Hong Kong's Xiqu Centre opens to much fanfare (and criticism)

The new Cantonese opera theatre faces backlash for its exorbitant rent prices.

Hong Kong's Xiqu Centre opens to much fanfare (and criticism)

Hong Kong’s Xiqu Centre, a postmodern-style Cantonese opera theatre that cost HK$2.7 billion ($346 million) to build raised its curtain last week with the classic The Reincarnation of Red Plum as its opening act.

The eight-storey building houses two theatres—including a 1,072-seat grand theatre—as well as a seminar hall, eight studios, besides other commercial and retail facilities. The property became the first to be completed in the Western Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), a development that will also house the Hong Kong Palace Museum and M+, a museum for visual culture.

Xiqu has taken more than 10 years to complete since its conception in 2006. The publicly funded property, however, came under a lot of attention for reasons more than its Chinese lantern-inspired design.

One of them is its exorbitant cost for hire. The new facility charges as much as HK$88,000 (US$11,216) a day for its Tea House Theatre, and the WKCD Authority is entitled to 8% of ticket sales. In comparison, the privately held Sunbeam Theatre, a popular venue for Cantonese opera, charges HK$40,000 while the government-run Ko Shan Theatre in Hung Hom charges HK$8,860 for four hours.

The high entry barrier to Xiqu concerns local theatre groups and practitioners, but Simon Lo, manager, marketing services & operations, Meetings & Exhibitions Hong Kong, said the cost can be negotiated between the operators and theatre groups. “The show can be modified to be less lengthy, especially for overseas visitors. This would lower the price but that depends on how the operator can customise the package,” said Lo.

In its early days, criticism against the centre took on a political undertone in its name as Xiqu is Mandarin rather than Cantonese. The romanised Mandarin name for the centre had been contentious since mainland influences and the adoption of simplified characters have long been a hot button issue in Hong Kong.

On a more practical basis, critics pointed out that the centre, which is only known as Xiqu with no other English title, is a mouthful for non-Chinese speakers.

On the contention between Mandarin and Cantonese, Lo emphasised that the pronunciation issue remains whether it is xiqu or hei kuk (theatre in Cantonese). Chinese Opera Centre and Chinese Traditional Theatre Centre were the other English titles proposed for the centre but the authority settled with Xiqu.

"It was necessary to find a unified name for the branding and promotion (in this case Xiqu), just like Tai Kwun (the centre for Heritage and Arts located in the Central district). [What is important is that it] means the same, whether it is in Cantonese and Mandarin,” said Lo.

Xiqu Centre has a good level of awareness among local audiences since the name was first mooted five years ago, but Lo agreed that the Hong Kong Tourism Board and the Western Kowloon Cultural Art Authority need to better educate foreign visitors and delegates about the Centre. “When we describe it, we emphasise on Cantonese opera because that performance is unique to Hong Kong and southern China,” said Lo.

Incidentally, Xiqu Centre sits next to the Palace Museum, a development project deemed controversial among pro-democracy camps in the city. The museum will display artefacts loaned from the Forbidden City in Beijing upon its completion.

Lo emphasised that the Palace Museum, and the WKCD, will be an interesting addition to the city to help boost tourism. The district is also expected to have hotels and event facilities in the future upon completion, he added. “We always want to highlight new experiences in Hong Kong, and bring something new to the city every year. The indoor and outdoor facilities (in WKCD) will benefit the local community and tourism as a whole,” said Lo.


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