keih (Cantonese Opera Flag)

About this object

History of use

Flags were and are inserted into a flag holder which is tied onto the back of a general, male or female. It is worn over the actor’s costume, and the flags stick up behind the wearer’s head. They represent his or her right to command. The role type would be ”military gentleman”, “mouh saang”, or “military woman”, “mouh daan”. As the holder that goes with these flags is relatively large, it probably was worn by a male general, “yuhn seuih”.
The style of most Cantonese opera costumes derives from clothing of the Ming Dynasty, with the exception of some costumes that are specific in style to clothing of the Qing Dynasty, for operas set in that dynasty. Ming Dynasty style costumes are used for operas set in all other dynasties. In Cantonese opera, the standards for indicating particular role types and character types through costumes were and are not as strict as those for Beijing opera, and the use of symbols appears to have been inconsistent. The performance style of Cantonese opera is also much more flexible than that of Beijing opera, and change and novelty were and are valued. This is reflected in the costumes. It was important that robes and headdresses be appropriate to each other, but the footwear was less strictly controlled.
Early in the twentieth century there was a multiplicity of role types, but the number of role types was simplified over time, and some were merged. More than one actor can play a particular role type at any one time, and they are ranked. A basic list follows, but more role types exist. Among the female role types are those who can fight (called “fa daan”). The highest of these can sing, and is called the ”jing yahn fa daan”. Another female role type is the “ching yi”, a gentlewoman, sometimes humble and struggling, who sings but does not do acrobatics and fight. A third female role type is the old woman “louh daan”. A fourth is the female clown “neuih chauh”. Male role types include the “siu saang” (young gentleman), “mouh saang” (military man), “fa mihn” (painted face, military man with less education), “sou saang” (bearded gentleman, older civil male), “jung saang” (mid-rank male with many skills, but not outstanding), and “chauh saang” (male clown). Costumes are specific to general role type and often to character type, but rarely to the specific character. They are divided into civil and military types, as indicated by their sleeves. Civil costumes have wide sleeves, while military costumes have tight sleeves. Other details such as colour indicate the role type and character type. As indicated by this collection, “water sleeves” “seuih jauh” were rarely used in the pre- World War II period. Many costumes conform to named types, such as “yuhn lehng” “round neck” and “hoi ching”, scholar’s long robe overlapping at the front, with wide sleeves.
Male and female role types can be played by either men or women, depending on their abilities and attributes. In the past, troupes were all-male, but later all-female troupes and mixed troupes were formed. Mixed troupes were accepted in the overseas Chinese context before they were accepted in China.

Narrative

A large group of Cantonese opera costumes, musical instruments, props, trunks, and stage fittings was left with the Jin Wah Sing Musical Association, apparently by some of the many itinerant troupes visiting Vancouver to perform in the Chinatown theatres in the pre World War II period. There is no certain knowledge of why these materials were not taken back to China by them. They were used by the Jin Wah Sing Musical Association in their performances until they became too dated. The association continued to preserve them carefully, storing them in their headquarters and in the basement of the Chinese Freemasons building until several groups of materials were sold and donated to the Museum of Anthropology.

Cultural context

theatre

Iconographic meaning

Flags and their holders represent high-ranking martial characters.

Specific techniques

All sewing was done by machine. Pink fabric was woven with a silk warp and cotton weft, or vice versa.

Physical description

Triangular flag of orange damask with border of metallic braid and jagged, flame-shaped turquoise damask. Curved bamboo staff rises from a golden handle with either a white or pale green fringe. Flag sits just above the handle. Pink casing for staff.