11.00-11.01. A Maid from Heaven (1963)


11.00. In Hong Kong’s equivalent to PRC’s Marriage of Fairy Princess (1955), Ling Bo as male peasant Dong Yong (left) enjoys a happy moment with his fairy wife, Qi Xiannü (actress Fang Ying) in the fields. Dong Yong’s trousers are relatively tapered and tight fitting, compared to the pantaloons which peasantry or working class characters wear in traditional Huangmei opera, or PRC’s Huangmei opera films. They are, in a way, reminiscent of the Loons fashion of the 1960s, pointing out an intersection between urban cosmopolitanism and Shaw Brothers period films. Compare with Images 1.01 and 3.00.



11.01. Dong Yong (left) and Qi Xiannü enjoy a quiet moment in the enchanted forest where they first met and then married. Here Dong finds out that his wife is pregnant. The difference in sitting postures, like the costumes, denotes gender difference. Qi holds a lady’s fan.


12.00. The Lotus Lamp (1963-65): Lin Dai of The Kingdom and the Beauty plays the twin-role of mother (a goddess) and son (Chen Xiang). Cheng Pei-pei (Zheng Peipei), who was to become the wuxia movie queen of 1960s martial arts films, plays the human father (next to table). The Lotus Lamp is Cheng's first and only Huangmei opera film. Lin Dai’s suicide initially put a halt to the production, but the film was eventually completed with a Lin Dai look-alike (Hu Die) and reportedly released on the first anniversary of the late actress' death.

13.00-13.02. Lady General Hua Mulan (1964)

13.00. Ling Bo won the Best Actress Award at the 11th Asian Film Festival (Taipei, 1964) for her role as Hua Mulan, who cross-dresses in order to join the army. Here Mulan (in front), now promoted to General, proposes a toast at the victory celebration.

13.01. Mulan (facing camera) reverts to her sex and proposes marriage to General Li (Jin Han), offering her embroidered purse as a pledge. Her father and others look on in the distance. Compare with Image 3.01.

13.02. General Li accepts Mulan’s proposal.

14.00. The Female Prince (1964): Ling Bo as wendan Qin Fengxiao: In this film, the jiaren has a rescue mission to save her wrongly arrested betrothed, Li Rulong. Fengxiao thus assumes his name, dons a male disguise, goes to the capital city, and finally earns an Imperial appointment when “he” passes the male-exclusive Civil Examinations with first class distinction. “He” is now empowered to reopen the case, and reexamine the charges against her betrothed. Complications arise when the emperor wants “him” to marry the princess.

15.00. The Mermaid (1965): Ling Bo received the Most Versatile Talent Award at the 12th Asian Film Festival (Kyoto, 1965) for her cross-sex performance of caizi Zhang Zhen (far right). Here the caizi looks on in terror, while wudan Carp Spirit (actress Li Jing) bravely fends off an assault. Wudan means military female. The fight sequence here sticks closely to opera conventions of staging battle scenes.

16.00-16.10. Images from the film The West Chamber (1965)

16.00. Based on the erotic literary classic, Xi Xiang Ji, this Huangmei opera film characteristically has a star-studded cast: Ling Bo (as caizi Zhang Sheng; further front), Li Jing (as Hong Niang; facing camera) and Fang Ying (as jiaren Cui Yingying). Here with the help of Hong Niang, Lady Cui’s trusted maid, the caizi and the jiaren eventually meet in a bedroom at the West Chamber in their first secret rendezvous. They intend to play bride and groom, signaled by the red colour wedding robes they both wear. Hong Niang typically wears red because Hong means red. See Image 9.00.

16.01. After leaving the bedroom, Hong Niang lingers outside, listening in to make sure all is fine. In Chinese folklore, Hong Niang is mythologized as the perfect matchmaker, the Chinese equivalent to Cupid.

16.02. Satisfied, Hong Niang takes leave.

16.03. After Hong Niang leaves, the lights go out in the West Chamber. As the camera dollies out, the off-screen chorus starts: “Tonight is the night for joy and pleasure.” (Cut).

