Josephine Ma became a Chinese opera star and fundraiser

The first time I saw Chinese opera, I was hooked. It was in Hong Kong, where I grew up, and my mother was performing as an amateur in a charity event for the local YWCA. I was 6 years old and I was asking for lessons. Although the training is very hard, I had the chance to study with a world famous star, Yim-Hing Law. At 95, she still travels to the United States when she can to see me play.

Chinese opera spans centuries. It involves singing, like Western opera, but also acrobatics, dancing and martial arts, as well as spectacular costumes, hairpieces and make-up.

I devoted myself to my training. My parents, however, didn’t want me to try to make a living as an opera performer, so they sent me to college. I started a career at Cathay Pacific Airways, where I worked as a secretary, then a flight attendant, then an executive trainer. In 1988, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and took on a fundraising position with Self-Help for the Elderly, which provides nutrition, health and housing. (I recently retired from that job and moved into a volunteer fundraising role with the agency.)

Ma in makeup and costume for a performance with Hong Kong opera star Xiao Ming Liang in 2019.

Courtesy of Josephine Ma

But I missed the opera. In 1997, I founded a Chinese opera troupe, Duen Fung Ming, in the Bay Area. Its mission is to educate future generations of artists – of all ethnicities, not just of Chinese descent – ​​and to bring art to a wider audience in the Western world. The troupe currently has over 60 volunteers, including performers, musicians, the backstage crew and an audiovisual production team. I direct, choreograph and produce our performances, and each serves as a fundraiser for Self-Help. In 2019, just before the pandemic, we raised $200,000 for the agency. We had to take a break due to COVID, but we did a virtual performance last year and hope to do an in-person performance in November, pandemic permitting.

What I love about Chinese opera is the beauty of the performance and the stories, which are drawn from Chinese history and mythology. It is a physically demanding art, not only because of all the movements but also because of the weight of the costumes. To wear a crown, you have to wrap three or four yards of ribbon around your head for support – so the crown stays in place through all the wild moves.

Now that I’m older, it’s much more difficult to do certain acrobatic moves, like kicking, jumping, and one-legged bends. But I still love the opera as much as I loved it the first time I saw it.

Josephine Ma, 75, is a volunteer fundraising consultant in Hayward, Calif., and founder of the Duen Fung Ming opera troupe.

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