Crossing the Hu-Du-Men

-a term from Cantonese Opera. It refers to an imaginary line between the stage and the backstage area. When actors cross the “Hu-Du-Men”, they should forget themselves and become their roles.

The opening shot of the 1996 Hong Kong film explains the origin of its title, which serves as a motif throughout the film. This wonderful comedy-drama by director Shu Kei tells the story of a famed Cantonese Opera performer Lang Kim-sum (played by the amazing Josephine Siao Fong-fong), who specializes in portraying male roles on the opera stage, and her struggle to juggle many different roles in life, both on and off stage. It has been over ten years since I first saw this film and, much to my delight, I re-watched it recently as I was conducting more research for my short film Memory of a Butterfly, a lesbian love story with Chinese Opera elements, that is based on my feature project.

Hu-Du-Men, though far-fetched and melodramatic at times, is essentially a study and a celebration of a remarkable woman who dedicates her life to her passion. It is also unequivocally, much like some of the other films from the late 90s in Hong Kong albeit being a bit more subdued when compared to films like Happy Together (1997) or Love and Sex Among the Ruins (1997), a mainstream queer film in its own rights. I am not just talking about the subplot in the film that involves Sum’s teenage stepdaughter being in a lesbian relationship and her husband’s subsequent homophobic reaction, but also its touch on the idea of cross-dressing and gender identity/confusion (which has also been a prevalent theme in Hong Kong cinema but more on that in my next post).

As I have mentioned, Sum’s character is a woman famous for playing “Man Mou Sang” (male roles) on the opera stage, so much so that she has a huge following consists of mainly housewives, some of whom consider her a man in real life and express interests in marrying “him”. There is a scene in which Sum, definitely the more open-minded one, goes to talk to her stepdaughter’s girlfriend, Jo, after she and her husband have found out about their supposedly illicit relationship. Jo first greets Sum as “uncle” and immediately corrects herself. After Sum confirms Jo’s feelings for her stepdaughter, they have the following exchange:

Sum: Why do you dress like a man?
Jo: You do too!
Sum: I do not! I pretend to be a man on stage but I am a hundred percent woman off stage. One hundred percent! There are many men out there who pursue me and I enjoy being pursued by them.
Jo: How do you know those men are not gay?
Sum: Gay men? You think gay men like me?
Jo: Honestly, auntie, you are so much more attractive on stage than in real life. You look so boring when you are a woman.

This little exchange prompts Sum, who usually dons a rather androgynous style in clothing, to have a minor gender identity crisis and put on elaborately feminine clothing and makeup, which she is clearly uncomfortable with and, I have to admit, make her look more like a not-so-fabulous drag queen. She then questions her (supposedly straight) male friend who has a crush on her if he likes her as a man or a woman, to which her friend does not understand what she is really asking. The juxtaposition and joining of traditional and modern notions of gender identity shed interesting light on Chinese queerness in different generations.

Much speculation had been made that the character of Sum was based on the immensely popular Cantonese Opera actress Yam Kim-fai, whose name I remember learning as soon as I developed any sort of linguistic skills. One of the founders of the acclaimed Sin Fung Ming Cantonese Opera Troupe, Yam started to learn Cantonese Opera when she was fourteen and was most notable for her unique ability to sing in the lower register, hence the male roles.

She made her first movie in 1951, The Valiant Poon On Perplexed by Love, which embarked her on a sixteen-year career in film acting mostly as the male lead. She has starred in literally hundreds of films, and her memorable works include The Purple Hairpin (1959) and The Tragedy of the Emperor’s Daughter (1959) (its theme song is like the unofficial anthem of Cantonese Opera and was even parodied in English). Like Sum, she was the heartthrob of tens of thousands of single female fans in those days.

Yam had a life-long partner, Bak Sheut-sin, both on and off stage. One cannot mention Yam without Bak and vice versa. In fact the term “Yam-Bak” was and still is, to many Hong Kong people, the equivalent of not only the best Cantonese Opera duo but also an incredible relationship that defies labels of any kind. (Come to think of it, I guess we might have started the celebrity couple nicknames first. Take that, Bennifer!)

Much have been written and devoted to the couple. Some said they were made for each other while others claimed the nature of their relationship was definitely romantic (both were never married and they lived together). Frankly it does not matter as their artistic partnership is timelessly inspiring, and their legacy is pivotal to the growth of Cantonese Opera worldwide.

In Stanley Kwan’s 1996 documentary, Yang ± Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema with which he came out publicly as a gay man, he stated that “cross-dressing plays a big part in traditional Chinese theatre. It’s a formative element in our culture.” In the film, director Tsui Hark cited “Yam-Bak” as an example on how “Chinese are used to sexual reversals” as the “Yam-Bak” relationship is widely and indubitably accepted as a couple, so long as Yam is accepted and perceived as a man on stage/screen.

Indeed Yam Kim-fai, like Mei Lanfang who was famous for portraying female roles on Peking Opera stage, was one of the brilliant performers who dutifully and successfully crossed the “Hu-Du-Men”, and by doing so she impugned the traditional gender roles and expectations, which also made her one of the most fabulously queerious artists in the history of Chinese theatre/cinema.

One response to “Crossing the Hu-Du-Men

  1. Great post, Tin. Hu Du Men is an interesting film… but I don’t think it works all the way.

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