HONG KONG -- Street opera, an ancient form of Chinese culture, still thrives in Hong Kong's bustling Temple Street night market with dozens of part-time musicians literally moonlighting on sidewalk stages.

Without costumes, a half dozen musical troupes nightly perform under light bulbs strung on awnings, transforming a stretch of pavement in Kowloon's Yau Ma Tei district into a series of tiny stages, each with its own performers, musicians and money collectors.

Adding to the cacophony are the voices of alfresco fortunetellers and shouts of food vendors -- one of whom pulls a poisonous snake from a wire basket, plunges a knife below its head and skins it before throwing it into boiling water for the winter delicacy of snake soup and chrysanthemum petals.

Yau Ma Tei is Hong Kong's only stage for the street form of Cantonese opera, where these licensed musicians -- many of whom labor in factories by day -- perform delicate love songs amid traffic noises and crowds slurping soup and swigging beer.

In the past, no license was required and Hong Kong had several such street opera locales besides Yau Ma Tei, which means the place of oil and hemp, a former dock area.

The troupes' instruments include a two-string fiddle called gao-hu; a tall, high-pitched string instrument played like a cello; a hammer dulcimer called yang-qin; a harpsichordlike instrument played with featherlike wooden sticks; a banjo with a long neck; lutes and flutes.

The musicians can earn about $500 a month, but on Chinese New Year they can earn $2,500 when generous onlookers toss money into the middle of the group.

Hung Bun, a slender, dark-haired man, has played the gao-hu at Yau Ma Tei almost every night for four years. His left hand vibrates on the long-necked instrument, topped by a carved dragon's head, as he vigorously bows the two strings.

"I know how to play the violin, but not well," Hung said.

"There are four days rest every month. If the weather permits, we play every night for three hours," he said.

The songs are love stories, based on tales similar to "Romeo and Juliet," about lovers separated by bad luck or forced to divorce by their families. The singers use delicate hand movements and subtle dance steps to tell the stories.

Before the evening concert begins, the man who holds the license for Hung's troupe introduces the program with six singers and makes his pitch for donations.

"You hear the songs and then you pay and support us," he says. "Pay how much is appropriate. Thirty to 70 dollars ($5 to $10 U.S.) for one song is not too much. Little is also welcome."

After each song, a young woman with a plastic tray passes through the crowd for money.

Tong Kin Wun, head of the Chinese music department at Hong Kong's Academy for Performing Arts, said the troupes prefer young female singers to attract the crowds and would rather have one of the girls sing the male role.

"Some music is from folk songs, some from Peking opera, some might be from Kun opera, with a 500- or 600-year history. Cantonese opera music is a big mixture of many sources," said Tong, who has published a book of Cantonese operatic songs.