Citation: Dr. CHAN Shuk Leung, GBS (PAK Suet Sin) Doctor of Letters, honoris causa


Dr. CHAN Shuk Leung (Pak Suet Sin) received her honorary graduate's cap and gown at her home, on December 9, 2014, from a representative of the University, and shared the honour of receving the Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, with her long-time artistic partner, YAM Kim Fai.


A citation written by Dr. WONG Chung Ming and translated by Dr. KUNG Chi Keung


Dr. PAK Suet Sin is a celebrated performing artist of Cantonese opera. The Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe she formed with the legendary opera singer YAM Kim Fai has become one of the most renowned Cantonese opera companies in the field, setting a glittering record of artistic achievement. Its rich repertoire and brilliant performances have been praised as among the gems of Cantonese opera. In recognition of her many contributions to Cantonese opera, the Hong Kong Shue Yan University takes great honour in awarding Dr. PAK Suet Sin the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.


Born as CHAN Shuk Leung in 1928 in Guangzhou, Dr. PAK’s ancestral home is in Shunde, Guangdong Province. Her father was the famous Cantonese opera singer PAK Kui Wing. Since she was the ninth daughter in the family, she has been affectionately called ‘the ninth lady’ by her operatic peers.


Dr. PAK loved to act since a very young age, but her aspirations were at first frustrated by her father who regarded the theatre as an unsuitable career for his young daughter. In order to gain his permission to follow a theatrical career, she knelt on the ground until her father relented. At the time, PAK Kui Wing had a hectic performing schedule. The determination and sincerity shown by Dr. PAK as well as her natural gifts moved her father to agree to her request. Convinced that his daughter was well-suited for the role of young female characters, or huadan, in Cantonese opera, the senior PAK asked the theatre impresario SIT Kok Sin to accept his daughter as apprentice. Mr. PAK also hired the well-known singer and versatile instrumentalist SIN Gon Ci, who was well-versed in music theory, to teach his daughter the craft of singing. Dr. PAK once said: “For every successful artist, it is eighty percent inspiration and twenty percent perspiration.” While Dr. PAK admits to her natural gifts as an operatic actress and her quickness in learning the craft, she also emphasizes that her success was equally due to the mentorship of her famous teachers and her own steadfast determination to learn. Under the meticulous guidance of her two renowned teachers, Dr. PAK made such rapid progress in acting and performing that by the age of 16, she became the leading actress of the Kam Tim Fa Opera Troupe. But a year later, acknowledging that she still had much to learn, she was willing to take on the role of a secondary huadan. This clearly shows Dr. PAK’s conscientiousness and modesty.


In the 1940s, Dr. PAK became acquainted with YAM Kim Fai in Macau, and she describes how they felt like old friends even at their first meeting. Ms. YAM then invited Dr. PAK to join her in the Sun Sing Opera Troupe, which marked the beginning of the YAM-PAK partnership. Later, with the forming of the Hung Wan Opera Troupe, the Lei Wing Wah Opera Troupe and Do Bou Opera Troupe, the legendary YAM-PAK duo made their mark and became prominent performers in the opera world. In 1956, they formed the Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe. By then their performing repertoire boasted a very impressive list of opera titles, including “Awakening in the Peony Pavilion”, “The Princess of Cheung Ping”, “Reincarnation of Lady Plum Blossom”, “The Purple Hairpin”, “Legend of the Butterfly and Pear Blossom” and “Mistaken Dreams of Western Chamber”. These productions enjoyed huge popularity among audiences and were known by people from all walks of life. The duo enjoyed great success and renown, performing to packed houses up until their official retirement in 1969.


Apart from performing in Cantonese opera, Dr. PAK also worked in the movie industry since 1947. In all, until 1968 she starred in about 200 movies and played a leading role in 110 of them. Most of these famous movies were adapted from her operatic productions. In 1967, the Sin Fung Ming Film Company was formed, and Dr. PAK performed her final film role as the leading lady in “The Tragedy of a Poet King”, at the time biggest-budget Cantonese opera movie ever made. Dr. PAK’s contributions to the film industry are also illustrious, although she has admitted that she did not enjoy making movies as much as performing Cantonese opera onstage. This has remained the love of her life, and is where her heart really lies.


