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Curtain falls on landmark Hong Kong opera house

Feb. 16, 2012 - 14:52 By Korea Herald
HONG KONG (AFP) ― Hong Kong’s last dedicated Cantonese opera theatre is holding its final performances before it closes this week, in what some art lovers see as another nail in the coffin of a 300-year-old tradition.

The 1,000-seat Sunbeam Theatre has been synonymous with the operatic heritage of China’s southern Cantonese-speaking minority for 40 years since it opened in 1972.

It has earned landmark status on Hong Kong’s art scene, standing in stoic defiance of the former British colony’s transformation into a flashy, ultra-modern hub of finance and banking.

But after years fending off Hong Kong’s all-powerful property developers, the curtain will come down for the final time on Sunday when the Sunbeam stages its last, sell-out performance.

Opera star and playwright Yuen Siu-fai, 66, says the Sunbeam’s fate typifies the loss of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage to the pursuit of profit.

“This is a huge blow for Cantonese opera,” he says.

“We are losing a cultural landmark, we are losing our main theatre. Where do we go? This is another great example of how we don’t preserve our historical buildings.”

Other all-purpose venues around Hong Kong will continue to stage traditional opera performances, but none has dedicated itself exclusively to the art like the Sunbeam has over four decades.

Businessman Francis Law bought the 7,432-square-meter theater in 2003 through his real estate and investment firm Toyo Mall, with reported plans to replace it with a shopping mall.

The Sunbeam escaped the bulldozers initially, but has been fighting soaring rental prices ever since and was nearly shut down twice.

When its last lease expired in 2009 ― the year Cantonese or Yueju opera was recognised as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” by U.N. cultural agency UNESCO ― the landlords reportedly more than doubled the rent.

The government stepped in to help achieve more favourable terms for the opera house, but the landlords still demanded almost HK$700,000 ($90,256) a month, or more than twice the previous rate, according to local media.

Toyo Mall spokeswoman Rosanna Liu says Law had yet to decide what to do with the site, dismissing media reports that it will be converted into a shopping centre.

She says Sunbeam’s managers cancelled the lease “even though we were not planning to raise their rent.” The theatre’s management turned down requests for an interview, saying only that the closure was a “pure commercial decision.”