Bound Feet Blues: A life told in shoes
The stage is curved and clean with blue-lit strips of binding-cloth reaching up into the rafters. Yang-May Ooi comes onstage, so light on her feet. She is clad in black, the blue light playing with her short silver hair. She finds a good spot to be in. She is moving. Is she dancing?
The lights come up.
No, Yang-May is not dancing.
She is reaching back to her past, back to her mid-twenties. She is in Oxford, bright and confident, heading for a party with tall and handsome Josh by her side. She moves, and tells the story, and we see how it is so. She is walking gracefully, confidently, all eyes on her in her red cheongsam, stockings and heels. The heels arch her back, as if in ecstasy. All eyes are on her, and she loves it. And yet she is in agony. Those high-heeled shoes burn her feet with every step. Now her walk subtly changes, and she is no longer her younger self but Josh, handsome and very tall, walking in that way some men do to show they need to make extra room for their invisible lion-balls, and now instead of meeting his companion’s pace Josh is actually increasing his stride, despite Yang-May’s torturous little baby-steps and her pleas for him to please slow down, she cannot keep up…
Bound Feet Blues opens with a situation so many of us have found ourselves in – ow, those burning high heels. It’s a humorous, powerful introduction to Yang May Ooi’s personal odyssey of a life told in shoes. With footwear as her muse she blends personal memoir with reflections on women in society, from stories of the ‘golden lotus’ bound feet of her great-grandmother to her lawyer heels and, finally, the biker boots of a woman who has shaped her own identity.
Bound Feet Blues is a warm, funny and groundbreaking exploration of women’s expectations, concerns and desires. With deft strokes, renowned storyteller Yang-May paints a nuanced picture of her coming-out (too-new hiking boots), explores Chinese-Malaysian culture (bare feet, bound feet) and considers the span of generations and mother-daughter-relationships. Her voice is a honed musical instrument, and her performance – a blend of voice and movement – feels like a generous gift.
When the show came to an end and the lights came up, I couldn’t help wondering just how, exactly, solo performers manage to create such lengthy yet spellbinding monologues. I asked another theatre-goer who’d previously attended one of Ooi’s storytelling workshops, and they explained that when Ooi is creating a new work she tends to first speak aloud for a few minutes, then jot that section down while it’s still fresh. The voice comes first, then the play. That’s oral tradition, right there….
And oral tradition is incredibly powerful. I was transported. I held my breath. My eyes grew wet more than once. It had been so long since I was told a story…
It’s heartening that such an entertaining, insightful performance exploring sexual orientation and East Asian culture could happen in the theatre heartland of London’s West End, a place where mainstream commercial shows more typically feature the stories of the white middle-class.
Bound Feet Blues: A Life Told In Shoes is written and performed by Yang-May Ooi, directed by Jessica Higgs, produced by Eldarin Yeong and designed by Hua Tan.
See the play, read the book
Bound Feet Blues (the play) is currently showing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until Saturday 12th December 2015. Click here to book tickets.
Bound Feet Blues (the book) is also available from all good bookstores, as well as Amazon.