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Yang Li-hua's long journey to stardom

By Huang Yu- mei    [ Source: Free China Review - 1 Jun 1983 ]

¡¶ On stage in a typical male role

The recent marriage here of a 38-year-old primadonna 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 ke-tsai-hsi, 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 Li-hua 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.

Yang Li-hua travelled a long way to become a ke-tsai-hsi superstar. She was, though, lucky enough to be born to a family with a strong theatrical background. Her grandfather was organiser of an amateur "pei kuan orchestra group." And she was thoroughly imbued with what she had heard and seen from childhood, since her mother, Hsiao Chang-sou, was herself a famous male role-player with a ke-tsai-hsi group in Ilan County in the 1950s.

Ilan County has long been noted as the cradle of ke-tsai-hsi. A story has it that when Wu Sha first settled Ilan at the end of the Ming Dynasty, he introduced assorted opera ditties to the island, which at once became specially popular in the Ilan area. With five or seven Chinese written characters to a line, these ditties then were slowly combined with aboriginal songs, becoming richer and more filled with story-telling detail. Some called them "Ilan folk songs."

Then a fruit farmer named A Chu, who loved to sing, to perform, and to play string instruments in his leisure time, replaced difficult classical vocabulary in the old songs with words in popular daily use. Later he hand-picked several of the young in his village to take up operatic roles according to their special voice traits and other talents. After three months of rehearsal, they presented the very first ke- tsai-hsi, literally ¡§song-drama,¡¨ on an empty lot in the village. Though the actors wore only their regular clothes, the performance drew a rapt audience from dozens of miles away, and developed into ke-tsai-hsi as is today.

After further digesting the essences of nan kuan and pei kuan music, and adapting make-up, costumes, gestures, props and postures from Peking opera, ke-tsai-hsi began to gain momentum across the island, reaching its prime in the 1930s, when the number of performing groups reached nearly 200. It became indispensable for almost all kinds of auspicious occasions-for the birthdays of such deities as the Goddess Matsu, the Earth God, and the Goddess of Mercy, as well as for wedding and other ceremonies. Some theatres even began inviting ke-tsai-hsi groups to perform on a sustained basis.

The expansive plains of Ilan County were Yang Li-hua's birth place.

¡¶ Mother and daughter --- Life on the stage

¡§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 ke-tsai-hsi 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 ke-tsai-hsi and enjoyed humming the melodies, so Yang Li-hua 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 ke-tsai-hsi performance and, suddenly finding the setting familiar, she ran backstage to find her mother. After a happy reunion, Yang Li-hua acquired a nickname, "Ah Lao," 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. Though only a child, she decided to quit school for a life in the theatre.

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 developed an overbearing and majestic air once she was on stage, and at the early age of 13, her singing and performing skills were matured. She won the leading male role in a play entitled Lu Wen-lung. Though young, Yang was able to act out the play's conflict in her heart¡Xshe was indebted in the script to an enemy who had killed her father. Her delicate evocations of mood ¡Xsometimes tender sometimes irritable ¡Xwon ovations.

In 1963, when Yang was 18 years old, she left her mother to launch her full career. Her "handsome" appearance and superb technique at once made her the pillar of the Sai-Chin-Pao ke-tsai-hsi group. 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. Performing in the Philippines, she suddenly discovered that she was able to forget her own identity while playing. She felt she was really Liang Shan-po, or Chang Chun-jui. She said: "Mother taught me to sing and act, but she never told me how to sing and act well. There is no way to teach that; you have to use your own brain and heart."

Though distant from home, Yang Li-hua admitted that she had a "fringe benefit" in Manila¡Xfour fan-mothers and a fan-sister were so enthusiastic that they followed along to "take care of" Yang Li-hua¡Xand still do so today....

But Taiwan society had begun to change rapidly, to progress with the times. Folk art activities were gradually shunted aside by such entertainments as TV and movies. 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¡Xdown to 30. Yang's group struggled, then was disbanded in 1964.

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 ke-tsai-hsi, Yang tried her luck with several other groups, finally joining the Tien Ma Group in 1965. And this was the watershed of Yang Li-hua's career.

In an attempt to instill new life into ke-tsai-hsi, 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 recalled the thrill: "I never dreamed that my ke-tsai-hsi would be able to reach so many people through a microphone."

At that time, if you travelled the inner streets and alleys, you would always find the native Taiwanese all listening to ke-tsai-hsi on the radio. Housewives and aged women showed special interest.

