The Old Man and the Sea is Now a Cantonese Opera

A humorous essay published this summer in The New Yorker imagines how Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea might be contemporised for students in 2023. In a nutshell, the man vs. fish fight is live-streamed as friends and armchair quarterbacks weigh in on social media, a food delivery boat brings coffee, Santiago loses his phone overboard, and so on. Writer Ian Frazier’s satiric whimsy reminds us what makes Hemingway’s novella — the only text for which he won the Pulitzer Prize — his most mythical book in a fairly legendary oeuvre: it is the primo distillation of Papa Hemingway, as clear as the Bacardi Carta Blanca rum he drank to take the edge off after steamy mornings writing in his Havana hotel. No women, no wars, no libido, no alcohol and not even any ego; just a solitary hero and one noble adversary matching raw strength and endurance in the vast ocean.

Now The Old Man and the Sea is about to be performed in full Cantonese Opera regalia, and that’s not a punchline – though Hemingway fans can wonder what the mercurial author’s reaction would have been. (For the record, he visited Hong Kong and China briefly in 1941, the occasion for a rare photo of an uncomfortable Hemingway trying to use chopsticks.) However, Yuen Siu-fai, the show’s co-creator and one of Hong Kong’s last first grade Cantonese opera sifus, would like to assure an incredulous Hem, if he were still around, that, respectfully, he’s got this.

The production in question is a joint creation by Yuen and theatre director Tang Shu-wing for the New Visions festival. The play nestles Yuen’s solo interpretation of Santiago’s struggle inside a modern story about a granddaughter and her deceased grandfather, which Tang and his co-scriptwriter Matthew Cheng developed to explore the novella’s other leitmotif: the ambiguous relationship between Santiago and his adoring young assistant, Manolin. 

Just weeks before the show’s premiere, Yuen, who has written an original libretto that will be accompanied on traditional instruments, was keeping his performance under wraps even from Tang, who normally doesn’t accommodate capricious actors. But after a seven decade career that has seen him perform for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace and win every performing arts award Hong Kong has, Yuen has hard-earned diva cred and isn’t afraid to use it. He concedes only that, quite rightly, he will appear in the operatic costume of a fisherman. 

In street clothes, the 78-year old Yuen looks every bit the part of a sprightly retiree in spectacles with a slight paunch and a demure smile. But a careful observer will notice a certain precision in his hand gestures and a set of dancingly expressive eyes: his two greatest tools to convey everything from a noble general (man4 mou5 saang1 or wenwusheng, 文武生) to a female clown (coi2 daan3 or caidan, 彩旦). Yuen is in fact rare in his ability to perform all Cantonese opera roles. 

Rehearsing with actress Cassandra Tang one afternoon at the Xiqu Centre, Yuen mimed the grandfather’s morning routine (washing, dressing, making tea…) with elegant clarity, but when he burst effortlessly into a flowing series of opera postures, the energy in the studio expanded tenfold. Certain wusheng roles require an elevated mastery of martial arts skills, and in the middle of a busy rehearsal session, Yuen gave a two-minute masterclass in owning the room. It was also a preview, for any doubters. of what a Cantonese Opera sifu can bring to the role of Santiago, who spends three days at sea hooking a giant marlin but loses it to predator sharks and must return to shore without a catch to sell for the 85th day.

Yuen’s career, on the other hand, has seen nothing but good fortune. He was introduced to Cantonese opera at the age of five, when he spent a year with an actor uncle in Macau who specialised in playing a young, innocent female (faa1 daan3 or huadan, ). Three years later, he began to act in films and was hailed as a child prodigy at the same time that opera performers were starting to recognise the opportunities afforded by Hong Kong’s postwar movie industry to show off their skills to diaspora audiences. Yuen was bitten by the opera bug and apprenticed to the great operatic artist Mak Ping-wing for four years. This now defunct practice, also typical in martial arts, required young students to live with and serve their teachers in exchange for rigorous training and daily observation of their master’s moral character. By the age of 14, Yuen was already a skilled actor, singer and martial artist. 

Today, his performance and script writing credits in opera, cinema and television defy counting. However, his lasting legacy may be as a tireless advocate for both the preservation and diversification of Cantonese opera. All the way back in 1971, he founded the Group of Hong Kong Experimental Cantonese Opera, and he currently pilots the One Table Two Chairs Foundation. Its tagline: “To Make Cantonese Opera Approachable and Relevant!” In one example of the foundation’s outreach from 2021, Yuen dialogued and performed with Cantopop star Hins Cheung to explore crossovers with naamyam (naam4 jam1, 南音), a popular Cantonese narrative song tradition from the early 20th century. 

UNESCO recognised Cantonese Opera as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009, citing its role in recreation and spiritual life, its incorporation of Shaolin martial arts and its “rich repertoire of stories ranging from historical epics to more realistic descriptions of daily life.” Yuen doesn’t see any value, however, in preserving it as a museum piece. 

Yuen Siu-fai at rehearsal

“Cantonese Opera is an art,” he says through an interpreter during a break, sitting at the table and chairs that will be the whole of the set design for The Old Man and His Sea, in keeping with the itinerant origins of all Chinese opera. “If you want to do it one way, that’s fine; if I want to do it another way, that’s fine. What matters is if it is successful.”  

He admits however that, without the “hardship” of the apprentice system to intensively train artists from a young age, current proficiency levels are inevitably inferior to what they once were. Yuen spent only two years in formal schooling, in pursuit of the skills to become a master, something no family would allow anymore. But he rejects the idea that his learning has been deficient in any way. “Cantonese opera taught me everything,” he says. “All of my education came from opera scripts.”

Yuen’s motivation with this production is therefore “to show to the current Cantonese opera profession what a traditional performer should be capable of doing,” according to Tang, who has long shared his friend’s ambition to interpret The Old Man and the Sea (as youths, both men were impressed by the 1958 movie starring Spencer Tracy). That means telling a story solely through the body, as artists did before the introduction of elaborate sets and props. “With each additional prop, you are moving one gesture less,” Yuen explains.  

“The traditional artist creates from nothing,” Tang emphasises, likening that risk-taking to Santiago’s voyage into previously unsailed seas. Yuen seconds the idea, revealing that he hopes his performance will convey the fear and loneliness that an encounter with the vastness of nature can summon, a theme that Western literature frequently examines but that is foreign to Cantonese opera.

Surprisingly, this sifu confides that, on stage, he still questions what it is all for, the hard work trying to incarnate a story for an audience that may not even be paying attention. In those moments, he believes that Santiago shares his own sentiment: “Whatever people think doesn’t matter to me; what matters is what I think about myself and my life.” 

It’s tempting to imagine that Hemingway might have appreciated Cantonese opera’s origins as an “entertainment of the common people,” the scrappy upstart to its more codified Peking cousin and the cultural expression of Guangdong and Hong Kong’s immigrant, diasporic identity (as described in Wing Chung-ng’s book The Rise of Cantonese Opera). Certainly, in Yuen’s meticulous skills and his ability to fully immerse himself in fictional worlds, Hemingway may have found something of his own male hero and even his deepest reader. 

At the climax of his struggle with the marlin, Santiago wonders which among them is the hunter and which is the prey, a humbling illumination that Yuen’s path in opera has taught him in its way. “I think I have done nothing,” he reflects. “In my 70 year long career, I feel I am still not a success. But I have learned a lot along the way.”  Hemingway couldn’t have said it any better.

The Old Man and the Sea runs from November 10 to 12 at the Kwai Tsing Theatre. It will be presented in Cantonese with Chinese and English surtitles. There will be a meet-the-artist session after each performance.


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