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The Treasure of Taiwanese Opera

Story/Chen Chang-hua  Pictures/Kuo Chao-yuan,Yang-yang
Source: China Airline Magazine {Dynasty-1991}

Following in her mother's footsteps as a Taiwanese Opera singer meant leading a gypsy's life from an early age for Yang Li-hua, often with great hardships. After many years of hard work, Yang has become Taiwan's top opera singer and has brought recognition to Chinese artists worldwide. The climax to her career came in 1991 when she received the Outstanding Asian Artist Award. (The award was presented on 4 Jan 1992)

Overseas Chinese all over the world might know little about Taiwanese Opera, or its background and development. But surely, most will have heard of the opera's top exponent for the past 20 years, Yang Li-hua, who still has few rivals in sight.

In her long career, the first milestone was probably in 1951. At the age of seven, she played a leading rold in“An An Chasing Chickens”, opposite male impersonator Hsiao Chang-shou, in the Taiwan Opera Troupe“Yi Chun Yuan”, based in llan county in northeastern Taiwan.

Hsiao Chang-shou was in fact Yang's mother, the person who helped to teach her the techniques of Taiwanese Opera, and who became her constant companion in performances over the years.

During the 1960s, 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 Li-hua became her mother's loyal fan, she vowed at the early age of four to devote her own life to Taiwanese opera.

In the past 10 years, the ROC government has become greatly concerned about preserving folk arts. In 1981, the Taiwanese opera entitled “Lacustrine Lady” was performed in the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei, with Yang Li-hua as the lead actress.

Since Taiwanese opera is generally regarded as an accompaniment to a local religious ceremony, nobody at that time could imagine it would be performed in such a grand venue. This was the first time in Taiwan's history that such a thing had happened.

The many hardships she had undergone made Yang particularly serious in taking responsibility and having a sense of mission. Although she was hailed as a genius by her colleagues, she herself said that only those who help themselves can be helped by God.

In the ever-changing society in Taiwan, traditional drama has met many challenges. Yang pointed out that those actors who do not struggle for perfection do not deserve public support.

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 the early days of Taiwanese Opera, people regularly gathered around radios to listen to Yang signing“Hsieh Ting-shan” while her version of “Yueh Fei” appeared on television for the first time in 1966. In 1982, under arrangements made by the Taiwan Provincial Government, Yang Li-hua 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.

As its name implies, Taiwanese opera is mainly concerned with singing. It is said that the form derives from assorted folk songs of Changchow and Fukien provinces on the China mainland, influenced by Chinese opera and folk songs from the southern part of China. Taiwanese opera is popular all over Taiwan, but its cradle is llan country in the northeast of the island.

Yang certainly belongs to a family of artists. Her maternal grandfather organized a“Pei Kuang Brother” group in llan to give amateur musical performances, and soon after she was born, she was taken around the country by her mother as part of the strolling troupe. One thing she will never forget is getting lost at the age of five when she was with her mother's Yi Chun Yuan troupe performing in the Penghu Islands in the Taiwan Strait. After several days, an old man who found her took her to see a drama being performed in front of a temple. She immediately recognized the troupe as that of her mother, and the two were reunited.

In the eyes of her fans, Yang is charming, beautiful and skilled in literature and kung fu. Few people know that on her way to success, she suffered a great deal of physical pain, and took a long time to learn how to be a leading player.

A scar on her left forehead resulted from a blow from her antagonist, in a kung fu routine, which forced a three-day stay in hospital during which she had six stitches.

At the age of 13, Yang became a member of the Yi Chung Yuan Taiwanese Opera troupe, and her first leading role was in“Lu Wan-lung”. Despite her youth, she captured well the conflicting emotions of gratitude and revenge, and the applause of the audience proved to be an unforgetable experience.

At the age of 15, she played“Hsueh Ping-kwai”in full armor, and won praise for her facial expressions and excellent posture. She left her mother at the age of 18 to join the Shai Chin-Pao Troupe as a leading player. The rising popularity of television in the 1970s proved beneficial to Taiwanese Opera, although Yang's appearance on the medium did prove to be a shock to her fans. 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.

Despite her popularity, Yang never forgot her own advice:“Keep on Advancing All the Time”. In 1969, Yang was invited to be leader of TTV's own Taiwan Opera Troupe, and three years later, she integrated all the Taiwanese opera troupes in Taiwan to form the TTV United Taiwanese Opera Troupe.

In cooperation with TTV, she organized a Taiwanese Opera Training Class in 1981, and recruited young people for free-of-charge training. As well as her own efforts, Yang donated NT$1million(US$40, 000) to support the inauguration of the TTV Taiwanese Opera Troupe.

Ending a 8-years love marathon, Yang married Doctor Hong Wen-tung in 1983, but this did not quench her desire to stay in the entertainment business. 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.

In 1988, her productiion of “Wang Wen Ying and Chu Lu Ma” won the Golden Bell Award in TV and Broadcast Programs category.

In the fall of 1989, Yang announced that she would retire from the stage and in the future just work behind the scenes to assist in the production of programs related to Taiwanese Opera. To found a Taiwanese Opera School has become one of her main ambitions.

However, for such a famous and talented dramatic actor, it was impossible to just say goodbye to all her fans, colleagues and students. She therefore has come up with a series of new works this year and has accepted an invitation to act in“Lu Pu and Tiou Chan” at the National Theater in October, attend an award presentation for outstanding actors in 1991, and put on a performance in the Lincoln Center in New York.

“I am not a learned woman, but still a simple girl at heart. But I do strive for perfection," she says.

For the past few decades, Yang Li-hua has impressed people with the noble words she spoke from the stage. Now they are surprised to find the same sentiments in her everyday conversation.