Cover Lai in the experimental Cantonese opera Farewell My Concubine (New Adaptation). Courtesy of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

In Tatler’s weekly cultural series, where we learn about the secret lives of the tastemakers in Hong Kong’s arts scene, we speak with the award-winning Chinese opera artist who frequently performs at the Xiqu Centre.

Who says Cantonese opera belongs to older generations? If Man Chin-sui could be seen as the best known actor in the bamboo theatres of the past, Keith Lai Yiu-wai is the face of modern Cantonese operas. Trained under Man and fellow Cantonese opera masters Poon Sai-lun, Lai doesn’t only put on classic shows, but has been adapting them into shorter, simpler versions for contemporary audiences. He has also reworked two Shakespeare classics, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, into Cantonese operas A Dream in Fantasia and The Arrant Revenge. In 2010, he was named the Most Promising Actor by the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong and RTHK Radio 5. The following year, he was presented with the Award for Young Artist (Xiqu) by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, and subsequently formed his own troupe dedicated to new Cantonese operas. Lai is a core member behind the Xiqu Centre’s experimental Cantonese opera productions, Farewell My Concubine and Wenguang Explores the Valley and will appear in this year’s Black Box Chinese Opera Festival, which is being held at the Xiqu Centre from now until November 13.

8.30am

Adopting my dog five months ago has changed my life. Every day, I wake up early to take my dog out for a walk. I love it, because it gets me into the habit of waking up early, and now I feel energised in the morning. After my morning stroll, I take a shower and I get ready for my day. I usually have breakfast in the neighborhood; breakfast is an important meal, as I tend to skip lunch for rehearsals.

I don’t usually alter my diet when I have to perform—consistency is key to ensuring [I stay healthy]. I sometimes take Chinese medicine as a natural supplement to maintain my health.

Noon

I arrive at the Xiqu Centre for rehearsals for the Black Box Chinese Opera Festival 2021. Before rehearsals start, we usually do some stretching to warm up. We usually rehearse in our costumes but without putting on make-up. Warming up helps me to prepare physically, and tune in mentally to embody the character’s emotions on stage.

This year, the festival mixes together contemporary aesthetics, modern technology and traditional xiqu (Cantonese opera) to create a bold and progressive experience for the audience. I am always thrilled to perform our award-winning experimental productions on stage.

In our four-hour rehearsals that take place from noon until 4pm, we usually spend around 1.5 hours on one production. We’ll then take a 15-minute break before moving on to another one.

4pm

On days when I’m performing some at venues other than the Xiqu Centre, I head over there for a blocking rehearsal for an hour or two before dinner to double-check that everything is ready. I’ll then have a quick, early dinner nearby.

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7.30pm

It’s showtime! I’ll get changed, do my make-up, take a final look at the script, and off I go onto the stage.

10.30pm

I end my day in the same way I start it—by spending quality time with my dog. After taking it out for a night walk, I take a shower, eat some late-night snacks, and relax as I watch Netflix. Living alone gives me the opportunity to enjoy quality me time. When I don’t have a performance coming up, I would much rather stay at home to write a play than go out. You can probably tell I prize Cantonese opera above all else.

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