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Yang Li-hua, 1990s
Lin Li-hua 林麗花
October 26, 1944
(m. 1983;died 2018)
|Also known as||A Luo 阿洛|
Yang Li-hua (Chinese :楊麗花; Pe̍h-ōe-jī :Iûⁿ Lē-hoa) is a Taiwanese opera performer who is credited as a "living national treasure". She is a household name in Taiwan. A generation of Taiwanese have sat before their television sets transfixed by Yang's performances, forgetting for an hour's entertainment that a woman is playing the lead male role.
With her distinctive eyes, Yang could make herself at turns commanding and tender. She had a sophisticated air about her, and her voice sounded honest and full of emotion. Since her first appearance more than 40 years ago at age 22, she has been in nearly 170 productions on TTV. She specializes in male roles, playing everything from emperors and aristocrats to warriors and beggars. She has become a favorite of young and old Taiwanese, and many women have come to think of her as the ideal lover. Female fans crowd around the TV studio bearing fancy gifts and creating traffic jams. Thousands of letters swamped the Taiwan TV station, and supplies of pictures of her in traditional dress could not meet demand. People followed her wherever she went, and many female overseas Chinese asked her permission to become her godmother or godsister. In 1996, Yang was voted one of the ten hottest idols by a gay and lesbian organization-despite being over fifty.
Yang was born into a family with a strong theatrical background in Yuanshan, Yilan County, the original hometown of Taiwanese opera. Her grandfather was organiser of an amateur "peikuan orchestra group". And she was thoroughly imbued with what she had heard and seen from childhood, since her mother, Hsiao Chang-sou (stage name), was herself a famous male role-player with a Taiwanese opera group in Yilan County. During that time, it was common for actors and actresses in Taiwan Opera troupes to bring their children with them on tour. As the troupes moved from place to place, these children often played behind the stage, or watched their parents acting. As Yang became her mother's loyal fan, she vowed at the early age of four to devote her own life to Taiwanese opera.
Practically born onstage, Yang began to play walk-on roles when she was 4 years old. At the age of 7, she played the lead in a play called An-An Chases Chickens 《安安趕雞》 and captured the hearts of her audience.
“I was born in a rural Ilan County village and I do not have a prominent family background, but my mother is also a ke-tsai-hsi actress. Without mother, I wouldn't be where I am today,” she said.
"Mother carried me along with her theatrical group from the time I was one month old. During a vagrant child's life, I learned to imitate the adults' postures and gestures, and to hum their songs," she recalled. She was especially affected by two childhood episodes.
The first occurred when she was only five years old. She had travelled with her mother's opera group to Penghu Island. Since she found everything strange and new, she wandered off and lost her way. A man named Chen A-chih found her wandering, took her in, and began to take care of her. Uncle Chen loved opera and enjoyed humming the melodies, so Yang felt as much at home with this “uncle” as with members of the troupe and entirely forgot about her mishap. Uncle Chen brought her along to the performance and, suddenly finding the setting familiar, she ran backstage to find her mother. After a happy reunion, Yang acquired a nickname, "Ah Luo," the name Uncle Chen called her by.
The second event occurred while she was practising martial arts at the theatre. Caressing a scar on the left side of her forehead, she recalled: "While I was rehearsing a battle scene, my forehead was pierced by my opponent's sword. This mark has become part of my identification."
She travelled from town to town until she reached school age. And though she finally entered primary school in her home village, she could never forget the colorful and resplendent days with the opera. The sonorous gongs and songs, the gorgeous costumes and headpieces, and even the great long water-sleeves rose before her eyes. She would visit her parents during school vacations, and one time during a visit when it was time to go back to Ilan, she hopped off the train at the last minute. No matter how her parents pleaded with or scolded her, she was determined to stay and study Taiwanese opera.
At that point began the hardest part of her life. She started to undergo strict training from opera veteran Hsiao Chang-sou, her mother and instructor. Yang first practised proper ways of walking across the stage, and of conditioning by stretching muscles in her legs, and such basic movements as jumping, fist- fighting, turning somersaults, rolling on the ground, and wielding weapons. And she learned all kinds of lyrics and singing.
