The woman on a mission to show how a 600-year-old Chinese operatic style can ease the stresses of modern life

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In bustling big cities, some people find peace on a yoga mat; others in meditation. For Gwendoline Cho-ning Kam, it is a 600-year-old Chinese operatic style known as kunqu.

“Life has a fast pace in metropolitan areas, especially in Hong Kong,” the 32-year-old Hong Kong native said. “When listening to kunqu, we slow our life speed and feel peace in our minds.”

Kunqu, a form of Chinese opera that originated in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou in the 14th century, dominated Chinese theatre for 300 years from the 16th century.

Its pervasive influence has been felt across the Chinese arts – from literature to drama to drawing, and of course, music.

Known as “the mother of Chinese operas”, kunqu was proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by Unesco, the United Nation’s heritage body, in 2001.

“I love kunqu and regard it as part of my life,” Kam said.

The Shanghai-based freelance piano teacher spends more than half her time promoting and doing research on kunqu.

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“Although many people think kunqu’s rhythm is too slow and it’s hard for people today to accept, it’s not the case for me,” Kam said. “I think it is comfortable and enjoyable to watch and its music is beautiful.”

Kam – who has been the curator and host for various Shanghai kunqu symposia over the last two years – translates scripts of classical kunqu plays such as Peony Pavilion into English for the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe. This spring, she also started organising kunqu book reading events and lectures for art museums.

Kam fell in love with the style in the summer of 2006 when she saw a kunqu play in Zhouzhuang, near Shanghai, after graduating from her Hong Kong high school and before starting studying at Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“It overthrew my impression of traditional Chinese operas,” she said.

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“Before that, I had only seen Guangdong opera when I was a little girl and thought that was all of traditional Chinese opera.

“In my eyes, the [make-up of] Guangdong opera performers seemed dowdy and a bit horrible.”

Her interest in kunqu was rekindled in 2008 when the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe staged a production in Hong Kong and she got to know some of the performers.

“I said to myself: wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could watch kunqu every day,” she recalled, saying that while Hong Kong is home to a few kunqu performers, they rarely perform in public.

After graduating from university as a Western music specialist in 2009, Kam worked at her alma mater for two years as an assistant to traditional Chinese music professor Yu Siu-wah.

One of her major accomplishments during this period was putting together the annual Chinese Opera Festival sponsored by the city’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

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She broadened her musical background over the next two years by studying ethnomusicology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. After obtaining her master’s degree, she moved to Shanghai.

“I like to work and live in Shanghai and am attracted by its cultural atmosphere,” she said. “The life speed here is slower than in Hong Kong and I can meet a lot of people who share the same enthusiasm for kunqu.”

Kam teaches piano to about 20 students three days a week. When not teaching, she throws herself into her kunqu research and public education projects.

While kunqu largely remains an art form with a small audience regionally, there are signs that it could reach a wider audience, boosted by the interest of foreigners, according to Kam.

“We expected about 100 people to come to the lectures we held recently, but in the end more than 250 people showed up,” she said.

She wants people to experience the “authentic look and taste” of kunqu – in contrast to contemporary artists who try to give their kunqu shows a Western jazz or rock ‘n’ roll flavour supported by non-traditional instruments such as guitars, violins and saxophones.

“They want to be eye-catching and grab young audiences,” she said. “But it’s not what kunqu truly looks like and [these performances] will mislead the public.”

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