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Black armour robe with slender sleeves, epaulets and a side opening with brass frog fasteners. Below the waist, the armour divides into one front panel and three back panels. On the front are fu dog, butterfly, cash, sun and prunus motifs in silver, green, pink, red, purple and orange on a black ground. The collar band has butterfly motifs in silver, pink, yellow, green and white. The sleeves have butterfly, peony, prunus, and swastika motifs in silver, pink, white, blue, purple and green. On the back are bat, fish, endless knot, peony, prunus and chrysanthemum motifs in silver, pink, purple, green, blue and orange on a black ground. On each of the large back panels there are five tassels in yellow, green, orange, light and dark pink. On the front are three large tassels in orange, yellow and pink. There are green glass eyes, tin reflectors, white fur and hexagonal mirrors on the front and back. The inside lining is white cotton.

History Of Use

This armour is in typical Cantonese style, narrower than that used in northern opera. It is called “great armour”, “daaih kau”. It was worn to represent a general of the “painted face” role type, “fa mihn”. It could have been used for one of the generals in the auspicious act “Six Kingdoms Present a Chancellor”, “Luhk Gwok Daaih Fung Seuhng”. Each general would have worn a different colour. The padded nose on the tiger represented a cloth with a charm inside, attached to a general’s armour to protect him or her. It was worn with hip panels and a collar, and probably with a set of four flags at the back.
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 humble, struggling gentlewoman. 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.

Cultural Context


Iconographic Meaning

The narrow sleeves indicate that this costume is for a military role rather than a civil role. The dark colour indicates that is was worn to represent the “painted face”, “fa mihn”, role type, a rougher, less educated character.

Specific Techniques

All seams are enclosed. All stitching that can be seen is hand-sewn. Cotton lining is pasted to outer layer. Wear on other costumes made of similar fabric suggests that it is silk warp with cotton weft, or vice-versa. Embroidered sections are done with long satin stitches.


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.

Item History

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