Writer and Performer: Yang-May Ooi
Director: Jessica Higgs
Reviewer: Nichola Daunton
Novelist and TEDx talker, Yang-May Ooi decided that the only way to tell the story of foot binding and its history within her own family was to take to the stage. Based on oral tradition, the stories she tells in her one-woman show bring together the history of her Great-Grandmother, her parents and those of the mother’s who bound the feet of their daughters in order to assure that they would marry into good families. Although Yang-May uses her performance to talk about the lives of many Chinese women over the long 1,000 year history of foot-binding, her story is also a highly personal one and draws attention to the precarious freedoms that women are finally managing to hold onto, despite the strong pull of tradition and conformity that still exists within both Eastern and Western culture.
The beginning of the piece sees Yang-May describing a university ball that she attends in a seductive Cheongsam and strappy stilettos. The picture of glamorous femininity, Yang-May revels in her sexuality and the effect that is has upon the men around her, before smashing the image by discussing the agony of the shoes she is wearing and how restricted she feels compared to when she relaxes in jeans and a t-shirt the next day. Having abandoned her tomboyish impulses as a child, after being made to feel that they were unnatural and unbecoming, she explores her struggles to perform the part of the elegant female, with the right clothes, the right hair and the right boyfriends.
Weaving together her life with those of her ancestors, Yang-May explores themes of submission and endurance in Eastern culture, especially with regard to ideals of femininity and beauty. However, it is not just the East that she critiques here, but the West as well. Holding a mirror up to our physical ideals, she asks us whether the process of foot binding is any worse than our obsession with physical perfection and the lengths we will go to in order to pursue it, particularly under the surgeon’s knife.
This well justified comparison though, doesn’t make the descriptions of foot-binding any easier to listen to. With a tiny three inch foot being the ideal size and the process of binding and bone breaking beginning at the age of four, Yang-May’s performance as the mother of a small child who is just beginning the process is very powerful. The fact that Yang-May performs bare foot throughout the piece is also an interesting choice and is used to good effect to highlight both her restriction and her freedom as she discovers the person she is meant to be.
The final scenes are particularly powerful, and despite the fact that this work-in-progress performance is actually happening on the set of another play, Yang-May and director Jessica Higgs have made canny decisions when it comes to staging the work. The hiking scenes in particular, in which Yang-May vividly expresses her joy at being free to run, jump and feel her body in motion, are beautifully performed and directed, especially when paired with the imagined journey of her Great-Grandmother as she escaped for a new and freer life in Malaysia.
With plans to create a full-length piece in 2015, there is still a lot of room for Bound Feet Blues to grow, but as it is Yang-May has already created a powerful and empowering piece of work here, that beautifully combines movement and storytelling with some excellent, fully rounded characters.