Chinese Opera at the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre

"Should I sketch from here to here, or here to there?" Always a dilemma.

"Should I sketch from here to here, or here to there?" Always a dilemma.

It was drizzling, pretty windy and the mercury dropped like a stone in the afternoon, but we were determined to stick it out, and about 10 of us got together at various overlapping times, at the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre to sketch.

The theatre this year was designed by architect Raymond Fung, and was erected in 3 weeks by craftsmen who built the structure by strapping thousands of bamboo poles together without the use of nails. Most often seen as scaffolding encasing skyscrapers under construction, the use of bamboo is huge in Hong Kong and parts of China, as the material is strong, light and versatile. It helps that it's also fast-growing and thus sustainable! 

The 800-seat Theatre this year was built to house performances of Chinese Opera for a month, coinciding with the Chinese New Year celebrations. Now, I have to admit that I've never been a fan of this music. I had seen bits of performances as an ignorant kid, and the fact that only older generations appreciated it, made it instantly repellant to me then. Too many years of clubbing in my youth had also fried some circuitry in my ears, and loud, high notes now result in a horrible ringing that often hurts. (I always have a set of ear plugs in my bag at all times, just in case things get too loud.) 

When I heard about the Theatre this year, I thought it might be time to reshape my cultural ignorance of this art form. Images I had seen on the internet looked fascinating, and the trigger was seeing a sketch of Serge Raif Chehab, on the Urban Sketchers Hong Kong Facebook page, who had gone for a performance just the weekend before. Learning that the Theatre would be dismantled after the final performance on the 8-9 February also compelled me to go.

I have a bunch of sketcher friends who are always game to go anywhere and draw, so getting the posse together this time was quick as well. A quick call on social media, virtual hands raising in approval, and we were on. At one time, we must have made a funny sight. There were four of us to begin with, and we huddled under our individual umbrellas, seated on the cold ground or perched on stools we'd brought, all sketching in a row. The security guard of the property frowned at us every now and then, as if she was afraid we would move off the pavement and into the middle of the driveway.

When it began raining, I had to stop using my iPad, so I went analog and pulled out my sketchbook (yes I have those too). My 4-color Muji pen was really handy for rendering the entrance to the Bamboo Theatre compound.

When it began raining, I had to stop using my iPad, so I went analog and pulled out my sketchbook (yes I have those too). My 4-color Muji pen was really handy for rendering the entrance to the Bamboo Theatre compound.

The barricades to the main entrance would only be moved when the Theatre compound opened at 3pm. We shuffled from foot to foot with the small crowd gathered in eager anticipation. Most comprised of the elderly. One particular duo caught my eye and proved irresistible to sketch.

This duo really caught my eye because one looked so glum and the other was bubbling with excitement. I tried to sketch them quickly so they wouldn’t be too self-conscious. The glum lady caught on to me seconds after I began and guided her friend away, so I had to work from memory and glances at details whenever possible.

This duo really caught my eye because one looked so glum and the other was bubbling with excitement. I tried to sketch them quickly so they wouldn’t be too self-conscious. The glum lady caught on to me seconds after I began and guided her friend away, so I had to work from memory and glances at details whenever possible.

We sketched in the waning light, sometimes hopping around to loosen cramped muscles, or to simply warm up. Nobody anticipated the cold front moving in so quickly, and bundled up though many of us were, the wind still cut through on occasion. Fortunately, the organizers had a food court on site, providing a constant source of hot meals and drinks.

As light left the sky, winking lights came on on the Bamboo Theatre. The dropping temperature made for cramped fingers, but I managed to sketch this before they went numb.

As light left the sky, winking lights came on on the Bamboo Theatre. The dropping temperature made for cramped fingers, but I managed to sketch this before they went numb.

A few of us had also purchased tickets and stayed to watch the show. We didn't have much light where we were sitting, and in the dark interior, I saw 5 sketchbooks out with heads bowed diligently over them; probably also a vain attempt to see clearly! I had my iPad, and turned it down to its dimmest setting, concentrating on trying to capture the performers instead of the impressive bamboo structure.

The show that night featured rising stars in the Chinese Operatic world, none of whom I knew, nor would I recognize, if I bumped into them on the street. The makeup was pretty heavy. I watched, amused, and yes, entertained. I didn't understand a thing as there were no English subtitles, but emotion is universal and I knew angst and broken hearts when I saw them on stage. (Music has evolved in such varied directions on this gigantic planet! How do people develop their different tastes? What makes one person decide, "…nah, don’t like that. Let’s try it this way,” allowing a whole genre to spring forth?)

I don't think I’ll be buying the CDs, but I had a great time, and as often happens, the remaining sketchers got together after everything was over for a much-needed hot meal and more fascinating chats about sketching, creativity, the secrets of the universe...and of course, what to sketch next!