Facing the final curtain
Crippled by soaring rents, the legendary Sunbeam Theatre will close this week after 40 years of opera productions. Shirley Zhao reports. Photography by Michal Garcia
See how the deepest purple and brightest scarlet open their beauty/ Only to dry and crumble/ The best of seasons cannot last forever.” Amid a gloriously hand-painted stage backdrop of blossoms, a female performer sings these words at the Sunbeam Theatre. She’s performing in one of the most famous Cantonese operas, The Interrupted Dream, and the audience is entranced. Some are close to tears, and with good reason: the song is a presage to the impending closure of this 40-year-old Hong Kong landmark, and yet another example of the city’s heritage being torn down to make way for commercial development.
As of February 19, the theatre entrance will be shuttered, the famous ‘House Full’ drapes rolled up, the lights dimmed, and the theatre left hollow for the developers to move in.
“After Sunbeam, there will be nowhere on Hong Kong Island to watch Cantonese Opera anymore,” says Ma Long, veteran Cantonese Opera critic and editor-in-chief of Cantonese Opera Magazine. According to Ma’s estimation, about half the Cantonese Opera crowd live on Hong Kong Island, even though most government-owned venues which stage Cantonese Opera are located in Kowloon and the New Territories, and relatively difficult to reach. Add the fact that the new Cantonese Opera Centre in the West Kowloon Cultural District will not be completed until 2015 and you can understand the audience’s tears. “Many Cantonese Opera lovers are elderly people,” says Ma. “It’ll be a trek for them to cross the harbour and get to those performance venues. A number of them may choose not to. The local Cantonese Opera industry could lose a lot of its audience.” Perched at a busy intersection on King’s Road in North Point, with an MTR station and a tram station directly across the street, major bus stops right outside, plus a ferry pier just two blocks away, the Sunbeam Theatre, commonly known as ‘Hong Kong’s Grand Palace for Cantonese Opera’ is the SAR’s last privately-run Cantonese Opera house.
Since 2002, the theatre has faced closure three times. On each occasion, the Hong Kong United Arts Entertainment Company (HKUAE) managed to renew the contract with the landlord under the intervention and help from the local Cantonese Opera industry, the government and the Liaison Office of the central government. But this time all seems lost. The HKUAE have decided not to renew the contract out of ‘business considerations’. And those who intervened before have so far remained silent.
The theatre’s manager, Wong Kwun-shui, tells Time Out the theatre is doomed. “The executives made this decision,” he says. “The business is not good. What we earned we cannot cover in the rent, which is very high. [A private theatre closing down] is very common.”
According to daily newspaper Ming Pao, the last time Sunbeam successfully renewed its contract was in 2009, when its monthly rent had increased threefold from $208,000 to $698,000. Excluding a monthly $200,000 government subsidy, the remainder now seems a step too far, especially when Sunbeam competes with 15 government-owned performance venues. However, Ma reveals that an anonymous individual is negotiating with Sunbeam’s landlord Law Sau-fai, an executive of developer Yu Tai Hing Company, by offering HK$1 million a month to become the theatre’s new management. “Lately my source in the theatre told me that Law asked twice as much in return,” says Ma. “It’s unreasonable!”
Yu Tai Hing Company rejected Time Out’s request to interview Law, but given Sunbeam’s ‘golden’ location, it is wildly believed the theatre will be turned into a shopping mall, which could earn well over HK$1 million a month.
Yet the theatre will be deeply missed. “Sunbeam has been my place to watch Cantonese Opera since it opened. It’s been 40 years now,” says 74-year-old Helen Cho Yuen-fun. “I live in Aberdeen and I walk with a cane. It’ll be inconvenient for me to travel across the harbour to the government theatres. I’m afraid I will stop watching Cantonese Opera for a while.” Ho Kit-ping, 64, will miss the atmosphere of evening performances. “I’ll still go to government performance venues, but not as frequent as I’ve been coming to Sunbeam,” says Ho. “The atmosphere over there is colder and more formal. It’s really hard to part with Sunbeam.”
Alice Wong Wing-sze runs a small Cantonese Opera record store inside the theatre. For her, Sunbeam Theatre means more than just business; she has built up long-established relationships with opera lovers coming from across Hong Kong (and the world) to watch a performance. “We’ll stay here till the very last,” she says. “For Cantonese Opera fans, the Sunbeam is a pilgrimage. I’ve bonded with many opera lovers because of this theatre. Without Sunbeam, I can move this store to other places, but the severed emotional bonds among us might never be repaired.”
“It is sad that Sunbeam is closing,” says Charles Chow Chan-lum, Chairman of the Cantonese Opera Advisory Committee, set by the Home Affairs Bureau, “but all these years we’ve witnessed the closing down of many similar theatres. It’s a trend of the times.” Chow thinks it wiser that the government, instead of subsidising millions to save a private-run theatre, should invest into other ‘more useful areas’ like cultivating more Cantonese Opera performers.
Since 2008, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department has released a series of policies such as granting local Cantonese Opera troupes discounts when booking government-owned performance venues, and opening venues for them to book a month earlier than other performance groups. As a result, the number of local Cantonese Opera troupes performing in Sunbeam decreased from around 12 per month in 2008 to just six last year, according to Chow. “More and more troupes and audiences have been used to performing and watching Cantonese Opera at government venues,” says Chow. “The facilities there are newer and more up to date. Maybe this is why the Cantonese Opera industry hasn’t made such noise to save Sunbeam as before.”
However, Koi Ming-fai, one of Hong Kong’s most outstanding Cantonese Opera performers, views Sunbeam ‘irreplaceable’. “The closure of Sunbeam will have huge impact on us,” she tells Time Out. “It’s more flexible to book Sunbeam than other government venues. You need to apply for a government venue at least half a year in advance, and you can’t change the performing date, or cancel the booking. Plus you need to pay beforehand. When booking at Sunbeam, you can always pay for it after the performance with your box-office revenue.”
Koi doesn’t mind the relatively old facilities at Sunbeam, saying her troupe is willing to bring its own additional equipment. “The government performance venues are for all sorts of performing arts, while Sunbeam is specifically designed for Cantonese Opera,” she says. “I’ve been in this industry for 21 years. Every year I have a lot of performances in Sunbeam. Watching Cantonese Opera there is nostalgic. It’s the only opera performance venue that allows the audience to eat and drink as they like. You can feel the olden days when people got together to watch performances in the open markets. You can feel that people are united by the theatre. If Sunbeam disappears, such feelings will never be found again.”
Sunbeam Theatre Follow-up
On February 18 (two days after Time Out was published), in a dramatic last-minute turn of events, Hong Kong's Feng Shui master Li Kui-ming announced that he had signed a four-year contract with the theatre's landlord Law Sau-fai at a monthly rent of HK$1 million. Li also runs a Cantonese Opera troupe, Prime Splendor Theatrical Troupe.
The theatre will be shut in March for a month for renovation, and will reopen in April.