Information Services Office   19.2.2012


Dr. Chan Chak-lui Sam
Dr. Chan Chak-lui Sam (right) in The Purple Hairpin
Newsletter No. 392 > Thus Spake… > Dr. Chan Chak-lui Sam, Instructor, Department of Cultural and Religious Studies

Dr. Chan Chak-lui Sam, Instructor, Department of Cultural and Religious Studies


Dr. Chan Chak-lui Sam received her BA in Chinese language and literature, and MPhil and PhD in gender studies at the Chinese University. Deeply interested in Cantonese opera, Dr. Chan not only learnt the art, but founded a troupe. At the Chung Chi College 60th Anniversary celebration music event, The Purple Hairpin, last August, she played a female sheng (male protagonist).

How did you become interested in Cantonese opera?

I have to start from a night when I was in Primary 6. I didn't want to sleep so I watched Tung Wah Charity Show with my mom. I was fascinated by a performance of an extract from a Cantonese opera—it was something that combined dance, song and drama. I fell in love instantly and videotaped it. The next day I watched it again after school. Then I started renting Cantonese opera LDs to imitate the performances. When I found out there was a Cantonese opera school in Form 2, I borrowed money from my cousin to take lessons every Sunday behind my family's back. But the lies I made up to explain my absence were soon found out and there was a big scene at home. My parents let me continue taking lessons until Form 4. Then I stopped so I could focus on my studies. I thought that my association with Cantonese opera had ended.

Are your love of Cantonese opera and your choosing to major in Chinese language and literature at CUHK related?

I had been interested in Chinese since Primary 2. There was also a Cantonese opera club in CUHK. It was the perfect choice for me, but after enrolment, I found out that the club had dissolved. I was so disappointed! At that time, Prof. Chan Sau-yan, then professor at the Department of Music, hosted the Cantonese Opera Research Programme (CORP). It was about Cantonese opera anyway, so I applied to be a voluntary helper. Well, as fate would have it, the Music Department co-organized with the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong (Bar Wo) a Cantonese opera training class. As my family was not wealthy, it was hard to set aside money for the training fee. When I told Professor Chan about my difficulty, he generously lent me the money. He also allowed me to work as student helper at CORP to pay him back. I thus reconnected with Cantonese opera again and went on taking lessons for six years.

Why gender studies for your MPhil and PhD?

It is because I wanted to think over what gender is to ease my troubles in life. I recalled being defined as a possible ‘pervert’ twice. The first time, I was told that it was easy to be a ‘pervert’ if you study in a single-gender school. The other time, I was told that if I didn’t dress like a girl, I would turn into a ‘pervert’ sooner or later. By pursuing graduate studies, I could also continue with my Cantonese opera training. So why not?

What does Cantonese opera mean to you?

I have to say that without Cantonese opera, I am nothing. It’s the love of it that opened up a path for me. I’ve met various people who taught me about not only the art, but also life. Whenever I become lazy, it’s Cantonese opera that gets me back to work. I’m also afraid of communicating with strangers. I feel more confident when discussing art. Cantonese opera has changed me a lot. It is a gift, it’s part of my life, and I would say, my destiny.

Did you choose to play a female sheng because you’re 1.78 m tall?

At the very beginning of training, the roles of sheng and dan (female protagonist) are not assigned. Then later my teacher assigned me as sheng, and it was what I wanted too. Generally speaking, the dan is more prominent, while the sheng is more of a supporting role. But that’s exactly what I like about it. In 2002, like-minded friends and I organized the Atomic Cantonese Opera (ACO) troupe to apply what we learnt in performance and share experiences with people of the same interest.

How’s ACO doing lately?

ACO was a testing platform that tested the effects of borrowed ideas. That is why we only performed twice a year at most. As box office results, audience numbers and their feedback were the least of our concerns, we chose small theatres for our performances. After seven years, we stopped because we were lost. Where should we go from there? Playing in The Purple Hairpin to quite a large audience, I got feedback that I over-acted. I think I need to go back to the stage and experience the relationship between performer and audience, in order to capture the best tension and dynamics. I will be seeking more opportunities for performance in the near future.

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