Yang said: "I had to get up before daybreak and study hard according to the master's instructions."
She's been performing ever since. That was in the 1950s when Taiwanese opera was being performed in theaters rather than outdoors as it had been traditionally. Yang's parents were members of a touring troupe and for years the entire family of seven traveled with them, living out their lives backstage. Later, with the rising popularity of Taiwanese-language movies, opera theaters were converted into movie theaters and indoor opera began to disappear. Yang, the eldest daughter of the family, often went hungry so her younger brothers and sisters would have enough to eat. She vowed to make it big and lift her family out of poverty.
She made her starring debut at age 16 in the opera Lu Wen-long 《陸文龍》. Despite her youth, she captured well the conflicting emotions of gratitude and revenge. Her delicate evocations of mood —sometimes tender sometimes irritable — won ovations. Her well-received performance caught the eye of the Sai Chin Pao opera troupe and the troupe took her on. Her "handsome" appearance and superb technique at once made her the pillar of the Sai-Chin-Pao ke-tsai-hsi group and she was promoted alongside Hsiao Ming-ming (小明明), Hsiao Feng-hsien (小鳳仙), and other popular stars as the troupe's "Seven Immortals"(七仙女). Since this group was quite famous at that time, the overseas Chinese community in the Philippines invited it to perform in Manila for six months. They went on a six-month tour of the Philippines, where there were many wealthy ethnic Chinese. Though it was hard for Yang to be away from home for the first time, Yang admitted that she had a "fringe benefit" in Manila—four fan-mothers and a fan-sister were so enthusiastic that they followed along to "take care of" Yang and still do so today....She earned enough money to buy a house for her parents, the first they had ever owned and developed a Southeast Asian fan base.
"Ever since then, my family has been able to live a comfortable, secure life," she said proudly.
She returned to Taiwan to find that opera was in even worse shape than before. It was largely relegated to outdoor religious ceremonies, weddings, and funerals, so opportunities to perform were few. Many artists were forced to find sidelines. By the year 1962, the vigorous development of the domestic TV and movie industries had resulted in a reduction in the island's 200-odd theatrical groups—down to 30. Yang's group struggled, then was disbanded in 1964.
Though she'd just returned from a successful tour, she was to be out of work for an entire year. Yang returned to her village to cure the wounds in her heart. During this period, she would wander the paddy fields, disquieted, impelled by some unknown mechanical drive. Like other young people of the time, she harboured a great passion for the future, but in the face of the irresistible tides of change, she had lost her destination.
"Am I to trace my mother's footsteps and lead a vagrant life, changing friends and stages all the time? Sorrowfully, the audiences are not so enthusiastic now. At best, I can only live from hand to mouth," she said to herself.
At a time when most performing artists were turning their backs to Taiwanese opera, Yang tried her luck with several other groups, finally joining the Tien Ma Group in 1965. And this was the watershed of Yang's career.
In an attempt to instill new life into Taiwanese opera, some opera enthusiasts decided to try to re-popularise this folk drama via radio, and performances by the Tien Ma Group were broadcast live throughout the island. Yang became a radio performer, renewing her faith in the opera. At that time, if you travelled the inner streets and alleys, you would always find the native Taiwanese all listening to Taiwanese opera on the radio. Housewives and aged women showed special interest.
Yang recalled the thrill: "I never dreamed that my Taiwanese opera would be able to reach so many people through a microphone."
People regularly gathered around radios to listen to Yang singing Xue Dingshan 《薛丁山》.
"I never realized that a Taiwanese opera performance doesn't have to rely on bodily motions," she says. "You can make opera lovers hear it all with just a microphone." As there was no audience watching, money could be saved by having one performer use different voices to play several characters at the same time. Performing in falsetto was hard on Yang, who in the past had always pushed her voice low to play male characters. But the experience gave new exposure to her talents.
