HONG KONG (AP) _ Chan Chak-lui loves slipping into cream-colored gowns to play the role of a scholar gentleman in Cantonese opera _ a world long dominated by men who sing, dance and perform martial arts.

But the tall, willowy Chan is a woman _ and that's not a problem in Hong Kong's operatic circles. Fewer men than women are learning the ancient ways, partly because of financial and social pressures. Tides have turned and it's the women who are keeping the art form alive.

``My roles are made for men, naturally,'' Chan, 28, said. ``But women who've taken up these roles before me have introduced new things so that the roles mutated to suit them.''

Cantonese opera isn't as well known as its northern cousin: Peking opera. The shows are performed in the Cantonese dialect, spoken in Hong Kong and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, once known as Canton.

Like Peking opera, the Cantonese version tells folk tales and historical anecdotes with elaborate face painting, glamorous period costumes and high-pitched falsetto singing.

But unlike its northern counterpart, Cantonese opera involves less action, demanding more intellectual heroes than warriors for its tales of courtship and romance.

Such roles are easier for women to play, Chan said, adding that she experienced no disadvantage playing men.

``I didn't feel there was much difference or problem at all. In Cantonese opera, a good young actor can act an elderly man well, and the same goes for one sex playing the other,'' Chan said.

She studies opera with 15 others _ seven who sing male parts like her, and eight singing female parts. None of them are men.

``There's no official tally, but it's true that in the past 20 years or so there have been many more female opera students than male ones,'' said Li Siu-leung, a professor of cultural studies at Hong Kong's Lingnan University.

Most actresses like Chan were inspired to cross-dress as romantic male leads _ typically kitted out in embroidered cream gowns and waving paper fans _ after a phenomenally popular actress, Yam Kim-fai, wowed audiences in the 1950s.

Yam and her talented stage partner, Bak Suet-sin, are among the legendary opera stars who have taken Cantonese opera a long way from the old days when women were banished from the audience, and little recognition was given to female singers' achievements.

Yam is widely regarded as having mastered the ideal romantic hero more successfully than any actor: tender, sensitive and charmingly flirtatious at the same time.

``Yam was great at courtship scenes. She was romantic and innocent and exuded scholarly elegance. Many women in the audience found her more desirable and attractive than real men,'' Li said.

Chan believes one reason why so many Hong Kong women have taken to Cantonese opera has to do with the city's economic development since the booming '80s.

``I think more women can afford time and money to learn opera because more of them are earning money for themselves,'' she said.

The surge in female opera singers became all the more noticeable because it came at a time when the number of Hong Kong men interested in opera singing was fast shrinking.

And while actresses are free to play either male or female parts depending on their interest and abilities, few men have the courage or ability to do the same under changing cultural and political environments.

Male prima donnas of the sort seen in the 1993 Chinese movie ``Farewell My Concubine'' _ a tale of two Peking opera stars _ used to be the norm because women weren't allowed to act together with men, but are now extremely rare in Hong Kong.

``The all-male troupe is a well-established convention in Peking opera, but after the Communist Party took over, its official policy was to discourage men from cross-dressing as women,'' Li said.

Cantonese opera, meanwhile, has no strong tradition of male cross-dressers. The majority of those who do play women now perform the unappealing and less important comic or elderly roles, Chan said.

Paris Wong is an exception. Wong, 25, is fascinated with playing fragile, beautiful women and says he finds more emotional depth in female roles.

``There's only so much to male roles _ it's always loyalty, justice, heroism. Female roles are much more expressive and internal,'' he said.

He isn't so sure his audience enjoys his performances as much as he does. ``I'm sure there are people out there who see me as a kind of circus beast,'' he laughed.

Wong doesn't care. Talk of whether a female or male singer is ``convincing'' in bending genders on stage is useless, he said, because what matters most is a performer's power to move audiences with song and grace.

``As long as you can sing, I doubt if people would pick on whether you're a man or a woman,'' he said.

Chan cannot agree more. ``People who complain of mixing 'real' men and 'fake' men on the opera stage are missing the point. Opera is an representative art,'' she said. ``There's no need to insist on real gender. Opera transcends that.''