CHEN Xiangyang (New York University) Technologizing the Vernacular: Cantonese Opera Films through The Legend of Purple Hairpin, English/32 pages, September 2007.


This essay studies the interaction of film and traditional Cantonese stage through the genre of Cantonese opera films. It attempts to examine the relation of the two media as well as the nexus of opera films with Hong Kong society and culture. Technologizing the vernacular is homage to Walter Ongˇ¦s technologizing of the word in which he argues that the rise of technologies, such as writing, print and electronic media, have generated new ways of consciousness. This essay argues that in Hong Kong context, this new consciousness can be fathomed through Cantonese opera films. The crux of the essay lies in how inter-media illumination and clash, particularly between opera and film, has facilitated an increasingly uplifting effort in traditional Cantonese stage representation, and which has been sidelined by a compensatory emphasis on pathos.

The essay recognizes a technologizing effect traditional stage has undergone in a modern context traversed with different force relations and dominated by the increasing presence and penetration of technologies. The mechanization of Cantonese opera is, however, accompanied by a compensatory excess of expressivity in the 1950s. The heavy pathos and exaggerated performance siphons off abstraction attendant on mechanization. Opera films, particularly those composed by Tong Tik-sang for the troupe Sin Fung Ming, strike a psychic resonance in Hong Kong culture and society. The mode of expression specific to opera, the emphasis on and all-round development of sentiment, has deep repercussions on post-war Hong Kong boggled down with war trauma, poverty, population inflation, and housing shortages. They have demonstrated as well their ties with other aspects of Hong Kong culture. The essay argues that filmˇ¦s role in representing the mode of expression specific to opera should in no case be discredited. A case study has been conducted of The Legend of Purple Hairpin (Zi Chai Ji, 1959).