Dr. PAK’s interest in Cantonese opera was originally the result of her primary attraction to the theatre. But her sense of responsibility motivated her to put her best efforts into performing. After the formation of the Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe, and inspired by the great playwright TONG Tik Sang, Dr. PAK’s view of Cantonese opera began to change, and she set herself high goals which she pursued assiduously and with great determination. Her subsequent accomplishments have been of the highest level and have won great admiration and praise. Two main points can be summarized from a broad survey of Dr Pak’s contributions to Cantonese opera:


1. Reforming Cantonese Opera


When the Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe was first formed, there was no grand or ambitious plan. But TONG Tik Sang was a playwright of profound literary training. Drawing upon materials from yuanju to zaju and from xiqu of the Qing Dynasty to other literary genres, he was able to create a large number of wonderful operas. The scripts of his operas are graced with elegant and poetic lyrics and narration, and feature classical tunes that won great admiration and have made them into precious gems of Cantonese opera.


Dr. PAK and TONG Tik Sang were kindred spirits. Dr. PAK enjoyed reading WANG Shifu and CAO Xueqin from a young age, and also more modern works such as those by ZHANG Henshui and ZHOU Shoujian of the so-called ‘Mandarin Duck and Butterfly’ school of vernacular writing. Yet she equally enjoys the bittersweet elegance of classical poetry and lyrical verses. The combination of Dr. PAK’s cultivated taste in literature and TONG Tik Sang’s natural writing talents have helped elevate Cantonese opera to a new level.


TONG Tik Sang once recalled that when he was adapting a script for the play “Awakening in the Peony Pavilion” he had spent three nights pondering a difficult section. Two of the best lines, he said: “were inspired by the quick wit and intelligence of PAK Suet Sin.” While “Awakening in the Peony Pavilion” was not well-received by audiences at the time of its premiere because of its abstruse lyrics, Dr. PAK had a profound understanding of which direction Cantonese opera should take and was insistent on mapping out a path for it. For her, it was important to save Cantonese opera from descending into vulgarity and to help it become more elegant and literary, and she devoted herself to the goal of

guiding the audience down the new path she envisaged for it. Blessed with “the soul” of the operas provided by TONG Tik Sang and the masterly performances of the YAM-PAK duo, the Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe soon drew fans by the thousands.


The Sin Fung Ming opera troupe even incorporated elements of Peking and Kun operas, such as performers’ posture and their exquisite body movements into Cantonese opera. New and innovative ideas in costumes, stage sets, music and lighting effects were also steadily introduced, with the result of raising the aesthetic level of Cantonese opera to new heights.


2. Nurturing New Talent


In 1960, in preparation for the staging of “New Legend of the White Snake”, the Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe hired a group of novice dancers. Some of them later became the pupils of YAM Kim Fai and Dr. PAK. These apprentices later became the founding members of the new Chor Fung Ming Opera Troupe. While Dr. PAK had never intended to train apprentices, now that she was retired, she devoted herself completely to taking care of them: “In the past, we as actresses had to wait upon our teacher-masters or shifu. Now it is our turn to serve our pupils and attend to every aspect of their daily life: from assisting them in getting dressed for the performance and doing makeup touch-up for them to cooling them off with a hand fan as well as serving them with tea.” The disciples would often join the YAM-PAK duo at home after their evening performances, where they would have acting lessons given by their shifu. After that, the disciples would take a bath and enjoy evening snacks, and the leading actress of the evening’s performance was given ginseng tea to drink. “Only after every one of them had gone to bed would we start taking care of our own business,” Dr. PAK recalls.


In teaching and on stage, Dr. PAK played the role of a strict father to her disciples, while off stage and at home, she acted like a loving mother. The combination of these two approaches greatly benefitted her fledgling students. She exhorted them “not to come up with an exact duplicate of me and Ms. YAM or, for that matter, of anybody else. You can only draw upon others’ strengths to form your own unique style.” “The song of the young phoenix surpasses that of the old phoenix” is a saying aptly summarizes the ardent expectation she had of her disciples so that they could one day surpass their teachers. Her group of “young birds” eventually lived up to their teacher’s expectations and had brilliant careers.


It has been the great contribution of the Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe to open a new path for Cantonese opera, transforming it from a common, unrefined form of entertainment to an elegant art form of superior quality. This has also been the lifelong aspiration of Dr. PAK, who has dedicated herself wholeheartedly to the task of planting aesthetic new seeds for Cantonese opera, so that this traditional art form from Guangdong, which was once considered to have passed its prime, can now live on for generations to come. Dr. PAK once said with a sigh: “We are all Guangdong natives and Cantonese opera is an art form with a long history. How can we not be moved seeing it fall into decline day by day? No matter how much it takes, we must do our best to keep it going.” She also added: “I am truly willing to devote my whole life to Cantonese opera!” It is rare to find such strong determination.


For her enormous contribution to Cantonese opera both as a reformer and a mentor, Professor Hu, I present to you Dr. PAK Suet Sin for the award of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa so that more promising young Cantonese opera performers will be inspired to grace this garden of art with blossoming, colorful flowers.


Source: December Issue 2014

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