Performing opera using only her voice was not Yang's greatest challenge. In 1966, black-and-white television had just come to Taiwan. The only television station at the time, TTV, was also looking to add Taiwanese opera to its programming. Yang's troupe, Tienma, beat out the competition with a performance of Loyal Yue Fei 《岳飛》 with her in the lead. It won a weekly spot on television. Yang's appearance on the medium did prove to be a shock to her fans. Audiences were fans of Yang's radio singing, but they had never seen her before. Her TV debut captivated the TV audience.
On Thursday afternoons as the theme to Taiwan Television's opera hour played, young and old would gather around the set. Everyone wanted to see the Tienma Opera Troupe and its young star, Yang Li-hua, perform moving tales of loyalty and devotion. They were entranced by her exquisite performance, and by the dazzling costumes and TV set-up. She even began to lure many who had never bothered with Taiwanese opera before.
Yang's television performances won high praise and made her a household name. Thousands of letters from men and women, old and young, swamped the Taiwan TV station, and supplies of pictures of her in traditional dress could not meet demand. People followed her wherever she went, and many female overseas Chinese asked her permission to become her godmother or godsister. Yang Li-hua eventually became the superstar of Taiwanese opera.
"It is stressful doing a live TV broadcast," she says. "You can't make any mistakes at all in positioning or staging. At that time, the performances were not recorded, so I could never see how I did. I could only get feedback from family and friends afterwards." Yang's mother was her most loyal viewer, and the advice she gave was professional and straightforward. Yang owes a lot to her mother's input.
Every few years, Li-hua goes on tour throughout the island or abroad. She faces seas of people. Before a performance, it is quite common for captivated people to swarm to her and place gold pendants around her neck, Others throw money in red gift packs onto the stage to demonstrate their admiration.
Despite her popularity, Yang never forgot her own advice:“Keep on Advancing All the Time”. In 1969, when Yang was 25, the TV station's general manager appointed her the leader of the Taiwan Television Opera Troupe, and also made her the show's producer. The plays she produced drew huge television audiences. Three years later, she integrated all the Taiwanese opera troupes in Taiwan to form the TTV United Taiwanese opera Troupe.
In 1980, Yang laid down three objectives for the future:
Yang contemplated the notion that Taiwanese opera might die someday unless an effort is made to cultivate a younger generation of actors. To perpetuate the art form, in cooperation with TTV, she organized a Taiwanese opera Training Class in 1981 to train the Taiwanese opera stars of tomorrow.
She went from being a simple performer to a figure who would determine the future of the art form. She felt that traditional Taiwanese Opera was held back by the stage-not only were the backdrops and props simplistic, there were also only two or three actors in each scene. On TV, it all came across as cheap and fake. She pushed for more lifelike productions, with more attention paid to props and costumes. She made sure that the staging seemed more realistic-an emperor, for example, should be surrounded by eunuchs and ministers, has the proper crown, and royal robes embroidered with dragons. His residence must be grandiose and gorgeous. And the famed Judge Bao should be accompanied by his enforcers.
Also, as producer she took steps to make the productions more dramatic. Actors in Taiwanese Opera traditionally had a lot of leeway in how they presented their characters, but Yang held tighter control. In addition to having script outlines made, she also hired Ti Shan to write new pieces and Chen Tsung-ming to direct. She created stronger parts for actors playing male roles. She also had people search for lost Taiwanese Opera plays, write new melodies, and develop new singing styles.
Due to political restrictions at the time, Taiwanese Opera could only be on the air for 30 minutes. With commercials and credits, there were only about 23 minutes for the opera itself. A tight pace had to be maintained so all the lines could be sung and all the actions could be performed, so Yang cut out long, slow weeping scenes and tried to stick with faster-paced material. She added detailed dialogue and choreography. Though older audiences resisted these changes, the performances won larger audiences and brought Taiwanese Opera into the age of television.
Touched by the passion of her audiences, the celebrated performer decided to hold a workshop to return to society some of the love that fans have given to her over the years. From advertisements that she ran, Yang selected 40 students for the workshop—which aimed to preserve Taiwanese opera by cultivating future talents. She is determined to pass the torch of her native art down to coming generations.