16.04. “Dew drops douse the peonies; they blossom” is a metaphor for the combined act of seduction and lovemaking. The lovers yield, their bodies covered with a mist of dew-like sweat. In Chinese culture, peonies (or for that matter, flowers in general) are gendered female. The dew-covered peonies are a visual metaphor for the pleasures of the flesh. The imagery is an analogy for Lady Cui's sexual awakening; she blossoms into a full bloom peony in the way that dew drops nourish peonies, causing them to bloom. (Cut). See Image 18.02.

16.05. “Fish in water, the end of all sorrow and the start of happiness.” After their frustrated waiting, the lovers eventually unite, ending sorrow and happy like fish in water. The Chinese idiom, “Yu Shui Le,” is comprised of three words: Yu (fish), shui (water) and le (happiness). It's a euphemism for a couple’s hot and eager passion as they take to each other like fish (yu) to water (shui). Note the goldfish swimming among the pebbles, gently pushing each other—a visual metaphor for semen in a sexually aroused vagina. (Cut).

16.06. “The spring night is short. The morning bells hasten,” or make the best of the brief time at hand. “Spring night” is a euphemism for nocturnal sexual fun: it is refreshing and delightful like a spring night. (Cut).

16.07. “Spring henceforth descends on the West Chamber every night” is an analogy for recurrent sexual activity. The mist seen on the roof in the last shot now hangs in the background of this shot. In the foreground is a bush with lush flowers: love and sex make everything bloom and glow in happiness, so to speak. (Cut).

16.08. “The crooked bridge has no moss. T’is the path of rendezvous”: The visual metaphor of a well-trodden pathway suggests that the young lovers meet regularly, while the crooked bridge connotes the hurdles they have to overcome to get to love (and sex). In short, love knows no hurdle. (Cut).

16.09. “The silk net over the bed wants warmth. But good times are always short”: Hong Niang (back to camera) escorts Lady Cui back from the West Chamber at dawn. Their clothes are different to the ones they wear to the first rendezvous. With narrative economy, the film thus reiterates that Lady Cui and Zhang Shen have met frequently in secret with the help of Hong Niang. (Pan right).

16.10. “Most distressing is when spring slips away”: This is the last line of the song. It carries a double entendre. As the two hastily walk back to Lady Cui’s boudoir that misty morning, they are seen by Cui’s younger brother, who exposes the illicit affair.


Convergence and divergence

In the realm of Huangmei opera films, Ivy Ling Bo could be considered a cross-sex fanchuaner. Cross-sex fanchuaners, or professional cross-sex performers, are not uncommon in traditional Chinese opera.[25][open notes in new window] They are in fact a trademark of Yueju (Shaoxing) opera, which has had a long tradition of training and employing only female performers. One most notable cross-sex performer of this theatre, concurrent with the time of the postwar Huangmei opera film cycle, was Yuan Xuefen (Image 2.00), who plays the male lead of Liang Shanbo in PRC’s first Shaoxing opera film, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. Also the first color feature of New China, this film is a forerunner to Ling Bo’s signature film, The Love Eterne. The latter in turn was inspired by three opera librettos from the Republican China period, namely The Willow Shade Account (Sichuan opera), Liang Zhu (Shaoxing Opera) and Butterflies on a Skirt Hem (Cantonese opera).[26]

In other Chinese opera traditions, mixed troupes are more typical, with performers usually appearing in roles that corresponded with their physiological sex. But exceptionally talented female impersonators have arisen from such troupes; the most famous was Mei Lanfang whose cross-sex performances awed Beijing opera fans during the second quarter of the last century.[27] More contemporaneous was Yam Kim-fei (Ren Jianhui) of postwar Hong Kong. She was the foremost male impersonator of the Cantonese opera stage and screen scene, and had a huge loyal following in the Cantonese communities of the Chinese diaspora. Like Yuan Xuefen of New China, Ren Jianhui would be a “shi jie”to Ling Bo — that is, an “older sister” in the profession of opera film acting. She (Image 4.00) too had the male lead role of Liang Shanbo to her acting credit, having appeared in Li Tie’s The Tragic Story Of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (1958). Unlike her two predecessors, including Mei Lanfang, Ling Bo has no formal opera training.

