84th Congregation (2017)
Dr CHAN Shuk-leung
Doctor of Literature
In the classic play The Peony Pavilion, written by playwright, Tang Xianzu: ‘Love comes out of nowhere, yet it goes far and deep.’ Ms Pak Suet-sin, who once played the main character Du Liliang in The Peony Pavilion truly understands what this means. Her love and pursuit of greatness in the arts and her unswerving faith in relationships have certainly gone far and deep. She has had an accomplished career in the performing arts, full of splendours, and created some of the silver screen's immortal classic couples. Now in her nineties, she finds satisfaction in remembering all the beautiful moments in her past and her triumphs in Cantonese opera, and how they have all borne fruit in the brilliant operatic talents she has helped foster.
Born Chan Shuk-leung to a famed acting family, Ms Pak Suet-sin’s ancestral home is Shunde, Guangdong. Her father was prominent actor Pak Kuiwing. At the age of 13, she began her apprenticeship under operatic legend Sit Gok-sin. She became principal actress in a troupe at the age of 16. Through her exceptional talent and professionalism, Ms Pak became a key driving force in revolutionising the performance of modern Cantonese opera. In 1956, Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe was formed under Ms Pak and Ms Yam Kim-fai. They worked closely with famous Cantonese opera playwright Mr Tong Dik-sang, who is well-known for his adaptations of Chinese classical literature, including dramas of the Yuan dynasty, operas of the Qing dynasty and other legends. His beautifully written lyrics and kou bai (narration) blended perfectly with traditional minor keys, creating many fascinating plays. The troupe's prominent operas have all become household names – The Dream of the Red Chamber, Princess Cheung Ping, The Legend of Purple Hairpin, The Regeneration in the Red-Plum Chamber, The Dream in the Peony Pavilion, Butterfly and Red Pear Blossom and The Fairy of Nine Heavens. It was a perfect marriage of the operatic performing arts and Chinese classical literature, and cemented Sin Fung Ming's leading status in the development of Cantonese opera.
Under Ms Pak's leadership, the Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe incorporated performing styles, body movements and choreography from Peking opera and Kunqu into Cantonese opera, while improving upon the costumes, stage settings, music, and lighting effects of traditional Cantonese opera, with the aim of elevating the quality of Cantonese opera as well as its audiences' standards of appreciation. By adapting Peking opera and Kunqu, Ms Pak found a way to enrich the characters and performances in her troupe through dancing, while staying faithful to the scripts and choreography. In order to play the martial scene in Legend of the White Snake successfully, Ms Pak was introduced by Lady Sun Yangnong, Hu Ying, to the renowned Peking opera teacher Zhang Shuxian. Under Zhang’s tutelage and through vigorous training, Ms Pak improved both her footwork and her performance. As well as constantly striving to improve the troupe's performance aesthetic on the stage, Ms Pak got involved in the backstage work. ‘I even managed the setup and props myself’, said Ms Pak when she recalled how she succeeded in performing The Dream of the Red Chamber. She would also conduct in-depth research before tackling a scripted character in an opera, to make sure she understood the character thoroughly. Before she played Du Liliang in The Peony Pavilion, she insisted on reading the original literary texts, so Lady Sung gave her a copy of Yumingtang’s Peony Pavilion. From studying this, Ms Pak gleaned her character's appearance and personality. She realised while Du Liliang had thin lips, she was not a weak person. She then shared her thoughts on how to play her character with Mr Tong Dik-sang. A perfectionist and a passionate operatic artist, Ms Pak never stopped honing her skills. Her vocal style – known as the Sin Style – was one of a kind, and reflected her belief that vocal styles should vary across plots and characters. To highlight Ms Pak's eloquent nature and vocal style, Tong Dik-sang tailored many roles for her, including Siu To Hung in Red Cherries and a Broken Heart, Yeung Chun Heung in Triennial Mourning on the Bridge and Fuk Siu Yuk in The Legend of Purple Hairpin. These operas feature a great deal of kou bai and siu kuk (fixed tunes), and showcased Ms Pak's talents to the fullest.
Ever graceful and exceptionally talented on the stage, Ms Pak also became a versatile actress on the silver screen, excelling in both period and modern characters. She started her career in the movies in 1947 in Wife in the Morning, Sister-in-law at Night the play of Sun Sing Opera Troupe. From 1947 to 1968, she starred in almost 200 movies, including classics such as Red and White Peonies, Romance of Fuji Mountain, The Purple Hairpin, and Princess Cheung Ping, enjoying favourable reviews and tremendous popularity.
Ms Pak Suet-sin's life-long partnership and collaboration with Ms Yam Kim-fai is one of the most popular and storied tales amongst opera and movie lovers. They were deemed a match made in heaven both on stage and on the silver screen, moving countless audiences with their consummate performances, from romantic love stories to heart-breaking tragedies. They met in 1945 while performing with the Sun Sing Opera Troupe, launching an epic era featuring two of Cantonese opera's brightest stars. Ms Yam and Ms Pak typically played sang (male character) and dan (female character), respectively. Of like minds and ideals, they extended their partnership from the stage into reality by establishing the Chor Fung Ming Opera Troupe in 1963 so as to pass their knowledge and passion for Cantonese opera onto younger generations. Ms Yam Kim-fai passed away in 1989. In remembrance of her best friend, Ms Pak quoted a verse from an ancient classic poem, Yellow Bird from Shijing, The Odes of Qin: ‘Could his life be redeemed, I would have given a hundred lives for him’ to show her deepest grief. Ms Pak later set up the Yam Pak Charitable Foundation to continue to support Ms Yam's will. The Foundation specialises in promoting Cantonese operatic culture and supporting research and study of the traditional dramatic arts, while also benefitting the community by sponsoring the construction of medical, educational, and elderly care facilities. In 2001, the Foundation was honoured with the ‘Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award’ in recognition of its contribution to society.
Continuing her support for education in the arts, Ms Pak donated generously to CUHK Department of Music in 1993. At the same time, she lent the University a vast collection of more than 6,000 items from the Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe, including transcripts, promotional materials and photos, to assist in the study of Hong Kong's Cantonese opera development. In 2016, the Yam Pak Charitable Foundation permanently donated this collection to the University Library, benefitting the education sector enormously.
An accomplished artist and legendary figure in the Cantonese opera circuit, Dr Chan Shuk-leung is revered by all. In 1996, she was conferred an Honorary Fellowship by The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, and in 1997 was named an Honorary University Fellow by The University of Hong Kong (HKU). In 2001, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 20th Hong Kong Film Awards. In 2004, HKU honoured her again as a Doctor of Letters, honoris causa. In 2006, the International Society for the Performing Arts conferred upon her a Distinguished Artist Award and, in ensuing years, she also received an Honorary Award from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and a Gold Bauhinia Star from the HKSAR Government. In 2014, Shue Yan University awarded her a Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.
Mr Chairman, let us congratulate an affectionate artist and pay tribute to her life-long passion for Cantonese Opera, her unswerving pursuit of operatic greatness, her dedication to her life partner, and her commitment to her charitable work. Her unique voice and masterly stage movements have created lots of classic characters, leaving audiences with countless unforgettable moments. It is my great pleasure to present to you Dr Chan Shuk-leung for the award of the degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa.