Touring Overseas

Peking Opera of both shores meet in Hong Kong

In 1970, the Ministry of Education selected fine actors from major opera troupes in Taiwan to form a Youth Chinese Opera Group, representing the Republic of China to take part and perform in the Asia Arts Festival of the International Expo in Japan. It was still a time of prohibition and to be able to go overseas was a rare thing. With her outstanding acting as a rising star, Kuo Hsiao-chuang was selected to play the White Snake in "Chin Shan Monastery". This was her first trip abroad. She was filled with excitement and a sense of something new. But she complied strictly with team rules, earnestly rehearsing and practicing without going around sightseeing. Her one aim was to perform well in her mission. After her return with fame, she was rated as an "outstanding actress" and received an award. After many years, recalling this would still make Kuo Hsiao-chuang very happy.

In both 1973 and 1974, the Ministry of Education co-operated with the Harold Shaw Agency of the USA to assemble a large scale Chinese opera group with as many as 75 members. The plan was for the group to tour the USA for 3 months annually. In both selection exercises, Kuo Hsiao-chuang was among the first to be selected. This project gathered all young stars who would be performing in over 50 cities including Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh, etc. This was an unprecedented grand scheme, so all group members took part in group training before the tour, practicing their own shows time and again, paying attention to preparations in body movements, singing styles, costume and make-up carefully.

What touched Kuo Hsiao-chuang's heart most was: so many famous actors gathered together, going abroad only to perform "hodgepodge" condensed excerpts of within 20 minutes each. And most of it was mainly martial art display. The purpose was to get overseas audiences interested and to be easily understood. At first glance, what appeared on stage was bustling and fun. But where promotion of Chinese traditional culture and Chinese opera art was concerned, could this format achieve the effect? This aroused her doubts and reflection.

Since then, Kuo Hsiao-chuang's chances of being invited to perform overseas had increased. In 1976 and 1978, she was twice invited to perform at the Hong Kong Asian Arts Festival, with very good reviews. As early as 1978, she was invited to perform at New York's Lincoln Center. She performed the complete opera "Picking Up The Jade Bracelet" at this world famous theater, with her meticulous acting and singing. The theater was fully packed with 1700 seats, a real sensation. In 1984, she was again invited to lead Ya Yin Ensemble to play the complete "White Snake and Hsu Hsien" at Lincoln Center. This was the first time since Ya Yin Ensemble's founding in 1979 to march on the international stage. The innovative performing style gave the audience a new experience, even more so than "Picking Up The Jade Bracelet". For both shows she had done away with "hodgepodge" excerpts but presented complete plots for the audience, allowing them to understand in depth and appreciate them. The reality showed her thinking and method were correct. The audience felt she was "out of the ordinary".

She had also been invited to perform in Asian Film Festivals, and had gone as far as Italy to perform in the Olympic Theater in Rome, and the Rossini Theater in Pesaro. The National TV of Italy even recorded and broadcast these shows.

Among Kuo Hsiao-chuang's several overseas tours, the most unforgettable for her was the 12th Asian Arts Festival of Hong Kong in 1988 (77th Year of the Republic). Ya Yin Ensemble was invited to take part. The venue was the City Hall Concert Hall. The show was scheduled for October 24 to 27 (Monday to Thursday). By coincidence, the Hong Kong United Arts Entertainment Company was organizing "Festival of Classics of Mei Lan-fang's Art". The Peking Opera Troupe was invited to come to Hong Kong and perform 12 shows from October 28. The venue was Sunbeam Theater in North Point. The Principal actors coming with the Troupe were Mei Lan-fang's son Mei Pao-chiu, daughter Mei Pao-yueh and famous female leads of the Mei School Shen Hsiao-mei and Li Yu-fu. These were the last two disciples of Mei Lan-fang before his death. Besides, there was the heir of the Yeh School Yeh Shao-lan, the heir of the Tan School Tan Yuan-shou, and Ma Chung-jen the son of Ma Lien-liang.

After 40 years of separation, Peking Opera of both shores of the Taiwan Strait would now run into each other in Hong Kong. Moreover, opera troupes of the two places would be performing one after the other consecutively. This was close to a "tournament".

Kuo Hsiao-chuang decided on the operas to perform at a very early date. For the first two days, it would be "Wang Kuei Jilting Kuei Ying", the play Yu Ta-kang specially wrote for her. For the next two days she would play "Matchmaker Red Maid", the play she was adept in.