All-male Huangmei opera troupes were not usual prior to 1949. This type of troupes disappeared in New China: a mixed cast with players in gender-matching parts such as that seen in Marriage of the Fairy Princess became the norm. This gender-matching casting pattern has remained a constant in PRC’s Huangmei opera/opera film productions, including their latter-day TV equivalent. Initially Hong Kong’s Huangmei opera films, such as To Borrow a Wife and Diau Charn of Three Kingdoms, typically had a gender-matching cast. Shaw Brothers’ production of The Dream of the Red Chamber (1962) marked a departure when its director cast actress Ren Jie in the male lead role of Jia Baoyu (Image 9.00). This departure paved the way for Ling Bo’s Liang Xiong character in The Love Eterne (more below). Ling’s highly successful debut as a cross-sex actress, however, led to her being pigeonholed, for she was almost always typecast as a male or a female cross-dresser; this holds true only for her Huangmei opera film corpus. Her success concurrently made cross-sex acting a trendy pursuit for actresses of the Mandarin screen. Li Lihua (Image 17.00) thus plays male scholar Yang Yuwei in Lady Jade Locket (Yan Jun, 1966), while Lin Dai appears in the twin-role of mother and son in Shaw Brothers’ The Lotus Lamp (1963-1965), with Zheng Peipei as the father (Image 12.00).[28] To a certain extent, the trend helped build a bridge to Hong Kong’s postwar Cantonese opera films, especially those starring Ren Jianhui, but the bridge was not long enough to interface with PRC’s all-female Shaoxing opera films of the time, even though those male parts are invariably played by actresses.

At the time, Hong Kong had no professional Huangmei opera troupe. Unlike their PRC counterparts, Hong Kong Mandarin studios such as Great Wall and Shaw Brothers thus did not have a ready pool of trained opera performers to draw on when making Huangmei opera films.[29] (In this regard, they also differed from the Cantonese studios which had a steady supply of trained performers from the Cantonese stage.) Huangmei opera film actors and actresses accordingly had to undergo appropriate training or retraining. Fu Qi, an established (male) actor of the Great Wall studio with a knack for contemporary romantic comedies — who plays the male lead in To Borrow a Wife,for instance — took a crash course in opera postures, steps, movements and singing techniques with a Beijing opera-trained master, Zhou Wenwei.[30] On the other hand, by the time of The Love Eterne production, Ling Bo was already a relatively more versatile actress. Prior to this, she had appeared in some 50 Minnanhua or Fujianese films in various genres, including Minnanhua opera films, under the screen-name of Siew Kuan (Xiao Jun; Image 6.00; more below). For her male lead role in The Love Eterne, also her first major role in a Shaw Brothers production, she similarly had to be retrained. Nonetheless she had a flair for singing Huangmei tunes, unlike most actors and actresses associated with the genre. For those actors, including Zhao Lei, Lin Dai, Li Lihua, Ren Jie and Zheng Peipei, the use of ghost-singers and voice-dubbing was a very common practice. In contrast, all performers in PRC opera films and Hong Kong Cantonese opera movies were trained in the art of the opera, so they sang their parts themselves.

In terms of make-up and costumes, Hong Kong Huangmei opera films diverge even more from their PRC equivalents, including Huangmei Xi. In the latter, for instance, performers typically don heavy make-up and pantaloons with flared bottoms, whereas their Hong Kong counterparts tend to spot a (more) naturalistic look, wearing straight-cut, pencil-thin, tight-fitting trousers (Image 11.00). Musical composition and arrangement vary even more. In Hong Kong Huangmei opera films, the songs are relatively more upbeat with a quasi-modern arrangement, which in turn gives the tunes a pop-like quality consistent with Mandarin pop-songs of the day.[31] This simultaneously traditional (folk) and modern (pop) mix then yields a populist quality that stands in contrast to the pastoral aura characteristic of the Huangmei folk music used in PRC Huangmei opera movies.

