How we perform our selves in every day life [Bound Feet Blues, the BOOK]

Bound Feet Blues, the BOOK, explores the theme of performance in theatre and in our every day lives, using the metaphor of bound feet and fashion. Writer/ performer and author of the book, Yang-May Ooi, explains why performance fascinates her.

Yang-May writes:

Bound Feet Blues, my memoir in book form, opens at my first staged performance of the theatre version of the Bound Feet Blues story. The first chapter describes what it felt like for me to step out in front of an audience under the spotlights to perform the story of my family and my own life.

That first performance at Conway Hall described in the book was captured on video – highlights below:

Acting and Authenticity

We sometimes mistake performance or acting as inauthentic. We think that acting means pretending to be someone that we are not. Of course that is factually true when actors play a fictional role or are portraying a real person on film or in a play but even then actors always seek to be real and honest in the emotions that they depict. For me, portraying myself and my family on stage, it was deeply important to be authentic to my own story and also theirs. The emotions and story I portrayed were real and truthful within the frame of the drama.

The experience of that performance made me reflect on the performance of my self over the last few decades.

“Performing” My Life

In the book, Bound Feet Blues, I write about how I “performed” the role of a Bright Young Thing in my student days in Oxford, going to balls and dressing as a beautiful “China Doll”. Later, I “performed” the role of a high-achieving lawyer in London in the yuppy atmosphere of the ’80s. When I came out, I “performed” as a boyish lesbian in baggy chinos and lace ups. It was only after all this experimentation that I finally came to be able to express who I really am – a mix of feminine and masculine, sometimes high powered, sometimes slobby and lazy, sometimes beautifully dressed, sometimes not.

Yang-May Ooi at Pride “performing” the tomboy self. This photo is one of many in her book, Bound Feet Blues

How do you “perform” different aspects of your character?

We all perform who we are to some extent. Think about how you show Continue reading

Do our shoes shape who we are? [video] – Yang-May Ooi, writer/ performer of Bound Feet Blues, thinks so

Yang-May Ooi, writer/ performer of Bound Feet Blues – A Life Told in Shoes, talks about how shoes and bound feet in her extra-ordinary theatre piece are a metaphor for who we are – and who we long to be.

Bound Feet Blues – A Life Told in Shoes is a solo story performance written and performed by Yang-May Ooi and directed by Jessica Higgs. A memoir of the same name by Yang-May Ooi is also being published.

ABOUT THE SHOW
In an epic journey from China via East Asia and Australia to England, British-Malaysian writer-performer Yang-May Ooi explores female empowerment and desirability through the oral histories of three generations of her family and the shoes in her life. Yang-May uses the ancient Chinese tradition of footbinding experienced by Continue reading

See 5,000 pairs of tiny lotus shoes at the Museum of Shoes for Bound Feet – Women’s History Month

The Museum of Shoes for Bound Feet re-opened this year after a fire closed it last year. It would be fascinating to visit it as part of my Bound Feet Blues project but it is in Anren Town of Dayi County, in southwest China’s Sichuan Province.

The press info states:

“In addition to the everyday shoes, the museum also displayed “special-occasion” shoes, which women with bound feet were to wear at wedding ceremonies, birthday parties and funerals as well as rain boots and high-top boots.”

 

I love the way they have displayed some of the shoes – as in the photo above – as if in a modern Continue reading

Boy or girl? A gender busting clothing line from Selfridges

Selfridges is creating a gender blended clothes shopping space so that you can select clothing that is not gender stereotyped. How cool is that!

This news piques my interest because I’ve always been a tomboy. In Bound Feet Blues,  I talk about wearing boy clothes and boy shoes. One of the themes of the show is gender roles and identity within a cultural expectation of what a woman should be like – and look like in the context of her feet and clothing.

You can check out the Agender section in Selfridges website – or go to the store itself –  to see how their clothes may  or may not complement your personal style.

UEG Para Bellum jersey shorts (Black

From what I can see, the clothing seems generally shapeless and baggy so as to hide all curves or forms that might give an observer a clue to the wearer’s gender.

What that made me realise was that I don’t want to look genderless! Despite still retaining a tomboy sensibility, I love being a woman and I enjoy wearing clothes that express the femininity of my physique. It’s just that I don’t go for the particularly “femmey” look involving flower prints, floaty skirts and girly shoes. I haven’t really analysed my personal style before but I suppose it’s still tomboyish but Continue reading

Women as Decorative Objects – International Women’s Day discussion panel [Women’s History Month]

In ancient China, women were treated as decorative objects – beautiful to look at, unable to leave the house because of their crippled bound feet, silent and submissive. That was the argument I made in my talk for the International Women’s Day panel discussion on Body Image hosted by the Pan Asian Women’s Association (PAWA) last week at the Nehru Centre in London.

L to R: Jee Oh, Yang-May Ooi, Sally Gloyne, Edna Fernandes

 

And that attitude to women underlies the way that women are viewed and treated today – even in our modern Western society. Of course, great strides have been made in liberal democracies for women’s rights and equality as well as for diversity. But there is still much work to be done in unbinding us from deep rooted cultural traditions that shame us for being “bossy”, old, ugly and dressed unconventionally – ie for being undecorative and for trying to be more than eye candy.

