Staff Picks

Legend of the Purple Hairpin3 min read

Jason Y. Ng recommends a classic Cantonese opera


Editor’s note: We’re introducing a new twist to our staff picks feature, in the wake of our last round of back-to-school recommendations. Now, individual editors will (very) occasionally be making specific recommendations in stand-alone posts, at slightly greater length but still a small single bite for the reader. We hope you enjoy these ad hoc contributions, starting with this one from advising editor Jason Y. Ng.


Cantonese opera is a traditional art form that originated in Guangdong Province, including Hong Kong and Macau. It differs from other forms of Chinese opera mainly in the language used, namely Cantonese. Compared to other Chinese theatre genres, such as Peking opera and its sibling Kunqu opera, Cantonese opera typically features fewer elaborate acrobatic and dance elements, while putting a stronger emphasis on scores and lyrics. The 1950s and 60s were the heyday of Cantonese opera, as the massive influx of immigrants from China provided both a new audience and an ample supply of creative talent.

Legend of the Purple Hairpin by playwright Tang Ti-sheng is one of the best known and most performed Cantonese operas ever written. Set in the Tang dynasty, Purple Hairpin tells the story of female entertainer Huo Xiaoyu and poet Li Yi. The lovers were kept apart by a powerful imperial courtier, Lu, who wanted Li to marry his daughter instead. Lu sent Li to a faraway post on the frontier and spread lies about Li’s change of heart over Huo, until a mysterious swordsman, Yellow Robe, intervened to set things right and reunite the two.

Purple Hairpin features some of the most memorable arias in all of Cantonese opera, but it is its achingly beautiful lyrics that make it a timeless gem. Even though Cantonese opera is not the most accessible art form, Purple Hairpin is worth every bit of effort and time investment put in. As an avid Western opera fan, I find this and other Tang Ti-sheng classics such as Emperor Flower and Reincarnation of Lady Red Plum just as magnificent and powerful as their Italian and German counterparts. I listen for the same elements in both art forms, from diction and phrasing to rhymes and melodic progression.

The best recording of Purple Hairpin is by far the 1966 version sung by a dream cast featuring Bak Sheut-sin, Yam Kim-fai, and the multi-talented Leung Sing-Bor. The closest thing in Italian opera to that legendary album, if I may make a cross-genre comparison, would be the 1953 recording of Puccini’s Tosca with Maria Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano and Tito Gobbi. Both hold a special place in the hearts of their respective devotees.

Cantonese opera has long been an under-appreciated and overlooked art form, hit hard by the triple threat of an aging audience, cuts in government funding and a dearth of new talent to take up the mantle. Today, Sunbeam Theatre is one of the last remaining indoor venues for Cantonese opera troupes to stage a full show in Hong Kong. It is a travesty that many Chinese people, especially Cantonese-speakers, dismiss the art form as old-fashioned and irrelevant, and in so doing contribute to its slow death.

In recent years, the debate of whether Mandarin should replace Cantonese as the medium of instruction in public schools has intensified in Hong Kong. A few months ago, the Hong Kong Education Bureau caused an uproar by declaring Cantonese a mere “dialect” and “not a mother tongue.” In Guangdong, local authorities have made a concerted effort to supplant the language by restricting Cantonese television broadcasts and forbidding its use in classrooms. Cantonese is being increasingly marginalized, and there is no better time than now for Chinese speakers and Sinophiles to give Cantonese opera a chance and check out Legend of the Purple Hairpin – before this national treasure vanishes completely. ∎