Bound Feet Blues – theatre review

posted in: History of fashion | 6

For a few more days, at the Tristan Bates theatre in central London a short play by Yang-May Ooi, is available until 12 December. I saw it last night and I recommend it heartily.

Yang-May Ooi
Yang-May Ooi

It is a personal story, somewhat in the vein of White Swans. At its core, however, is the story of the bound foot, the constraints of costume, traditional views of femininity and individual freedom.

Yang-May's Great Grandma, and Grandpa, holding her
Yang-May’s Great Grandma, and Grandpa, holding her

I went to this performance because Yang-Mei works for one of our funders – her day job supports the provision of social housing. Her company – The Housing Finance Corporation – sponsored the event which was celebratory and moving in equal measure; utterly professional and still deeply raw. I thought it was amazing.

Based on intimate, autobiographical material Yang-May starts with describing going to an Oxford University ball in a red cheongsam and  high, pointed, black heels. She envies the easy stride of her boyfriend and asks him to walk more slowly. She describes how she was a top City lawyer with big hair and stilettos. Then she covers walking in Australia in hiking boots and how they allow an easy stride but cause blisters initially. And throughout this personal story, where she works through her own sexual identity, she refers back to her Malaysian origins, and the Chinese ones beneath them, and how her own great grandma had bound 3″ feet – the golden locus.

Some of the plays power is in the very elaborate and explicit description of the process of binding the foot. What I had not understood, quite, before seeing the play was that the feet were cut as well as bound. The foot bones were broken repeatedly, starting at the age of around four or five. The point of tiny feet was to help girls attract the richest men, but of course it also restricted their walking – and freedom of movement – to an extreme extent. Foot binding persisted for 1000 years. Men found these little deformed feet, these coiled flowers, an erotic and compelling zone.

Yang-May’s performance is utterly compelling – story telling at its finest, by a woman who normally speaks what Americans call “cut glass English” but can impersonate her mother, sister, brother, grandma and aunties – bringing them all to life with her voice, body and gestures. She is a fine performer and actor; she is a superb writer (she has written books which I will now investigate) and her short play is one of the best things I have seen on the stage all year (and I go to the theatre a lot). I liked the Brokeback Mountain moment and how afterwards she was bound by her single sleeping bag.

Her basic message – that as women we dress partly to meet others’ expectations; that some of the items we choose are containing and binding – long hair, tight clothes, high heels; that at work we project an image that may be false; that masculinity and femininity are social constructs and we all encompass both – these messages rang completely true to me and the play connected. I loved her story of how after their Civil Partnership ceremony she and Angie took tea to her parents in the ancient Chinese tradition.

If you have a chance to go – it is one hour long and only £16 for a ticket – do go. You will not regret it.

Bound Feet Blues

If you can’t get to the theatre then you might try the book. I haven’t read it, but I will.

6 Responses

  1. rosemary

    I have read several books about China, mostly Canadian authors, whose families immigrated to Canada. I will try to get this book as well.

  2. Stephanie

    Very cool piece, Kate. I love these types of works. I’m trying to think of the first time I became aware of foot binding…but I can’t remember. It’s amazing to think of the things that at one time in different cultures were considered essential to beauty…just think of how uncomfortable tightly-laced corsets would have been (though there is no conclusive evidence that they did much damage to the body, as previously believed).

  3. Sew2pro

    Oh I really didn’t want to see ‘that’ picture but there was a report about the practice on Woman’s Hour so I knew what to expect. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Kim Hood

    I was slightly horrified by foot binding when I was made aware of it at the V&A shoe exhibition so can appreciate how much this would resonate.

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