As early as the beginning of October, Kuo Hsiao-chuang had visited Hong Kong twice to engage in promotion work. The Arts Festival staff asked her not to worry. She would be paid the fee no matter what the box office was like. She explained painstakingly that her aim of coming to do promotion work was hoping to get more audience to enter the theater and watch Ya Yin's show and understand Ya Yin's ideals for Chinese opera innovation. The Festival staff were at last convinced and took the initiative to arrange for her to give talks at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and other schools. Facing the students sitting, standing and filling the entire Run Run Shaw Hall, she related in great detail the ideal and conviction of reforming Chinese opera. Everybody was listening in silence. The young faces emitted light and brightness of being moved. She demonstrated a few stage movements in "Wang Kuei Jilting Kuei Ying". The attentive listening gradually turned into enthusiastic questioning. Kuo Hsiao-chuang could feel it: her goal was half achieved already.

Then she gave interviews for the media. Like a hurricane, she gained concentrated exposure in Hong Kong. When the whole troupe had arrived in Hong Kong, management of their living was strict. They turned down all invitations to social functions and banquets, concentrating on rehearsals. Their attitude of respect for their profession was an eye opener. Ya Yin's 4 shows were all sold out before hand. The organizers had to sell tickets for standing room. This was never seen in Hong Kong before. At the dress rehearsal on the eve of the opening night, the news media were specially invited to watch. This not only made the cast familiarize with the stage surroundings, but also reached a climax for promotion. Kuo Hsiao-chuang had manifested her overawing breadth of spirit.

On the day of formal performance, the set design, lighting, music and costume all were eye openers for Hong Kong opera fans. Kuo Hsiao-chuang and Tsao Fu-yung were praised for their acting. Everybody commended this as a serious and elegant work. Maestro Yu Zhen-fei, the Grand Master of Kun Opera, was full of praise on the spot. On the second night, Mei Pao-chiu and Yeh Shao-lan, etc. arrived in Hong Kong. They immediately hurried to the City Hall to watch Ya Yin's show. The two first called at back stage to give their greetings to Kuo Hsiao-chuang. Peking opera performing artists of the two shores eventually met and exchanged greetings. At that moment, Kuo Hsiao-chuang was busy dressing up. She at once welcomed them warmly, holding their hands, with a warm feeling of mutual well wishing rising in her heart.

On stage, Ya Yin performed with zeal and concentration. In the auditorium, the audience watched attentively. The large theater was so quiet that there was no jarring noise at all. Mei Pao-chiu and company were deeply moved. When the show ended, they went straight from front stage to back stage, grasping Kuo Hsiao-chuang's hands again to congratulate her enthusiastically. They were offering congratulations again for Ya Yin's innovation and the achievements of Taiwan's Chinese opera.

Miss Wang Hui-ping, reporter of Min Sheng Daily News , had at the time reported in detail how Mei Pao-chiu and other famous Mainland artists felt about Ya Yin.

Mei Pao-chiu and Yeh Shao-lan both felt that Kuo Hsiao-chuang's Ya Yin style had achieved innovation and reform for Peking opera. There were innovations in stage lighting and props, etc. They felt that it was good to try new things in Peking Opera. It took a long time to test art.

After watching Ya Yin's show, Mei Pao-chiu and Yeh Shao-lan both felt that the whole show was very "gripping". Kuo Hsiao-chuang was an actress who had brains. Not only could she act, but she could direct too. At the same time, while Ya Yin emphasized modern theater concepts, the singing, speaking, movements and martial arts were all traditional Chinese opera performances. To make inheriting and development complement each other, that was the key point when Mei Lan-fang reformed Peking opera in the early days. Although Mei and Yeh et al. adhered strictly to their schools in their performing, Mei Pao-chiu indicated: "Mainland Peking opera also makes new attempts in stage audio and lighting effects!" (See Min Sheng Daily News of October 26, 1988).

After her shows ended successfully, Kuo Hsiao-chuang stayed longer in Hong Kong and made special trips to Sunbeam Theater to watch the performance by Mei Pao-chiu and sister. She went to the back stage to congratulate them. According to Issue 506 of the Times Weekly (published on November 20, 1988), the news report by Miss Tang Pi-yun made detailed analysis and comparison between the Ya Yin Ensemble and the Peking Opera Troupe performances.

