty and three claws means the character is merely a high ranking official. Chan gestures towards a saffron gown hung by his work station. “That is a Nine Dragon Gown – three dragons in the front, three on the back, one on each sleeve and the final one inside. Only an emperor of the Qing Dynasty gets to wear that.” Other cryptids also make cameos – the empress’ talisman is a phoenix whilst qilins are emblematic of generals. 

Costumes are further categorised by era. A Qing empress, with her customary phoenixes, may also appear swathed in dragons. Chan picks up a headpiece crowned with a spike – a Qing general’s helmet. “The Qing looked particularly different because they had contact with the West and emulated their fashion,” says Chan. “They wanted to look modern and eschewed anything stylistically linked to the past.” This helm certainly differs significantly from anything in the past; it has been made from a repurposed motorcycle helmet.

As night falls, the hatter’s nimble fingers twist and glue wire, cloth, and paper into gilded works of art. “The time it takes to create a headdress is elastic,” says Chan with a shrug. “If something is complex it will take time and be more expensive.” He picks up his Nine Phoenix Crown. “This is my newest and most beautiful style. All I ask is HK$10,000 for it. There may be cheaper ones on the market but the materials and skill I put in are different.” The sturdiness of Chan’s work stands testament to its quality. “Many items that I made decades ago are still almost as beautiful as when they were new. Styles may have changed but the objects themselves are in good shape.” 

It was not craftsmanship alone that made Brother Yuen’s name in the industry. “At heart, I was an actor,” he says. “Many fellow thespians knew me – they became my patrons.” Working in a visual medium, most Cantonese opera actors prefer to make an impression by buying their own costumes rather than sharing substandard ones owned by a troupe. 

By 1973, many glamorous names of stage and screen were coming to Chan for their headdresses. Sun Ma Sze-tsang (新馬師曾), Tang Pik-wan (鄧碧雲), Yam Bing-yi (仼冰兒), Lee Heung-kam (李香琴), Nan Hung (南紅) – these are some of the top names that took a chance on Chan. “Ten years on, the entire industry came knocking,” he crows. “I knew all the ins and outs. I understood show business.” 

Armed with insider knowledge, Yuen began shaking up his industry.

He priced his goods strategically. “I was never the most expensive because I knew what my customers were likely to be making,” he says. “I was cheaper and yet my product was of high quality. Sometimes I’d work on credit. I have a talent for spotting potential so if a lesser known name is taking his show on tour they can settle with me when they return, flush with cash. In our circle, whoever is untrustworthy will be revealed. People talk and if you don’t pay your debts – we can’t be friends anymore.” 

Sometimes the risk hasn’t paid off and in these cases, Chan is empathetic. “Some actors flop. They don’t have to settle their accounts and I won’t ask either. I know you failed so we’ll call it even. If they have integrity they will find a way to repay me. If they don’t I won’t judge. I wanted to be an actor once and I knew I wouldn’t make it. I understand.”

Chan is now 87 years old. He is slowing down and he makes far fewer headdresses than he used to. “I used to have the energy but now my back hurts,” he says. “In the past I could do three or four in a month but now I can barely do one or two. I rely on my apprentices.” But there is no question of him exiting the stage. Even if he can’t make everything himself, he now acts as lead designer. “Does the property developer personally dig up the foundations? I don’t think so!” he exclaims. “The general commands the troops!”

The industry faced by Chan’s apprentices will be much different to that faced by their master. “I have taken on more students than I can count but many leave without successfully learning the skill because there is no way to make a living doing this,” he says. As with so many traditional crafts, the time needed to do this intricate work is the bottleneck. “Rushed work is poor quality but going slowly you can only produce low quantities.”

Chan thinks that this craft will survive for as long as Cantonese opera – but he isn’t entirely optimistic about that, either. “It is entirely possible that the culture will decline,” he says. “Four-hour-long shows! And the ticket prices!” he hurumphs. “The audiences are growing old and the youth aren’t keen.” 

He points out that some actors, unable to shoulder the cost of a handmade costume, are turning to online shopping platform Taobao for their theatrical accoutrements. “It’s not the same as buying a cheaper loaf of bread,” he admonishes. “A four dollar loaf will fill your belly as a six dollar one would, but onstage the quality of your costume makes a difference.” With a magisterial wave, he carefully puts his crown to the side and, with a final costume change from singlet to suit, the king of costumes consents to be photographed. 

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