In terms of production numbers in postwar Hong Kong films, Huangmei opera movies second to Cantonese ones, but the Huangmei opera films were mostly shot in color and had considerably higher production values, with infinitely more lavish props and extravagant sets. Their producers typically enjoyed an economy of scale that came with a large capital investment, unlike Cantonese and other dialect studios. Great Wall received backing from PRC-friendly banks; thus, when making To Borrow a Wife, it was able to mobilize production resources five times over the amount it would normally allocate for a single film.[32] Financially well-endowed Shaw, on the other hand, made the claim that their allocated budget was as high as HK$1 million per production.[33] According to I. C. Jarvie, a Cantonese feature film of 10,000 feet long typically cost between HK$40,000 and HK$50,000, but the average cost for the standard Mandarin production was higher, between HK$100,000 and HK$200,000.[34] If so, then the production cost for Huangmei opera movies and other period Mandarin films would be even higher: the set alone has been known to run up a bill of as much as HK$300,000.[35] Given this, dialect opera films generally looked like poor distant cousins, bar those made by PRC studios and to a certain extent, Hong Kong’s “left-wing” Mandarin studios as well.

Huangmei opera films also enjoyed a considerably wider following largely because they were in Mandarin, as opposed to Cantonese and Minnanhua (Hokkeinese) or other regional- or community-specific Chinese dialects such as those spoken in Shanghai or Beijing. This linguistic advantage enabled the genre to reach multiple “pockets” of audiences in the Chinese diaspora. By comparison, dialect opera films had less extra- or inter-pocket appeal. Their producers tried to overcome this language-related limitation by providing Chinese subtitles (this being the norm for all opera films). But that did not help overcome the taint of regionality which marked them as provincial. This was a problem which Huangmei opera films “transcended” with the help of Mandarin, deemed the most widely used and understood Chinese language and also considered the “national” language of the Chinese diaspora. Though popular to a similar degree in the Chinese diaspora (except in Taiwan where they were banned), PRC Huangmei opera films were, however, too few and far between to make a more enduring impact. Using highly trained opera performers had its merits, but this also gave the productions a sense of stilted staginess, which populist screen actors/actresses had long learnt to downplay. This sense of staginess afflicted the Cantonese opera film as well.

Related to the "Mandarin factor" is the performance of songs in a natural voice. Such a performance style gives Huangmei opera films a decisive edge over the rest. Run Run Shaw, helmsman of Shaw Brothers, purportedly chose to make Huangmei diao pian rather than other types of opera films because of the “natural voice” factor.[36] Runde Shaw of Shaw and Sons appeared to take a similar line of reasoning when he agreed to produce Shaw’s first Huangmei opera film, Diau Charn of Three Kingdoms. This apparently happened after director Li Hanxiang told him about an “unusual” occurrence at a local cinema where Marriage of the Fairy Princess was playing. Viewers were singing along with the film, an occurrence that surprised Li. Had the movie been a Cantonese picture, he would have been less taken aback, since Cantonese opera, whether on stage or on screen, had relatively more ready accessibility in postwar Hong Kong since it was a predominantly Cantonese place, both language and cultural-wise speaking. In any case, he later found out from colleagues that the Marriage of the Fairy Princess had a cult following, with some viewers watching it over and over again, up to “seven or eight times.” Sensing a potential market for Huangmei opera movies, Li thus pitched a proposal for Diau Charn of Three Kingdoms to Runde Shaw who accepted it on the condition that the film be “filled with songs from start to end,” just like Marriage of the Fairy Princess.[37]

If China-born Li was awed by what he saw in that cinema-house in Hong Kong, then — as his Huangmei opera film corpus shows — the director was quick to learn the lesson. His most successful Huangmei opera film, The Love Eterne (produced by Run Run Shaw), for example, has a record 34 songs. Taiwan-raised film critic/essayist Peggy Chiao conceivably had never seen Marriage of the Fairy Princess or any other PRC films as a child, but she was to bear witness to a similar type of cult following, this time in relation to The Love Eterne. As Chiao recalls: “Inside the cinema, the audience [were singing] along with the stars on the screen.” She then adds,

"Before it, films were seen only once. The Love Eterne prompted the practice of viewing and re-reviewing a film. Everyone compared how many times he or she had seen The Love Eterne. And there were many who saw it twenty or thirty times. The newspapers reported that an elderly woman the film 120 times … Housewives, young women, and children memorized the lyrics …"[38]