"However, comparison between Peking opera shows of the two shores of the Strait began only after Ya Yin had finished their show and the Peking Opera Troupe staged their show immediately afterwards on October 28. The Hong Kong opera goers who have seen Taiwan Ya Yin Ensemble's performance will almost all watch Mei Pao-chiu of Peking as well, to compare and contrast. Peking Opera Troupe is in fact at a great disadvantage. Besides the display of crowds of audiences which already exert pressure on Peking Opera Troupe, they are moreover no match to Ya Yin in packaging of the play and marketing strategy. The "archaic and old-fashioned" characteristic of Peking Opera Troupe is at once highlighted in comparison.

"To compare the modern feeling and passe feeling of Ya Yin and Peking Opera Troupe respectively, one could discuss from the two aspects of the drama and the incidents. On incidents, for instance:

1. Both Kuo Hsiao-chuang and Mei Pao-chiu had in turn appeared in HKTVBs "Good Morning" and "Enjoy Yourself Tonight" programs to promote their shows. Besides interviews, both had been invited to act an excerpt. Kuo Hsiao-chuang demanded to put on costume and make-up for this show, and personally monitored the photography effect before agreeing to the broadcast. Mei Pao-chiu, on the other hand, just sang an excerpt in his suit without make-up and acting, giving a careless demonstration".

2. Ya Yin Ensemble gave a very formal dress rehearsal show before opening. It allowed the Hong Kong news media to take pictures and promote (at proper shows the City Hall forbade photography). The Peking Opera Troupe only gave a party for reporters on the day before opening. At this party the Hong Kong reporters were all concerned about Mei Pao-chiu's view of Ya Yin Ensemble's innovative shows."

3. Peking Opera Troupe had a lot of social functions with Hong Kong's amateur circle. The well-known actors' almost daily routine was rehearsal in the morning, social function at noon, performance in the evening, and supper at midnight. Since they had the intention to take small favors from the amateur fans, the Mainland actors all fawned obsequiously on the rich amateur opera buffs. Besides ceaseless social occasions and meals, the minor actors flocked to front of house after the show to distribute name cards. The scene looked bizarre. As for Ya Yin Ensemble, during their stay in Hong Kong they declined all invitations from amateur circles. Their schedule was fixed: rehearsal in the morning, return to hotel for rest in the afternoon, performing in the evening, and no ticket sales to the amateurs fans, displaying the integrity and discipline of a modern authentic artistic group."

4. Peking Opera Troupe's tour to Hong Kong this time was also fraught with mishaps. The cast was changed time and again. The actors and opera titles printed in the house program all showed errors. For some shows, the cast was only decided on the day of the show and there was no time to print it in the house program. In Ya Yin Ensemble's beautifully printed souvenir program, the history, background of actors and the operas of Ya Yin were introduced in detail."

5. On the last 2 days of Peking Opera Troupe's show they performed in the company of Hong Kong amateurs. This was most unacceptable to Taiwan young Chinese opera actors.

"The renowned actors, including Mei Pao-chiu, Tan Yuan-shou, Yeh Shao-lan, Ma Chang-li and Ma Yu-chang, etc. who made up the Peking Opera Troupe on this occasion were in fact assembling actors from many opera troupes. The stars were of course tip-top in their performing art, but were relatively lacking in rapport. At the same time there were too much social activity and too few rehearsals. There were a lot of errors on stage. The stars could not give their standard performance. Furthermore, just from the operatic angle, there were still a lot of "archaic and old-fashioned" points highlighted, such as:

1. Every day several unrelated excerpts were rehearsed. Stories were incomplete. Most of them were for display of high degree of difficulty techniques of the cast, i.e. showing off.

2. The stars were often scheduled to appear in the second half. The long-winded padding shows in the first half had already tested the patience of the audience. This was different than the Ya Yin shows where Kuo Hsiao-chuang appeared in the very first scene to grip the audience.

3. Most of Mei Pao-chiu's Mei School numbers were following his father Mei Lan-fang's old performing style. But in those days when Mei Lan-fang performed, he lengthened other actors' appearances for some reason. Today it all became superfluous scenes. Mei Pao-chiu had not done any re-arranging or condensing of the operatic structures, the tempo was too slow and dragging, causing inadequate intensity in the drama.

