Hung Sin Nui (紅線女) has died. Her passing is a huge event, for it represents the end of a glorious era in the development of Cantonese culture. Cantonese culture is quite distinct from the culture of other regions of China. It's feisty, inventive, droll and pugnacious. It's not for nothing that China's revolutions start in the South and the world is populated with migrants from the region. Hung Sin Nui was one of the most important Cantonese opera singers of her time, but also played straight roles in costume as well as modern dramas. There's no rigid barrier between genres in China.. She was also a passionate advocate of Cantonese culture and progressive values. The characters she played were independent minded woman with personality, role models not only for women but also for men in a rapidly-changing society. Hung Sin Nui heroines aren't passive : they think and feel and act !
Hung Sin Nui was a stage name, chosen for meaning. "Hung" means red : for happiness, prosperity and art. "Sin" means thread, implying the refinement and strength of silk, which can be woven in endless filaments. "Nui" mean girl, a bit anonymous, but suggests universal experience. "Red" ironically has another connotation. At the height of her fame, in the 1950's she left Hong Kong and returned to Guang Zhou (Canton) as a statement of faith. She suffered in the Cultural Revolution but her ideals weren't dimmed. She promoted Cantonese opera and culture and kept the arts alive.
Born in the Shun Tak area, from which so many opera stars emerged, Hung Sin Nui began performing at 16. Very soon after, she married Ma Tse Tsang (馬師曾), the biggest star of the time,who created modern Cantonese opera. Read Virgil Ho's book "Understanding Canton, rethinking Popular Culture in the Republican Era (buy it here), Hung Sin Nui was Ma's muse, but also a star in her own right, making many films on her own. When a good account of the development of Cantonese opera and culture in the second half of the last century gets written, Hung Sin Nui will feature greatly.
So much material to choose ! But I've picked a short, funny piece from the film The Judge goes to Pieces (審死官)from 1948 (see the full film here). Hung Sin Nui plays the wife, who saves a pregnant woman who is escaping a murderous family. In the short clip below, she does a tour de force of Cantonese Sprechstimme. The story is comic but with deeper implications. The married couple (the husband played by Hung Sin Nui's real life husband Ma Tse tsang) are childless and unhappy, but by helping a stranger they are rewarded. The baby inherits his father's estate, and Ma Tse Tsang's character ends up being made a judge.