In Chinese tradition, women with tiny bound feet were desirable as wives and lovers, their delicate feet seen as objects of both status and sexual fetish. In her first full length storytelling piece Bound Feet Blues – A Life Told in Shoes, Chinese-Malaysian story performer Yang-May Ooi explores themes of female desirability, identity and empowerment in this personal story told through the shoes in her life.
The image of Chinese women with bound feet has haunted me since I was a child. I think of these women who have been crippled for life ever since they were 4 years old, unable to walk, with broken stumps for feet beneath the delicately embroidered silk shoes. Just so they can appear to have little, dainty feet and seem to be elegant and graceful – and therefore desirable and marriageable.
I’ve always had small, delicate feet. My shoe size is 3.5 and it’s a real problem trying to find shoes that fit me in the UK because most women’s shoes here are made for big Western feet and start at size 4. So shoe shopping is very tiresome. But that hassle aside, I’m very happy with my little feet. Because although they are small, their size is due to genetics and not because of mutilation.
As a child, I could play tag and hopscotch, skip and cycle. As an adult, I can run and dance and walk for hundreds of miles.
Had I been born in a different time, might my life have been restricted to a few square yards because of the tradition of foot binding?
Like the life that my great-grandmother lived with her bound feet.
But beyond the physical mutilation, what does it do to a young girl’s sense of herself to be co-erced into this irreversible crippling just so that she would be wanted by a man, married by a man, rescued from a life as an outcast by a man? This practice continued for over 1,000 years, often done to daughters by mothers. What did that do to souls of 30 generations of women?
In my story performance of Bound Feet Blues, the image of bound feet is a metaphor for the traditions, expectations and internalised strictures that bind and limit us as women, even in today’s modern, post-feminist world.
Personal and Universal Stories
At one level, the story is about how I internalised that crippled sense of self as a Chinese woman coming of age in Britain in the 1980s and how I came to find my own powerful identity by stepping out of traditional and familial expectations.
I use personal stories from my own life as a way to look at universal themes. So at another level, while I may be talking about my mother and my own identity, I am inviting the audience to reflect on how – for all of us – our sense of our selves and the hopes we have for our lives may be passed down from all mothers to all daughters. And how we as women may be internalizing traditions and expectations from the culture around us that limit us in damaging ways.
As my story unfolds, the different types of shoes at each phase in my life reflect my emotional and psychological state. So I will be talking about stilettoes, expensive Italian pumps, hiking boots, trainers, brogues and Chelsea boots and the roles they played in my sense of self and happiness.