Peking Opera School
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The Peking Opera Schools were boarding schools located throughout Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, specialising in teaching Peking opera. The most well known of these schools are those that were based in Hong Kong during the 1950s and 60s, as many of the attending students subsequently embarked on successful careers in the Hong Kong film industry.
In learning Peking opera, attending students developed skills in martial arts, acrobatics and tumbling, music and dance and performed these skills for audiences. The schools produced a generation of stunt performers, action choreographers, actors and film directors including some of the most famous stars of Hong Kong action cinema. Public interest in Peking Opera waned in the late 1960s and during the Cultural Revolution most of the schools were closed.
Historically, pupils had been handpicked at a young age by a teacher (or sifu) and trained for a period of seven to ten years, on contract from their parents. As the teacher provided food and accommodation for the pupils during this period, they accrued a debt to the teacher that was later repaid through performance earnings. After 1911, training took place in more formally organised schools. Typically, students at these schools rose at five o'clock in the morning for exercises. The daytime would be spent learning the skills of acting and combat, and the senior students would perform in outside theatres in the evenings. Corporal punishment was commonplace and it was not uncommon for the entire group to be beaten with bamboo canes if one student made a mistake during a performance. Schools with less harsh training methods began to appear in 1930, but all schools were closed down in 1931 after the Japanese invasion. The modern schools, such as the China Drama Academy and the Spring and Autumn Drama School opened after the war, in around 1952.
China Drama Academy
The China Drama Academy is famous for being the childhood home of such famous actors as Jackie Chan (Yuen Lo), Sammo Hung (Yuen Lung), Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Yuen Qiu and Corey Yuen (Yuen Kwai). The Peking Opera school was run from a small theatre in the Lai Chi Kok amusement park, Kowloon by Master Yu Jim Yuen (于占元), a northern (北拳) kung fu practitioner and a very stern teacher. Children were usually enrolled for a period of 10 years, whilst Yu taught them the acrobatic and acting skills that would later introduce many of them into the world of Chinese theatre and movies.
Whilst attending the opera school under the tutelage of Yu Jim Yuen, the students all adopted their sifu's given name "Yuen" as their family name.
Life in the Opera School
Practice at the Peking Opera School was very strict. The students signed into contracts that would allow the instructors to punish them up until death. Training would take place up to 18 hours a day and included stretching, weapons training, acrobatics, martial arts and acting. In an interview in 2008, Jackie Chan described the experience:
It was really arduous, we hardly had enough to eat, enough clothes to keep warm, training was extremely tiring, and Master could cane us anytime!
...at that time, majority of the people in Hong Kong were poor. It was equally gruelling whichever profession you were in. We were considered fortunate. Our Master was an exceptional person, and he adopted Jackie Chan as his son, and doted on him the most. [..] Our Master took in many disciples, but he didn't take a single cent from us, and even slept on the floor together with us.
In Chan's biography, he elaborates on how students would be made to adopt the horse stance and other balancing poses, for long periods of time. If one student fell, they would be beaten and all students would be made to restart the exercise.
Whilst there, Chan earned the nickname "Double Boy" from the other students, because he would often have to endure twice the training as the other students, but had twice the spirit. According to his book, 'I Am Jackie Chan, one of the reasons Chan excelled was because he had been "adopted" by Yu, at the request of his parents. This meant any failure would have been a particular embarrassment, so he was made to practice for longer and often when others made mistakes, Chan was punished twice as hard as the perpetrator.
The Seven Little Fortunes
|Seven Little Fortunes|
The Seven Little Fortunes (Chinese: 七小福; pinyin: qī xiǎo fú), sometimes known as The Lucky Seven, were a performance troupe consisting of the China Drama Academy's most capable students. Aged as young as seven or eight years old, they travelled and showed their acrobatic and acting skills to domestic and Western audiences in theatres and venues such as Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park (AKA Lai-yuen Amusement Park). The school also sent these students to work for movie studios as extras.
Though there were more than seven pupils in the troupe at any one time (some estimates say 14), only seven would appear in each performance. Jackie Chan was one of the Seven Little Fortunes and when asked about his most famous pupil, Master Yu Jim Yuen said that Jackie was "not one of the best, but the naughtiest, yes."
Known members include Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen, Yuen Wah, Yuen Tak, Yuen Tai, and Yuen Mo. Painted Faces (1988) is a biographical film about The Seven Little Fortunes during their youth at the Peking Opera School.
The Spring and Autumn Drama School
The Spring and Autumn Drama School was another opera school in Hong Kong, and was to some extent the China Drama Academy's "rival". It was run by Madame Fan Fok-Fa (粉菊花, aka Fen Juhua), who had been China's first female martial arts actress. The school also produced a number of stunt performers and actors, most notably Lam Ching Ying, Josephine Siao and Hsiao Hou (actor) of Shaw Brothers fame. Mars went on to become a member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team (Sing Ga Ban) and several others became members of Hung Ga Ban, Sammo Hung's stunt team.
Fu Sheng Opera School (Taiwan)
A similar school in Taipei, Taiwan was attended by another group of people who subsequently worked in the Hong Kong film industry. It was known as the Fu Sheng (Fu Xing Ju Xiao) or Lu Kwan Peking Opera school. Although still called a Peking Opera school, students actually learned Taiwanese opera, sung in Hokkien dialect rather than Mandarin.
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