Combining music, theatre, acrobatics and the martial arts, Cantonese opera has been a popular form of entertainment in China for over 400 years. Originating during the seventeenth-century Ming Dynasty, Cantonese opera has now become one of China's best-known cultural exports.
In the 1930s, the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) acquired a collection of more than 200 discs featuring songs from well-known Cantonese operas. This web module introduces many of these rare recordings, and provides background information on the music, storylines and history of one of China's most vibrant theatrical forms.
We hope you enjoy this musical journey. To listen to the songs on this web module, please click here to access the audio collection.
You can also access this material through the CMC Archives online database by clicking here.
With its elaborate costumes, lively music, engaging stories and powerful vocal delivery, Cantonese opera is one of the many forms of traditional Chinese theatre which have captivated audiences around the world. In Canada, this genre is particularly significant within Chinese-Canadian communities. Canada is home to more than one million people of Chinese ancestry, most of whom — according to Canada's 2006 census — speak Cantonese.
Vancouver and Toronto, the two Canadian cities with the highest concentration of Chinese Canadians, are important centres for Cantonese opera, although amateur associations are also active in many other cities across the country, including Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Montreal.
The Chinese are one of Canada's largest cultural groups, and have been established in Canada for more than 150 years. Early immigrants came as labourers, initially working in mining communities along the Fraser River Valley, and later taking part in construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia. In just four short years, between 1881 and 1885, at least 17,000 Chinese workers, mostly men, immigrated to this country. By 1921, nearly 40,000 Chinese immigrants were living in communities across Canada.
Cantonese opera has long been an important cultural touchstone for Chinese Canadians. During the 1880s in Victoria, British Columbia, three theatres were built for Cantonese opera performances. Opera troupes toured regularly from China and Hong Kong, reaffirming and nourishing the cultural heritage of these communities. In the 1920s, many amateur societies were established in Canada to rehearse and study Chinese operatic traditions.
As populations grew and the workforce became more diverse, Cantonese opera also became an important way of raising funds for various social and political causes in both Canada and China. Today, these musical societies continue to provide opportunities for teaching and supporting Cantonese opera, encouraging higher artistic standards and introducing this form of theatre to all of Canadian society.
Commercial recordings of Cantonese opera have played an important role in popularizing this tradition among Chinese-Canadian communities. As early as 1904, many of the world's major recording companies had begun to distribute Cantonese opera records and other forms of traditional Chinese music in Canada and the United States. One of these companies — Montreal's Berliner Gram-o-phone Co. Limited, later known as the Victor Talking Machine Company of Canada — was especially active in producing records of Cantonese opera for the Canadian market. Several of their recordings are included on this website.