Open mike night at the Cantonese opera

For more than 60 years, Chinese-Americans have come to Seattle's Luck Ngi club to indulge their inner opera diva.

Wedged between a doctor's office and a Chinese restaurant in Seattle's International District, the Luck Ngi Musical Club has claimed a place in the Chinese community here for almost 65 years. It has provided a cultural haven for longtime residents and new immigrants to socialize and to perform scenes from the Cantonese operas with which they grew up.

"I fell in love with Chinese opera because the costumes were so pretty and all the girls always looked so graceful," says Anna Paquette, who has been coming to the Luck Ngi for almost 10 years. "There was a time when I finished elementary school that I wanted to be trained to do Chinese opera, but my parents would not allow me. They said that I needed to go to school and find a good job."

Ms. Paquette, who spent years studying and working in Minnesota and North Dakota - where Chinese cultural events can sometimes be hard to find - has been making up for lost time since returning to Seattle. On Friday and Saturday nights, she can step onto Luck Ngi's small platform stage and sing excerpts from operas with names like "The Emperor's Daughter" and "Reunion in the Moon Palace."

Works like these have become staples of Cantonese opera, which for centuries has attracted audiences in southern China with its high-pitched voices, clanging percussion, passionate story lines, and performances that can last for days. While the formal Beijing opera was often performed at the emperor's palace, its Cantonese cousin played to common audiences.

"They put a stage out in a rice field, or they built a bamboo theater high up outside of a temple. That's where I went to see my opera," recalls Henry Louie, who helped found the Luck Ngi club in 1938. Mr. Louie serves as the club patriarch and also provides musical accompaniment on the erhu, the Chinese two-string guitar.

Professional Cantonese opera is still alive and well in Hong Kong. On this side of the Pacific, the mostly amateur music clubs in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver also have carried on the tradition, but their membership is dwindling, because enough young people aren't stepping forward to continue the tradition.

The Luck Ngi club may seem a world apart from those outdoor extravaganzas on bamboo stages. Some audience members play mah-jongg or read the latest newspapers from Hong Kong. But most people turn their attention to the far end of the room, with its bright red backdrop laced with silver dragons, alongside a Chinese altar and the incense and fresh oranges that Louie has placed there. The music starts at 9 p.m.

Tonight, Louie joins five other musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments and one saxophone. These weekend soirées are usually "open mike" nights. Although the Luck Ngi includes a few opera professionals who immigrated from China, the 70 members are mostly amateurs who work as nurses, cashiers, and auto mechanics the rest of the week.

Singers rummage the club's file cabinets for old musical scores or pass around new photocopies they have made themselves. Then they reenact scenes - usually duets - from a repertoire of about 50 popular operas. The themes range from courtly love to family tragedies.

"This one is about a guy who marries a girl and finds out after three days that her father killed his father," says Paquette before she heads to the stage to sing the role of the injured husband. "He went home and didn't know what to say to the wife. And the wife keeps questioning him - 'Why are you so different?' So he finally tells the wife, 'Your father killed my father. You are my enemy, and I cannot stay here.' "

Once a year, club members perform publicly, and the walls are covered with pictures showing them in vivid pink and blue costumes. Their sleeves are wide and droopy, the better to gesture with. And the makeup around their eyes is thick, letting them add drama to every glance.

Lily Chen, whose father was a professional opera musician in China, came to Seattle from Guangzhou three years ago.

"Because I was new here, I didn't know anyone," she says in Chinese. "But one day when I was working in the supermarket, I saw that this group was having a performance in the mall. And I joined. Because this group is together and happy, it reminds me of home."

While new members like Ms. Chen are contributing their more advanced training to the music, the overall membership of the Luck Ngi club is aging. The club's youngest performer, 20-something Martin Lau, explains why. "To [older generations], Cantonese opera is our version of a movie," Mr. Lau says. But for young people, the "folk art" isn't exactly "the hip thing to do."

Louie acknowledges that younger members of Seattle's Chinese community will need to play a curatorial role if Cantonese opera is to survive here. Meanwhile,"I'm happy to have all the newcomers," he says. "They bring new songs and new music. And I'm hoping that the newer and younger members will carry on and keep this club going ... for a long time."

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