For decades, Yang produced one success after another: Seven Heroes and Five Gallants 《七俠五義》, The Legend of the Yang Clan 《楊家將》, Xue Rengui Conquers the East 《薛仁貴》, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai 《梁山伯與祝英台》 and A Civet for a Prince 《狸貓換太子》 were all hits. The 1979 production A Hero's Shadow in the Autumn Frost 《俠影秋霜》 used cinematic special effects to heighten the excitement of sword fighting scenes. The following year, Xue Pinggui 《薛平貴》 was the first Taiwanese opera to be filmed outdoors, with actors riding horses across sands. The 1992 production The Patrolman and the Thief 《巡案與大盜》 was filmed on board a pirate ship in the ocean off Cebu, the Philippines. The cast enjoyed themselves, resulting in a highly watchable opera.
Two years later, her God of the River Luo 《洛神》 was filmed on location in Beijing. She had Huang Shi (黃石), a renowned composer from the mainland, write music to be performed by a symphony orchestra. The production was the first Taiwanese opera program to be shown on Taiwanese prime time TV.
In addition to television productions, the widely talented Yang also starred in many Taiwanese-language films. One of those, the 1981 film Chen San and Wu Niang 《陳三五娘》, was the last such Taiwanese-language production.
Yang's acting and singing cast the same magic spell over a live audience.
In addition to making Taiwanese opera more elaborate and modernized, Yang also aimed to turn what was often thought of as a vulgar art form into high art.
In the past, Taiwanese opera was deemed “common”- not appealing to refined tastes. No one ever dreamed of a performance in a grand theatre. Then in 1981, Yang's group was invited to perform in Taipei's stately Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and Yang chose her favourite drama, The Fisherwoman 《漁孃》 as the presentation, with assistance from students of the Haikuang Opera School. The appreciative audience packed the giant auditorium and the show received rave reviews. The status of Taiwanese opera had substantially elevated.
And the next year, the Taiwan Provincial Government invited Yang to tour across the island and stage traditional folk theater for fishermen, miners, and salt workers in villages around the island."When you first arrive in a village, you can't even see a sign of human beings, but on the night of the performance, they emerge in throngs. I can't imagine where they come from. I love the live stage - much better than TV. You can breathe with the audience. Your special reward is the audience's immediate response, its joy and sorrow," she said.
In 1991, her production of Lu Bu and Diao Chan 《呂布與貂嬋》 held at the National Theater caused a sensation.
In 1995, during a four-day engagement (October 25–28) at Taipei's National Theater, Yang reached back 30 years to restage a traditional opera that she had not appeared. The Taiwanese opera Lu Wen-long 《陸文龍》 in which Yang made her debut when she was 17 years old, owns a special place in her heart. The play, a story about a young warrior who grapples with feelings of love, hate, and clan loyalty during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), dazzled the Taipei audiences with demonstrations of martial arts. But it also had a tender side, that being the bittersweet romance between Lu and Yehlu. The versatile Yang excels in both areas; she can play it hard or soft. In the beginning of "Lu Wen-lung," Yang skillfully wields two spears in a rhythmic combat dance considered one of the most difficult martial art scenes in Taiwanese opera. To ensure a perfect scene, the actress said she practised with the spears three hours a day for an entire month. In the past, audiences of traditional Taiwanese opera wanted to see as many martial art scenes as possible, even if the physical feats on stage had nothing to do with the plot. For the Taipei performances, however, Yang toned down the combat scenes to give the story a more intellectual appeal.
In 2000, Yang and her troupe performed Liang-Zhu 《梁祝》, a Chinese love story famous for its romantic yet tragic ending. Separated because of their feuding families, the hero Liang Shan-po dies of lovesickness and the heroine Zhu Ying-tai commits suicide. Both then become butterflies.
The traditional story has been adapted for the screen, radio and television. "This is one of the earliest and most traditional plays in the repertoire of Taiwanese opera," Yang said at a press conference in Taipei. Yang's six-day engagement attracted people from all walks of life. Tickets for the shows were purchased months in advance.
