Cantonese Opera has a new star: Donald Trump

This post was originally published on link to post

Written by Alex Stambaugh, CNNHong Kong

The year is 1972. An inebriated Richard Nixon is fending off table tennis balls fired towards him by Chairman Mao. Moments later, a clone of the Chinese leader takes the stage to introduce a young American.

“Welcome, Mr. Donald Trump,” announces Mao Zedong III.

This is not, of course, a secret history of Nixon’s famous diplomatic visit to Beijing — it’s “Trump on Show,” a surreal new Cantonese opera that debuted in Hong Kong over the weekend. Written by opera veteran Edward Li Kui-ming, the production tells a fictionalized account of the US President’s quest to find his long-lost twin brother raised in China.

Actor Loong Koon-tin plays ping pong as former Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Credit: ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Wearing a tightly fitted suit and signature red tie, a young Trump is ushered on stage by four women in scarlet gowns.

“I have a twin brother — his name is Chuan Pu,” he tells Mao’s right-hand man, Zhou Enlai, using a common Chinese transliteration of the name Trump. “And he should look 90% identical to me.”

Weaving together complicated narratives of family separation, romance, and friendship, “Trump on Show” incorporates classic tropes of Cantonese opera — a performance art dating back around 500 years. Nodding to the tradition’s past, the production features elaborate dancing, Chinese stringed instruments and distinctive high-pitched vocals.

But Li also propels the art form into the modern age. Besides a cast of contemporary political characters, his plot spans US-North Korea summits and even intergalactic warfare.

What’s more, his approach appears to have struck a chord with Hong Kong audiences. Tickets for the show at the city’s Sunbeam Theatre sold-out, with more than 1,000 seats filled for each performance in the four-night run.

“Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong is already dying because nobody wants to see the old stuff,” Li says in his office, just above the theater.

A lifelong fan of Cantonese opera, Li has dedicated the last nine years to reviving the art form’s fortunes amid dwindling audiences.

Actor Chan Hung-chun dressed as North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un during a rehearsal of “Trump on Show.” Credit: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images

When he first rented the Sunbeam Theatre in 2012, the landmark Cantonese opera house was on the verge of closure, Li said. During the first six years of his tenure, however, the venue has hosted over 30 original operas.

“I want to save the life of the old Cantonese opera, so I use Trump (and) I use Chairman Mao,” says Li. “Everybody knows Trump and Mao.

“(Donald Trump) influenced not just American people, he influenced people in the whole world. Now, we try to put him in the old Cantonese opera and let the Cantonese opera survive.”

A tale for the times

Three of the main characters in Li’s production — Trump, his twin brother and Chairman Mao — are all played by Loong Koon-tin, an award winning Cantonese opera star.

For Loong, Trump is a figure made for the stage.

“When he gives speeches in front of big crowds, or whatever he does, he makes a lot of big movements,” Loong says. “This is similar to the big movements we use in Cantonese opera.”

Loong Koon-tin, who also plays former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, prepares backstage during a rehearsal. Credit: ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

During the show, Loong mimics Trump’s characteristic gestures and catchphrases before a packed audience, flashing pointing fingers as he smiles and declares, “You’re fired!”

Between scenes, Man Chan, an actress playing Ivanka Trump, helps Loong fasten his golden blonde wig. She layers on foundation and secures an enlarged brassiere in her dressing room, where pictures of the real Ivanka stare back at her from a mirror.

On stage, she assumes a caricature of the first daughter, complete with figure-hugging red dress, studded platform heels and long blonde hair. These costumes, while minimal compared to the elaborate styles of traditional operas, reflect signature details of each character.  

Actress Man Chan, pictured backstage, plays Ivanka Trump. Credit: ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

“Cantonese opera (is) always using very beautiful costume in the old style,” Li says. “Now we have (a new type) of Cantonese opera, so we use the clothes of the day.”

Slow revival

Cantonese opera first appeared during the 1500s, though its roots can be traced back to earlier theater traditions from northern China. In the 18th century, actors would travel along the Pearl River Delta on so-called “red boats,” stopping off to stage performances
After performer Li Wenmao joined a failed insurrection in Canton (now know as Guangzhou) in the 1850s, the tradition was outlawed, forcing performers onto the streets. 

At around the same time, Cantonese opera began appearing in temples and bamboo sheds in Hong Kong. Dedicated theaters were later opened, some with more than a thousand seats.

Involving elaborate costumes and traditional music, Cantonese opera is a centuries-old tradition in southern China. Credit: AFP/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

After World War II, however, the art form’s popularity plummeted. Hong Kong’s blossoming film industry, along with the widespread availability of color television, drew actors and audiences away. The city’s subsequent economic boom and skyrocketing land prices forced all but one of the city’s permanent opera theaters, Sunbeam, to close, according to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.

Since the mid-2000s, Hong Kong’s government has sought to revive the tradition through new venues and funding for cultural preservation. In 2009, the UNESCO recognized Cantonese opera as an example of “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.” 

Edward Li Kui Ming

Earlier this year, a publicly-funded opera venue, the Xiqu Centre, opened with a mission to “preserve, promote and develop the art of Chinese traditional theatre.” Located in a new cultural development in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district, the 28,000-square-meter building houses two theaters with a combined capacity of more than 1,200 seats.

Li hopes to bring “Trump on Show” for an extended run at the new theater, followed by tours in Japan, Singapore and maybe even Broadway.  

“One day, I want my opera to go to America, in front of Trump,” he said. “I want to (present) the show to him.”