¡¶ The actress in her real-life role
--- With husband Hung Wentung

With the establishment of the first TV station on the island, ke-tsai-hsi gained a new outlet. Yang Li-hua's first appearance on TV, in the role of Yueh Fei, a royal courtier of the Sung Dynasty, took the fans by storm. 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 ke-tsai-hsi before.

Fans of all ages and both sexes, from all walks of life and all native origins, wrote letters to her. Yang Li-hua eventually became the superstar of ke-tsai-hsi.

When the "TTV Ke-tsai-hsi Group" was inaugurated in 1969, Yang was invited to be its leader, while Chen Chung-ming, who has worked with her for 18 long years now, became director. Most of the group's members are women, they treat each other like sister.

In 1980, Yang laid down three objectives for the future. First, she wanted to raise the standards of the production and performance of ke-tsai-hsi. Second, she wished to reinforce basic research and development work - in which connection, she asked specialists to help gather the original songs, fast fading away, as well to compile new material. Third, she wanted to support training for actors interested in performing ke-tsai-hsi.

In the past three years, Yang has paid special attention to details of the actors' garments and accessories, the props and furnishings. For instance, she sees to it that an emperor has the proper crown, and royal robes embroidered with dragons. His residence must be grandiose and gorgeous. And he must be waited upon by a gallery of courtiers. Without such detail, no actor can possibly impress as an emperor, Yang believes.

In the past, ke-tsai-hsi 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, Fisherwoman, as the presentation. The appreciative audience packed the giant auditorium. The status of ke-tsai-hsi had substantially elevated.

Impressed by its new popularity, Governor Lee Teng-hui invited Yang Li-hua's group to perform for fishermen, miners, and salt workers in villages around the island in March 1982; they have, up to now, conducted five such grassroots trips. ¡§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.

¡¶ Hailing from the expansive plains of Ilan County, Yang lihua is a superstar
--- awaiting the act on location

I went to visit Yang Li-hua in a graveyard in Peitou in the suburban hills of Taipei. Her group was shooting an outdoor scene for the drama, The Tower of Tens of Thousands of Flowers. Clouds started to gather as our car headed for our destination.

When we arrived at the spot, on a highland near the Tamsui River, we saw a portable crane in action on top of a truck. Two stuntmen stand-in actors were secured around their chests with steel cables running to the top of the crane. For this scene, one actor was to jump from a high point of land and knock another man off a horse. Great danger lurked in the action.

When the director started to count down, the man in the black costume whipped his horse. The horse rushed forward. The crane operator had to be quick and coordinated - to manipulate the two actors simultaneously. It was only after five tries that director Chen Chung-ming was satisfied with their performance. At this juncture, the wind started to blow hard from the direction of the Tamsui River. Once in a while, it drizzled. There was no shelter in the graveyard, and we rushed to a bus which was fitted out for the actors and actresses - to put on make-up, to change outfits, to take a nap.

While we were chitchatting with several actresses and depleting our lunch boxes, Yang Li-hua arrived. Noticing that we had decided to put aside our partly finished lunches to proceed with our work, she stopped us, saying it would take her some time to apply her make-up. Her assistant raised a mirror for her.

The rain started to pour. All the TV ENG equipment was hoisted into the bus. The vehicle was packed, bustling, like a market. It seemed that everyone was speaking to someone else. Yang Li-hua paid no attention to any of that, but seemed a little bit frustrated over the weather. She kept muttering to herself - clearly, once - that the sky would be blue in no time at all.

Then she donned an outfit made for an emperor. First, a white scarf around her neck, then a red robe embroidered with a dragon, a pair of scuffs, and a belt. While positioning a colored cotton ball on top of her headgear, she began exchanging views with the director.

¡§I saw our performance on stage, and was not quite satisfied with it. I don't like sloppy action. You must remember that it was not easy to build our present reputation, but that it is quite easy for the audience to turn their backs to us,¡¨ said the primadonna.

¡§Well, you know how actors are. When they don't have major roles, they may not be as attentive...¡¨replied the director.

¡§Then, it is your responsibility to correct them, right?¡¨

The director kept silent, but nodded his head.

¡§I want our group to always maintain its high standards, that's all,¡¨Yang said soothingly.

It certainly is not easy for a woman to lead such a large group. But her own respect and dedication for the work moves her colleagues.

Though it was still drizzling outside, Yang decided to get on with the action.

Raising her eyebrows and stamping her foot, she displayed great anger. She mounted a horse and rode across open land, corners of her hat and robe flying in the wind. Yang's squint and raised eyebrows, the smile at the corners of her lips, drive the fans crazy.

She is determined to pass the torch of her native art down to coming generations.