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A Preliminary Study of the Theatres Built by Cantonese Merchants in the Late Qing

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Around the year 1891, four theatres were established in the Guangzhou Prefecture. Three were located in the provincial city of Guangzhou, and one was in the town of Foshan. For a long time, Chinese operas were, on most occasions, performed either in private gardens or in public outdoor spaces. We may presume that the rise of these theatres as an urban phenomenon in the late nineteenth century would ultimately transform the form and style of opera performance in one way or another. However, material concerning the above-mentioned theatres is too limited for us to understand their buildings, furnishings, stage and seat arrangements, lighting and sound effects, and other related aspects. It is therefore very difficult for us to explore the possible connection between the physical elements of these theatres and the style of opera performances. Fortunately, in the mid-nineteenth century, some Cantonese merchants who were active in San Francisco hired a number of opera troupes from Guangzhou to travel to San Francisco and perform in American theatres. Some years later, they even built their own theatres in China Town especially for the performance of Chinese opera. English materials describing these overseas performances and theatres allow us to have some idea of what a Chinese theatre might be like, and to speculate how these overseas experiences may have left an impact on local opera troupes back in Guangzhou.


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