The Love Eterne,
Ivy Ling Bo and Liang Xiong

In The Love Eterne, Ivy Ling Bo succeeded when Ren Jie of The Dream of the Red Chamber failed. Originally cast as the film’s male lead, Ren was relegated to the supporting female role of Yin Xin when director Li Hanxiang recast the former role in favor of Ling.[39] This turn of events sounded a knell on Ren’s acting career, but changed Ling’s fortunes forever. Heretofore she was to become popularly known as Liang Xiong which means Elder Brother Liang, also Zhu Yingtai’s pet-name for Liang Shanbo. The name of the female and male lead characters respectively, Zhu Yingtai (played by actress Le Di) and Liang Shanbo are the star-crossed romantic couple in The Love Eterne, who eventually find eternal love as butterfly spirits (Images 10.00 to 10.06).

Central to the urban myth for the Ling Bo-Liang Xiong cult phenomenon is the “ugly duckling” story. Before joining Shaw Brothers, Ling Bo was Siew Kuan, nee Jun Haitang (born 1939). Siew Kuan’s acting career began as early as 1954, first as a precocious child-actor, then as a leading actress in Minnanhua films (or Amoy films as they are more commonly called in Taiwan).[40] Although a darling of the Minnanhua film circuit, she lingered on the fringe of the cinematic mainstream in the Chinese diaspora (Image 6.00). In Hong Kong, Minnanhua studios were the poorest, capital- and resource-wise, when compared to their Mandarin and Cantonese counterparts, and as such, were thought to be third-rate. Seeking to break into the mainstream limelight, Siew Kuan began to work for Shaw around 1960, initially as a freelancer, accepting bit-parts in the Cantonese productions of Shaw affiliates, as well as shadow-singing for Shaw Brothers’ Huangmei opera films. Indeed, the best offer she could land at Shaw, prior to The Love Eterne, was the female supporting role in Hung Niang (Hong Niang, 1961). This Huangmei film production was never completed; but it gave her a chance to work with Li Hanxiang, who was one of Hong Niang’s co-directors. The meeting eventually led to their collaboration in The Love Eterne; during this time, Siew Kuan changed her screen-name to Ivy Ling Bo, an infinitely savvier appellation than Siew Kuan which sounded unsophisticated and provincial — “Ling Bo the person is like her name: a fairy.”[41]

In the ensuing nine years, Ling Bo was contracted to Shaw Brothers, making a total of 33 films of various genres, including The Love Eterne for which she won the “Best Acting Award in a Special Category” award (2nd Golden Horse Film Festival, Taiwan, 1963).[42] In these films, as well as those which she made during her post-Shaw Brothers years as a freelance-actress, she has performed a diverse array of cross-sex and gender-matching roles. Despite winning four other major acting awards (between 1964 and 1974), Ling Bo could not escape from the long shadow of Liang Xiong.

After leaving Shaw Brothers in 1972, Ling immediately gave an extended reprise of her signature role for Taiwan’s Central Television System (CTS) production of The Seven Lives of a Husband and Wife (1972), a 91-part Huangmei opera TV serial.[43] This serial and others, including the Liang-Zhu Farewell Concert (1991) and Liang-Zhu 40 Concert (2002), are testimonies to the persistence of the Ling Bo-Liang Xiong cult following. (Liang-Zhu is shorthand for Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai.) The last concert — a full-scale stage production of The Love Eterne, featuring Ling Bo and other surviving members of the Shaw Brothers cast in their original role — capped Taiwan’s island-wide commemoration of the 40th anniversary of The Love Eterne phenomenon (Image 26.00). This commemorative event and others thus affirm Ling’s status as the most eminent Huangmei opera film actress in the Chinese diaspora; of her diverse film repertoire, her Huangmei opera films have likewise remained the best-known, or the best-remembered. If popular memory has kept the Ling Bo/Liang Xiong/The Love Eterne “screen miracle” alive, it is because popular demand has persisted, in a both corresponding and relenting way.