In one scene of Liang-Zhu 《梁祝》, Yang as the male lead has to carry the heroine on her back for several minutes. Yang said she is physically comfortable with this, as she has performed the scene many times during her long career.
Yang's excellent students Chen Ya-lan (陳亞蘭) and Ji Li-ru (紀麗如) played the other two important characters in the play. Both Chen and Ji have been in the Taiwanese opera circles for more than 20 years. Chen is also a popular actress, singer and hostess on television and has been known as Yang's successor.
In 2007, having been absent from the limelight for four years, Yang has been asked to return to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the opening of the National Theater by performing new versions of the operas A Civet for a Prince 《狸貓換太子》 and A Life for the Master 《丹心救主》. She's risen to the occasion, too-not only has she reworked the songs for the opera and newly choreographed the works in collaboration with experienced performer Hsiao Feng-hsien(小鳳仙) and Peking Opera director Chu Lu-hao(朱陸豪), she has also taken on the challenge of playing three different parts. As well as playing the Song Dynasty emperor Renzong(宋仁宗), who was traded for a raccoon as a child and who as an adult sought out his birth mother from among the commoners, she also played a loyal minister and the commoner who looked after the emperor's birth mother.
Though she had not performed for years, Yang used all the skills she's acquired over a lifetime. In just two and half hours, she went through three different ages, personalities, and personal backgrounds. She played a young male character, an old male character, and a clown-it has been the greatest challenge she has faced in her half a century of performing.
In the theatric establishment, an iota of stigma is magnified into a world of scandal. But Yang, scrupulous in behavior, has never been involved. Ending an 8-years love marathon, Yang married Hung Wen-tung on 26 March 1983.
The marriage drew thousands of uninvited fans to the Grand Hotel. Had the bride, Yang Li-hua not been wearing her wedding gown, the scene could easily have been mistaken for another performance of Taiwanese opera, except Yang, this time was not playing the leading "male" role. Spiffily-dressed middle-aged housewives and nimble school girls squeezed in and out of the crowd, trying desperately to get a clear look at the bride. Some women even put their children on their shoulders so that at least the younger generation could get a good look at the couple. The wedding master had to plead with the crowd to allow the newlyweds to make their way through the immense tidal wave of people.
Though somewhat disturbed by the impassioned attendance of so many uninvited guests, Yang laughed it away. After all, her name has been a byword with local audiences for 20 years, and she is aware that she is the symbol of the chivalrous spirit of China-past to the citizens of today.
A year after her marriage, she toured the United States, Japan and the Philippines to entertain overseas Chinese under arrangements by the Government Information Office.
Many scholars who studied drama said that Taiwanese opera would have died out several decades ago had it not been for Yang's efforts. While this may be a bit of an exaggeration, her prestige is indeed unprecedented. In 1982, under arrangements made by the Taiwan Provincial Government, Yang led a touring troupe around Taiwan to provide encouragement to fishermen and miners. Many of her fans went to see and support her, thereby attaching more importance and significance to Taiwanese opera.
Yang's performances have won acclaim both at home and abroad.
Yang starred in the 1982 Huangmei opera film Imperial Matchmaker (狀元媒) directed by Pao Hsueh-li, alongside Ivy Ling Po.
In the 1990s, cable television became widespread in Taiwan and the original three broadcast networks lost their dominance. And though the tradition-minded Yang tried twice to develop a new generation of performers who could take up the mantle, she could not find anyone who could fill her role. At the same time, TTV was making moves to take back the rights to the television show against Yang's will. This put a damper on their working relationship, and the Taiwan Television Yang Li-hua Opera show came to an end.
Having left the opera world, Yang was lucky to have the loving environment of the home she'd made with the renowned orthopedic surgeon Hung Wen-tung. But she has never forgotten the theater. Whenever there is the right script and the right opportunity, she is ready to return to the stage.
Whether on stage or not, Yang always speaks in a low, sonorous voice.
"Taiwanese opera is the treasure of our native culture. As long as the audiences like this traditional art, I will continue performing it," she said.
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