Cantonese opera Di Nu Hua and Yam-Pak
Di Nu Hua (帝女花) has been the most renowned Cantonese opera for half a century. The late Tong Dik Sang (唐涤生), a Hong Kong playwright, wrote this classic opera in 1957. He was very well-known and talented, having written numerous highly acclaimed operas. He died rather young, aged 42, in 1959.
Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe
Tong Dik Sang wrote Di Nu Hua for the Sin Fung Ming Troupe (仙凤鸣), which was formed by two prominent Hong Kong opera performers, namely the late Yam Kim Fai (任剑辉) and Pak Suet Sin (白雪仙). Because of their close relationship, both on stage and offstage, Yam Kim Fai and Pak Suet Sin are often referred to as ‘Yam-Pak” (任白).
Yam Kim Fai (Ren Jian Hui)
The late Yam Kim Fai portrayed Zhou Shi Xian, the imperial son-in-law. Yam was the most famous Cantonese opera male impersonator (女文武生) of the fifties to end of the sixties of the last century. Her stage career spanned over three decades (1935 – 1969). She was most notable for her unique ability in the lower register singing, as well as in Nan Ying (southern music).
Between 1951 and 1968, she starred in over 300 Cantonese films. She was the heartthrob of female fans and earned the title “Opera fans’ lover” (戏迷情人).
Yam Kim Fai passed away in November 1989, aged 76. She was posthumously awarded the 100 Years Opera Movie Hall Award of the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1995.
The first complete translation of Di Nu Hua in English. The book contains the text, song titles, speech types, and choreographic and stage setting.
Pak Suet Sin (Bai Xue Xian)
Playing the role of the main character “Princess Changping” was Pak Suet Sin, a top-notch ‘hua dan’ (花旦female role). As most of her roles were characters from the Chinese classics, Pak always researched on them to have a better understanding of the roles that she would be portraying.
Being a perfectionist, she maintained a high level of professionalism throughout her acting career, both in stage opera and in movie films. She has starred in more than 120 films between 1947-1968. Her last stage performance was in early 1969.
In order that their artistry can be passed on to the next generation, she and Yam Kim Fai focused on the training and nurturing of a batch of young opera trainees from 1961 onwards. In 1963, she formed the Chor Fung Ming Opera Troupe (雏凤鸣) for the young disciples. This opera troupe later became the most popular troupe in the 1980s.
In 1989, Pak set up the Yam-Pak Charitable Foundation, in memory of the late Yam Kim Fai. The Foundation supports research into Cantonese traditional dramatic art, advocates the preservation of Chinese opera and promotes the art.
In 1996, she donated HK$15 million to the Hong Kong University. The building used for the Faculty of Engineering was renamed as “Yam Pak Building” (任白楼), as a token of appreciation.
Pak Suet Sin received the following awards between 1996 – 2008:
1996 – Honorary Fellowship by the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts
1997 – Honorary University Fellowship by the Hong Kong University
2001 – Lifetime Achievement Award by the 12th Hong Kong Film Awards
2004 - Honorary Doctorate by the Hong Kong University
2008 - Lifetime Achievement Award by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.
Critical and public acclaim
Di Nu Hua’s premiere on 7 June 1957 won widespread acclaim for its refined and beautiful lyrics and the excellent performance of Yam-Pak.
The various scenes were beautifully enacted by Yam-Pak and their strong supporting cast, capturing the hearts of the entire audience.
The most memorable scene was the finale “The Patriotic Sacrifice” (香夭), wherein Shi Xian and Changping sacrificed their lives for the Ming Dynasty.
The scene setting had the wedding ceremony in the palace garden. The juxtaposition of symbols of wedding and death runs through the lyrics.
The beautiful lyrics describe Changping’s mixing feelings of determination and despair. The princess was ever ready to die for her country but felt sad for bringing disaster to her husband. Shi Xian affirmed his desire to be with her forever, in life and in death.
The couple sang that even in death they will not part, and likened themselves to the lovingly entwined twin trees. They then toasted each other with the poisoned nuptial wine. Embracing, they died under the twin trees where they first met and exchanged oaths.
The dramatic effect of this last scene was so impressive that it embedded deeply in the hearts and minds of the audience.
Successors to Yam Kim Fai and Pak Suet Sin
Both Yam Kim Fai and Pak Suet Sin have a successor, namely Loong Kim Sang (龙剑笙) and Mui Suet See (梅雪诗), respectively.
Di Nu Hua's films and records
Di Nu Hua was twice made into a film:
1959 – original version starring Yam Kim Fai and Pak Suet Sin.
1976 – 2nd version starring Loong Kim Sang and Mui Suet See.
The beautiful songs of Di Nu Hua were made into records, which are now available in CDs:
1960 - in remembrance of its playwright, the late Tong Dik Sheng
1994 - original soundtracks of the 1959 Di Nu Hua's movie (original version)
1976 – original soundtracks of Di Nu Hua's movie, starring Loong Kim Sang and Mui Suet See (2nd version)
Several television and stage dramas have also been produced, based on this famous Cantonese opera.
Di Nu Hua’s 50 anniversary
In celebration of the opera’s 50 anniversary, Yam-Pak’s successors, Loong Kim Sang and Mui Suet See performed Di Nu Hua in Hong Kong in end 2006. The 34 sold-out performances set a record in Cantonese opera.
In December 2007, they staged the same opera in Macau for six days. All the tickets were sold out in less than two hours from start of ticket sales.
The historical Princess Changping (1629 – 1646)
According to “Princess Changping Eulogy” (长平公主诔), Changping tried to seek the Qing Emperor’s permission to become a nun. However, she was ordered to marry Zhou Xian instead.
Although the couple was very loving after marriage, the princess secretly grieved over her dead parents. On the 18th day of the 8th lunar month in 1646, the princess died from illnesses resulting from grief, aged 17.
There are various folktales based on the speculation that Princess Changping survived and escaped capture. The most common one relates that the princess became a nun and later acquired formidable prowess in martial arts.
The historical Princess Changping is a favourite topic with novel writers. She is often featured as the “One-armed Divine Nun” (独臂神尼) in wuxia novels.