Exhibition recaptures history of Tai Ping Theatre (with photos)

    Street shows in the form of Chinese opera were seen in Hong Kong's Central district as early as the beginning of British rule. As its population grew and the economy prospered, Hong Kong began to demand more entertainment.

    The entertainment business flourished even more noticeably in the Chinese communities in Sheung Wan and Western district. Better equipped than their bamboo counterparts, these purpose-built theatres became important entertainment venues for the Chinese, and one of them, the Tai Ping Theatre in Western district, established a name for itself in the early 20th century.

    The theatre was finally closed in 1981. Since then the owner, Ms Beryl Yuen Bik-fook, has dedicated her efforts to conserving the cultural artefacts of the theatre and also of her family・s other businesses. In autumn 2004, Ms Yuen approached the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) with a proposal to donate to the Government the artefacts she had collected. Because of the diversity of the Yuen businesses and the extensive range of the cultural artefacts, stocktaking and cataloguing the collection took time.  In 2006 Ms Yuen donated more than 6,000 items to LCSD・s Hong Kong Heritage Museum, the Hong Kong Museum of History and the Hong Kong Film Archive.

    A ceremony was held today (June 28) at the Heritage Museum to mark the donation. To give the public an opportunity to view these valuable artefacts, an exhibition which showcases 33 artefacts selected from the donation will be held at the Heritage Museum from today until July 7.

    At today's Donation Ceremony of Tai Ping Theatre Collections, the Deputy Director (Culture) of LCSD, Mr Chung Ling-hoi, said the Tai Ping Theatre was one of the largest theatres at that time. The theatre specialised in staging performances of Cantonese opera and invited renowned Cantonese operatic artist Ma Sze-tsang to found the Tai Ping Opera Troupe and perform at the theatre. The theatre was later renovated, with a sound-on-film projector installed to screen Chinese and Western films, and became a witness to the development of films from silence to sound and from black-and-white to colour.

    "The generous donation of Ms Yuen enables us to learn more about the development of Cantonese opera and cinema in the early days, and the mutual relationships between these two kinds of art," Mr Chung said.

    Built between Queen's Road West and Des Voeux Road West in Western District in 1904, the three-storey Tai Ping Theatre had more than 1,000 seats and was one of the most well-established theatres in early 20th century Hong Kong. In addition to offering seating on chairs and benches, the theatre also pioneered more comfortable :concubine couches; as well as numbered seating, setting the standard for other theatres to follow.

    The Tai Ping Theatre was renovated in 1932 with a sound-on-film projector to screen Chinese and Western films. Upgraded in this way to a cinema, the theatre expanded the number of seats to about 2,000 and also introduced ushers to substantially enhance its facilities and services.

    After the Second World War, as the film industry in Hong Kong began to flourish, Cantonese opera films also proved highly popular. Stage performances, however, began to lose their appeal in the late 1960s. As television became popular, together with the vigorous competition in the theatre field and other factors, the Tai Ping Theatre eventually closed in 1981. The last screening was "Security Unlimited". The theatre was demolished and the site was redeveloped. It is occupied today by the Wah Ming Centre.

    The Tai Ping Theatre was operated in 1907 by Mr Yuen Hang-kiu, who then passed on the business to his son, Mr Yuen Jim-fan, in the 1930s. Since 1981 Ms Beryl Yuen Bik-fook, the daughter of Mr Yuen Jim-fan, has dedicated her efforts to conserving the cultural artefacts of the theatre and also of her family・s other businesses. She later decided to donate her collection to the public museums for preservation.

    Spanning almost 100 years, the cultural artefacts of the Tai Ping Theatre comprise a uniquely comprehensive collection that is a genuine treasure trove for the study of local theatre history. During Hong Kong・s occupation by the Japanese, the Tai Ping Theatre was requisitioned as a warehouse, and the artefacts related to that period provide important clues for the study of this era in Hong Kong history. As well as the Tai Ping Theatre, the diversified Yuen businesses included entertainment companies, and the artefacts also feature a variety of commercial documents that represent valuable primary sources for the study of social and economic activities in early 20th century Hong Kong.

    The cultural artefacts of the Tai Ping Theatre collection can be categorised as follows:

    The "deeds and contracts" category includes master-apprentice contracts, the theatre・s contracts of employment, performance agreements, auditorium and film reel leases and performance contracts with visiting Cantonese opera troupes. These documents deal with the employment of artists, stage crews and other staff, agreements for outside performances by the Tai Ping Opera Troupe and for performances at the theatre by visiting opera troupes, as well as leases for film reels for in-house screenings.

    The master-apprentice contracts dating from the early 20th century are particularly valuable, as they reflect the practices prevalent in apprenticeships in an opera troupe during that period.

    The "documents for endorsement and approval" category includes documents related to applications for running the theatre and re-opening the theatre under Japanese rule, as well as the Constitutional Document for the Inception of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Theatre Association.

    The "correspondence" category includes correspondence which documents the Tai Ping Theatre・s relations with government institutions, such as the Inland Revenue Department, the Secretariat for Chinese Affairs, Stamp Duty Office, and so on. Correspondence with the press, radio stations, other theatres and cinemas, film companies, Tung Wah Hospital and the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce also make up a part of the collection. These historical records reveal how the theatre was run as well as how it liaised with the film industry and co-operated with other organisations. Also included are letters between the theatre and the Cantonese opera masters Ma Sze-tsang and Tam Lan-hing, as well as staff correspondence, telegrams and memos.

    The "publicity material" category includes advertisements, postbills, special issues and newspapers. The collection reveals how theatres and Cantonese opera troupes promoted their shows in the early years of the 20th century.

    The Tai Ping Theatre was home to the Tai Ping Opera Troupe led by famous actor Ma Sze-tsang. The :librettos; category features several clay-print librettos written by Ma in which he played the starring role. The collection is a valuable resource for studying both his performance art and his operatic creativity.

    The "account books" category includes ledgers, receipts and account journals for the Tai Ping Theatre and the Tai Ping Opera Troupe from 1920 to 1979. These documents reveal the theatre・s operations and revenue.

    The collection also includes calligraphic tablets that were hung in the theatre・s office, oil paintings, photographs, seating plans, tickets, architectural plans and other books and publications.

    Located at 1 Man Lam Road, Sha Tin, the Heritage Museum opens from 10am to 6pm from Monday to Saturday, and from 10am to 7pm on Sundays and public holidays. It is closed on Tuesdays (except public holidays). Admission is $10, with a half-price concession for full-time students, people with disabilities and senior citizens aged 60 or above. Admission is free on Wednesdays.

    Car parking is available at the Heritage Museum. Those who prefer to use public transport may take the MTR to the Che Kung Temple station, which is within five minutes・ walk of the museum.

    For enquiries, call 2180 8188. For details of the exhibition, visit the Heritage Museum's website at http://hk.heritage.museum/.

Ends/Saturday, June 28, 2008
Issued at HKT 16:01