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A Niche of Our Own
ABC's in Cantonese Opera

on the
Stacey Fong

Stacey Fong graduated from UC Berkeley in 2001 with a B.A. in Psychology and a B.A. in Mass Communications.

She has been involved in Chinese Opera since 2000, doing supporting roles for the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, Red Bean Cantonese Opera Group, and Tri-Valley Talent Group.

"I like Chinese opera because it's musical and artistic. It can either be dramatic or action-packed. It's also a great way for me to learn more about Chinese culture and improve my Chinese."

Cantonese Opera is a traditional Chinese art form that involves music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics, and acting. Cantonese Opera plays tell stories about Chinese history, traditions, culture, and philosophies.

The Cantonese opera audience tends to be mature. The majority of performers is also mature, because it takes time for a performer to develop poise and technique. We very rarely see a young performer, much less performers whose native language is not even Chinese! However, there is a group of American Born Chinese (ABC) youths in the Bay Area who are interested in Cantonese opera. These ABCs have been participating in opera for an average of 6 years now, starting when they were about 11-13 years old.

Why do ABCs like opera? How do ABCs find their niche in opera? Our ABC performers got together and talked about life as an ABC in Cantonese Opera. Taking part in this panel were Stacey Fong, Erick Lee, Rebecca Ng, Denise Chan, and Tami Chan.

"My mom got into Chinese Opera and I followed her around, so I started watching," Becky said. Erick had the same experience. "I followed my mom around. And I got into the clothes and costumes. I nitpicked at what she was sloppy about...TAKE THAT OFF RECORD!" He laughed. "But you know what I mean - I unsloppified her. I just said, 'Stand there and I'll put your clothes on you. Just stand there and don't move." Denise and Tami commented, "We're still doing this because our mom makes us."

Although ABCs often get into opera because of their parents, they usually do not like it at first. "It was loud and irritating. 'Eeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!' Those sounds were kind of hard on the ears. For me, it was an acquired taste," Erick said of his initial reaction to opera. "I like the costumes! And I like the fighting," Becky added. Stacey and Erick - Click HERE to read an interview with them in regards to their upcoming Opera performance "The fighting's the best part," Erick agreed. "I started out watching the Peking opera (another opera form), with the percussion and the pheasant feathers." Indeed, because the fighting draws from martial arts, ABCs tend to be drawn to that first because many grew up watching martial arts movies or have learned martial arts.

Martial arts and fast action is also something that allows ABCs to distinguish themselves from adults. Young ABCs are at a disadvantage because their technique is not mature yet, and their ABC accent hinders their diction. So they can find their niche in very difficult choreography.

Youth's main advantage is its energy, the ability to run and dance around without getting tired. In this way, ABCs can maximize on their own talents and minimize their problem areas. "My mom's action sucks," Erick joked. "So she can't criticize mine much. The most she'll say is something about singing." Stacey remarked, "I tend to move in a modern-day-girl manner, so I don't do the slow and soft very well. Instead, I try to pick roles that involve beating people up! Just kidding!"

Becky, Tami, and Denise prefer to play male and action roles because they too have very modern-day movements. Becky elaborated, "It's the 21st Century and we're not COMPLETELY traditional girls. So it's kind of hard for us to act that way. I think that when playing a girl, I feel more restricted, because you have to be really graceful and gentle. I don't want to be like that because it's boring." Actor Ngou Hoi Ming demonstrates the pony-tail hairstyle.  From the opera Gate of the White Dragon.

Cantonese Opera has served, for many of these parents and children, as a bond. Stacey noted, "I love spending time with my mom. That's why I got into opera. But it's fun for me as well. I learn a lot from her and other adults she hangs around with. I also like the mutual pampering. For example, Mom gets nervous before her shows, so I always try to calm her down. Of course, when it's my turn to perform, she's the one that has to stroke me down too."

Becky, too, appreciates what opera's done for her relationship with her mom. "I got to spend more time with her. Back when she was enjoying it and I wasn't, I rarely spent any time with her."

Of course, following in one's parent's footsteps is not always easy. "My mom is mean!" Erick jokingly complained. "She always mocks me! She'll imitate my ABC accents but make it worse. I'm like, 'I didn't sing it like THAT!!'" Stacey explained, "In my eyes Mom is perfect, and I'm not worthy. I want to be as good as her. I know she wants me to be good. So, she's always picking on my wrong things, which makes me feel bad. When she does say something good, I know it must be REALLY, REALLY good, or she wouldn't say so. So that makes me float on air! Of course, that's not often."

Our ABCs will be performing in Red Bean Cantonese Opera's upcoming show in July. This is the first time ABCs will share the stage in a major production of Cantonese Opera in the Bay Area. Stacey and Erick are the lead roles, while Becky, Denise, and Tami are their supporting cast. Poster for July 2002 Event

The cast is enjoying their time together. "It's more fun," Becky observed. "We can laugh about stuff," Stacey pointed out. "This time, we know who the main characters are BEFORE the performance," Denise giggled.

In past supporting roles Denise, Tami, and Becky have done, they rarely get a chance to practice with or even meet the leads until the final dress rehearsal.

Erick, who has more stage experience than Stacey, talked about working with her. "There's definitely more rapport and chemistry because I've worked with other people before, like older people and I can't look at them like - (At this point, he gave Stacey a flirty look, and she flirted back.). You know? It's just kind of weird." He grimaced, "It's just wrong! It's like your mom's friend and…GROSS!" Erick also spoke of rehearsing together: "Stacey's very organized. And she's always like 'Let's do it again, let's do it again.' Normally, older people are just like, 'Do we have to do it again?' And they're a little slower. They can't do a lot of things, so it kind of limits what I can do too. It's not as fun, not as challenging," he concluded.

Erick continued, "It makes it more fun because we're both in the same boat. Like in singing, and the lack of Chinese we both have. She's like me." Stacey shared his opinion. "I can commiserate with him about mutual problems - critical parents, ABC accents, our voices cracking. It's much easier to communicate. He's also very lighthearted and draws my fun side out of me, which is good because I can be very hard on myself."

For more information on the upcoming Red Bean show and to get to know the ABCs more, please visit the Bay Area Cantonese Opera Homepage at by clicking HERE.

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