4. The surtitles were crude and scribbling. The cast list was projected all at once. When actors appeared in turn, the audience had already forgotten who was playing whom. The surtitle projectionist was not professional enough, with frequent confusions affecting the audience.

"In the eyes of the Hong Kong people, actors of the two shores of the Strait meeting with operas in Hong Kong, this had had a certain sense of political connotation. But it was nevertheless a healthy encouragement and self-transcendence for the development of Peking opera on both shores and for our young actors in Chinese opera. At present creative new operas for Taiwan's Chinese opera troupes have become a trend. Kuo Hsiao-chuang who has led this trend over the last decade led the cream of various troupes to Hong Kong this time to receive accolade. This was hard earned and well deserved.

"In fact, Sunbeam Theater where Mei Pao-chiu and company performed could hardly compare with the City Hall where Ya Yin performed. The City Hall is a modern stage. In terms of facilities and class, it is the symbol of a city's culture. Sunbeam Theater on the other hand is a place of entertainment for the ordinary audience. On the opening day of the Peking Opera Troupe show, box office was not very satisfactory. In the event the upper floor seats had to be closed, the entire house was assembled downstairs. The atmosphere of the whole theater seemed cold and miscellaneous. It lacked a sentiment of quiet and serious respect in appreciating art. In this first meeting of Peking opera from both shores, Ya Yin has won the battle beautifully."

From meeting in Hong Kong for Peking operas of the two shores, to real joint performance for Peking operas of the two shores, that took us into the 1990s. The venue was still Hong Kong. To celebrate the bicentennial of Anhwei troupe entering the imperial capital, the grand festival of Peking opera shows specially invited Kuo Hsiao-chuang of Taiwan to co-star with the famous "hua lien" (varicolored face) actor Ching Jung-ching from the Mainland in "Hsiang Yu the Conqueror's Farewell to the Concubine". This was the first time that actors from the two shores acted in an opera together on the same stage. It was a historic move with great significance. It gave good influence in a pioneering way to the later cultural exchange between the two shores, when Mainland Peking opera troupes and regional opera troupes visited Taiwan on performing tours many times.

"Hsiang Yu the Conqueror's Farewell to the Concubine" was the climax show for "Celebration of Anhwei opera troupe entering imperial capital". It caught everybody's attention. Kuo Hsiao-chuang specially brought to Hong Kong the Tun Huang curtain painted and made by Chang Ta-chien specially for Ya Yin, as the backdrop for this opera. At the same time, she decided to give this representative work of the Mei School a new interpretation, unrestrained by schools, and enhancing coloratura singing and movements, using modern feelings and sense of rhythm to show Concubine Yu's psychological state. From her first appearance, she received applause constantly. Tender sorrow going with delicate sweet softness. Her innovative style won ovation. And Ching Jung-ching who played Hsiang Yu the Conqueror was mature, seasoned, bold and generous, playing touchingly the tragedy of a hero coming to the end of the road. The match of outstanding actors from both shores on the same stage gave a great show of their acting skills to the fullest extent. This could be called a perfect performance.

And the many renowned actors from the Mainland who came to Hong Kong to take part in the performance saw the changes made by Kuo Hsiao-chuang daringly to the Mei School classic and establishing her own style. Most of them admired her courage. And Kuo Hsiao-chuang in her turn indicated through the media:

"I hope that, through this Mei School opera, I may revive the role of Concubine Yu anew and attain the goal of inheriting and enhancing Peking opera, and also let Mainland artists understand the situation of reform and innovation of Peking opera in Taiwan."

"Hsiang Yu the Conqueror's Farewell to the Concubine" was a true opening of the doors to Peking opera art exchange and interflow. Kuo Hsiao-chuang played an important part at this historical moment.

In the record of Ya Yin's overseas shows, there was another time when as many as 70 cream of the professionals went to the USA to play "Ah-Kai Princess". First they performed at the Los Angeles theater where the Oscar Award Ceremony was held. It created a heat wave among the overseas Chinese and the cultural circles. An audience of 3000 packed the entire theater, watching without making a noise Princess Akai's love and hate, affection and enmity, feeling the great force of the drama and the great sorrow of the tragedy. Ya Yin's spirit of innovation also received the understanding, recognition and support of overseas Chinese and foreign audiences through this tour of 5 American cities. Kuo Hsiao-chuang traveled around year in and year out, for the sake of stage shows and also for spreading her ideals.