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Purple-black opera robe with wide extended sleeves, side slits, side opening and angled neck. On the front and back are bat, coin and peony motifs in gold and pink on a purple-black ground. The collar band has peony motifs in gold on a red ground. The sleeve and border band have lotus and rare vase motifs in gold, silver and pink on medium blue ground. There are green glass eyes and tin reflectors on the front, back and sleeves. Belt carriers are silver chrysanthemums on deep pink ground stiffened with paper, wood and adhesive. The inside lining is yellow linen.

History Of Use

This type of costume was worn to represent a premier, a high ranking official. The role type is ”gentleman”, “saang”. 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 leng” “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. Costumes from the period before World War II can be dated in part by their ornamentation. Those decorated with silver-coated brass discs are likely to be the oldest, followed by those decorated with mirrors. Sequins came into use in the 1930s, although they had been used sparingly before, and heavily-sequined costumes came into use in the late 1930s, continuing into the 1950s. The conditions of production of costumes pre-World War II are not known with certainty. As most costumes have repeated motifs, some method must have been used to replicate them for embroidery and couching. This work was probably done on a putting-out basis under the auspices of the production company, by women. The final finishing may have been done by men in the company headquarters.

Cultural Context


Specific Techniques

Seams are enclosed except for that at the centre back. All stitching that is visible was done by hand except for that on the cotton sleeve extensions. Metallic yarns are couched in place. Details are embroidered. Wear on other costumes made of similar fabric suggests that it was woven with a silk warp and cotton weft, or vice versa.

Iconographic Meaning

Rebus images, visual designs conveying auspicious meanings through sound, are a common feature in Chinese art. Bat imagery conveys the notion of prosperity, as bat is pronounced the same as prosperity (fu) and bat images next to a coin is used to convey the phrase fu zai yan qian or “prosperity appearing before one’s eyes”. In speaking these phrases out loud, one can call the wishes into being and attract the blessings of the deities. The “wings” are signs of official status. The belt loops are for a hoop belt that is also a sign of official status.


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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