Clutching a wooden bow, Chan Gum-to glides it across the two strings of his traditional Chinese erhu. He taps his feet gently to the tempo of the music and with a strong voice recites centuries-old Cantonese opera music of love, loyalty and morality.
A dozen students sit singing inside a community centre in Hong Kong's rural Sheung Shui district near the border with the Chinese mainland, where Chan has been giving lessons in much the same way for nearly three decades. It's a tough living these days, earning him just 200 Hong Kong dollars (US$25.6) a month from each student, compared with years ago when he lived comfortably.
But to Chan it is more than just a living, it is a way of keeping alive the dying art of Cantonese opera.
As Hong Kongers spend increasing amounts of their spare time watching movies and going shopping, they are abandoning traditional pastimes. With the future of the city's last traditional opera house, the Sunbeam Theatre, under threat due to rent increases, Chan fears Hong Kongers will soon lose what little interest they have left in his refined art form.
"This art used to make money for me, but it no longer does that. Now you have to pay your own money to keep it alive," the 57-year-old master laments.
Chan makes ends meet by playing in orchestras and offering private lessons. But more and more he is having to rely on handouts to keep going.
"Not only do teachers do it, my students do the same. They are all willing to chip-in," says Chan, who gives away free gifts and tickets to attract audiences.
It was not always like this. Before the 1950s, Cantonese opera an art form that involves singing, acting, martial arts and acrobatics was more popular than movies, and many operas were adapted for the big screen.
Stories in traditional opera, which spread to southern China's Guangdong (Canton) Province from the north in the 13th century, are based on classical literature, history, and the philosophies of virtues such as loyalty, moral, love, fidelity and patriotism.
Many well-known operas performed today, such as The Purple Hairpin and Rejuvenation of the Red Plum Flower originated in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), with the lyrics and scripts translated into Cantonese.
Chinese opera's popularity waned with the mass adoption of television, video and, latterly, video games and karaoke.
"It has no audience any more. People think it's out-dated," says theatre critic Jessica Yeung, an assistant professor at the Department of English Language and Literature at Hong Kong Baptist University.
The number of fans has dwindled from two million in the 1950s to today's 300,000, according to the Cantonese Opera Advisory Committee, set up by the government a year ago to preserve the art form.
In Hong Kong, the Sunbeam Theater is on the brink of closure as a doubling of its rent threatens to put the 33-year-old establishment out of business. It already relies heavily on donations to survive and is finding it difficult to attract new audiences. Only 1 per cent of its audience are regulars.
To help preserve the opera, Hong Kong's Academy for Performing Arts introduced a full-time two-year diploma program in 2001.
But among the Academy's 1,000 applicants each year, only a handful are interested in the course, says Susanna Chan, public relations manager at the school.
"We see it as an alternative interest. There is no mass audience for it," she says.
Erhu player Chan fondly recalls the days before the Asian financial crisis of 1997 when he received enough funding from the government to organize more than 10 shows a year. He now has enough for just two.
Many of his colleagues switched careers years ago, becoming security guards or choosing to live on welfare handouts. Yet Chan, who plays 10 Western and Chinese musical instruments, has not given up.
Besides free tickets and gifts, students are expected to pay at least a few thousand dollars each show for costume hire, make-up artists and musicians.
"We do that for art. If it disappears, it would be such a shame. But I would not want my sons and daughters to live on any form of art here. You cannot make a living here," Chan says.
Stephen Chow Chun-kay, chairman of the advisory committee, is more optimistic. An amateur performer himself, he says an audience of 300,000 means the opera is still the most popular art form in the city.
A foundation has been set up to promote the art and plans promotional programs at schools to help youngsters understand it.
(China Daily June 9, 2005)