I feel passionately that the past can offer us a way in to exploring current issues in our present culture. We may look at the brutal tradition of bound feet and think that it was a weird practice that has nothing to do with us. But for the women of that time, this practice lasted for a thousand years and was done to little girls by their mothers and grandmothers. They believed that it was the right and only thing to do to guarantee happiness and a good life for their daugthers. If they had that blindspot, what is our cultural blindspot?

Where we are forced to conform to one universal Continue reading

Beautiful women are evil – so said the Ancient Greeks

Bound Feet Blues explores female beauty in the context of Ancient China and the practice of footbinding that was meant to make a woman more beautiful. My work on this project has led me to reflect on modern concepts of beauty in the modern West. Now, I have just  seen this article on the BBC website by historian Bethany Hughes looking at the beauty in the world of the Ancient Greeks – and it points to a rather different view of beauty from what we are used to.

The article says “In ancient Greece the rules of beauty were all important. Things were good for men who were buff and glossy. And for women, fuller-figured redheads were in favour – but they had to contend with an ominous undercurrent”

In Greek mythology, the first woman to be created was …” “the beautiful-evil thing”. She was evil because she was beautiful, and beautiful because she was evil. Being a good-looking man was fundamentally good news. Being a handsome woman, by definition, spelt trouble.”

This point of view contrasts with most notions of beauty which ellide goodness of character with good looks. In Ancient China, for example, an Exemplary Woman was one who was obedient and dutiful – and who was also beautiful, where her beauty was entirely defined by the tiny size of her feet. In modern times, heroines in movies and books tend to be beautiful, too, rather than plain or ugly unless their plainness is part of the plot device/ reason for the story.

However, this Greek notion of female beauty as evil does live on today in the modern trope of the evil seductress whose beauty is Continue reading

Footbinding could have been stopped 400 years early

Bound Feet Blues – the Book continues apace. I am now 42,000+ words in as the fourth chapter builds up its word count. This chapter is entitled “Lotus Feet” and expands on the scenes in the show that dramatize the history of footbinding and the painful process of a mother binding her daughter’s feet.

I can finally share a lot of the research I did for the show but which could not be squeezed into the 25 page script that makes up the one hour long show. It has been very satisfying writing away over the last few weeks, gathering it all together in a coherent way so that those interested in the themes of the show have the chance to learn more about the details and history of this brutal yet macabrely alluring practice.

Here are the last few paragraphs I have written so far;

In 1644, the new emperor of China and the progenitor of the Ming dynasty, a Manchurian who had taken power by violence and invasion, banned footbinding. It was part of a set of laws that dictated what the Chinese people wore, mandating queues for men and the Manchu-style tunic with its high Mandarin collar for both sexes. While those latter laws came to be obeyed and over the centuries even evolved into symbols of Chinese identity, footbinding continued for almost four hundred more years.

 It is a testament to the will and defiance of generations of women.

 Manchu women did not have bound feet. But the allure of the tiny bound foot was so powerful that over time, even they wanted to have dainty little feet. I believe that some Manchu women bound their feet and their daughter’s feet. Others wore a version of high heels that gave the impression of tiny feet beneath their long gowns.

These Manchu shoes sat on top of a small pedestal that acted like short stilts at the centre of the sole. The slightly wider pedestal base acted as the surrogate foot, while the real foot in all its hugeness was balanced a few inches above, hidden from view. These stilts would have made walking precarious and would have required Continue reading

Kick Ass Boots

For a change from the series of wacky high heels I’ve been sharing, here’s a pair of funky strappy  biker style boots that really take my fancy…

 

Giuseppe Zanotti

 

They are the kind of footwear that you can stride through life in – and kick ass if you need to…

Continue reading

How to wear a Cheongsam [Extract from Chapter One: Stilettos – Bound Feet Blues, The Book]

As you may know, I’ve been working on Bound Feet Blues – The Book which brings together the stories behind the story of the show. I have just finished Chapter One: Stilettos, bringing it home at 17,000+ words. The chapter goes behind the scenes of the opening sequence of the theatre performance, which depicts me walking to a ball in stilettos and a red cheongsam, aged 20.

I share stories of my coming of age as a young woman at Oxford, falling in love and discovering the power of my femininity – and how I transformed from a shy, awkward fresher into a woman who can sashay along confidently in a slinky evening gown.

” You must be sleek and slim – and curvaceous, but only in the right places”

Here is an extract, describing what it takes to wear the tight fitting, figure hugging, seductive Chinese traditional dress, while walking in heels…

I like this shade of red. The grey backdrop has given me an idea, what about light grey cheongsams for the bridesmaids? That could look really nice and help the bride stand out more.

 ~~~

“There is something about the severity of the high collar and the unforgiving close fit of the cheongsam  that requires a sternness in your upper body as you wear it. You cannot slack if you are to keep the cloth from creasing over your belly or pulling up over any untoward bumps and crevices. You must be sleek and slim – and curvaceous, but only in the right places, which is why the dress has to be tailor made for exactly your shape and cannot be Continue reading

Now that’s what I call Killer Heels

The Guardian has a terrific gallery of photos showing a selection of totally bonkers high heels including this pair of killer stilettos…. – from an exhibition aptly entitled Killer Heels at the Brooklyn Museum, on now till 15 Feb 2015.

Christian Louboutin. Printz,  Spring/Summer 2013 14. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin.

 

The gallery shows that high heels were also in fashion in ancient China – see this pair below. They emulated bound feet for the ruling Continue reading