In postwar Hong Kong film industry (as in traditional Chinese opera), cross-sex acting was a career option. This was more the case for actresses than actors, with very few exceptions. Female-to-male cross-sex acting was sometimes regarded as a vocation; here Ren Jianhui’s lineage of female disciples is a point in case. Professional cross-sex fanchuaners such as Ling and Ren are distinct to narrative cross-dressers. In this paradigm are the Zhu Yingtai character in The Love Eterne (played by actress Le Di in a female role) who cross-dresses as a male in order to go to school; or Master Plen (played by actor Qiao Zhuang in a male role) in Wife-napping (dir. Yan Jun, 1962) who impersonates his fiancée so as to thwart a lascivious villain’s plan to kidnap her and make her his wife.

The prevalence of sex/gender reversals, whether integral or external to the narrative world, in Hong Kong’s Huangmei (and other) opera films thus suggests a strong degree of social tolerance, if not acceptance, in regards to transgender gallivanting on the screen. The public recognition accorded to professional cross-sex fanchuaners (e.g. Ling/Liang) or narrative cross-dressers (e.g. Le/Zhu) by way of acting awards further attests to this. There was, for instance, no indignant protest when both Le/Zhu and Ling/Liang respectively walked away with the “Best Actress” and “Best Acting Award in a Special Category” awards at the 2nd Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan, 1963. Neither were there cries of moral outrage when Ling went on to accept the “Best Actress” and “Most Versatile Talent” awards for her respective performance of the titular cross-dresser in Lady General Hua Mulan (dir. Yue Feng, 1964) at the 11th Asian Film Festival (Taipei), and the male lead in The Mermaid (dir. Gao Li, 1965) at the 12th Asian Film Festival in Kyoto (Images 13.00 to 13.02, and 14.00).

The proclamation in the newspaper headline in a Hong Kong daily, “1963 Belongs to Ling Bo,” both expressed and reflected a similar sentiment of acceptance and celebration, also the year of The Love Eterne. The accompanying article elaborates:

“[Liang Xiong conveys] the pains of youth in the most piercingly sharp way. Awed by Ling’s [cross-sex] performance, people would oftenmake the remark that men see Ling/Liang as woman, while women view Ling/Liang as a man.”[44]

This commentary fell short of making a mention in regards to same-sex spectatorial identification, however. The silence here does not demonstrate a correspondent absence of same-sex discourses elsewhere. Nor can it, as I shall argue in the last section of this chapter, impede queer spectatorship, even though the notion of queer, as the term is presently understood, was not yet fashionable then. Though unspoken of in the past, queer subtexts do exist Ling’s Huangmei opera films, including The Love Eterne. After the long silence, The Love Eterne eventually becomes the subject of a queer reclamation when, for instance, the 15th Queer Melbourne Film Festival (2005) unabashedly and unapologetically promotes the film as an “unmissable queer cinematic event.”[45] To a certain extent, Ling Bo has helped push the reclamation process, though in both ironic and indirect ways, when this star of past queer films made cameos for the award-winning Rice Rhapsody (Hainan Ji Fan; dir. Kenneth Bi, 2004), along with hubby Jin Han, previously also a Shaw Brothers actor who once played the role of Mulan’s love interest in Lady General Hua Mulan (Images 13.01 to 13.02). Filmed and set in contemporary Singapore, this comedy has no cross-dressing themes or cross-sex acting: it is about two apparently out and proud young gay Singaporeans and their somewhat sexually ambivalent younger brother; it is ambivalent because it is never clear which way he would swing eventually, sexual-wise. The film is Canadian Kenneth Bi’s directorial debut. Bi also happens to be Ling Bo and Jin Han’s son.

Finally it bears noting that Ling Bo’s achievements as a prominent cross-sex fanchuaner have not put a cap on her repertoire range, or range of acting roles. In her non-Huangmei opera films, Ling too has created memorable female characters in her time. They include the female lead in Too Late For Love (dir. Lo Chen, 1966) and Father, Husband, Son (dir. Bai Jinrui, 1973), for which she won the Best Actress Award (6th Golden Horse, Taiwan, 1967) and the “Outstanding Acting Award” (20th Asian Film Festival, 1974).

To page 3: Love and marriage — Confucian style or take a chance on the wild side?

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