Today’s Goodle doodle is a tribute to Cantonese opera legend Yam Kim-fai, also known as Ren Jian. Her stage and screen careers stretched from the 30s to the 60s, and she was in 300 film titles that were made since the early 50s.
Born on this day in Nanhai District, China, in 1913, Yam performed with various opera groups in Macau from the mid 1930s. After the war her troupe moved to Hong Kong.
Her reputation had a lot to do with two things: her brilliant talent, and ability to appear convincing in masculine roles. In the majority of her movies from 1951 to 1968, and countless stage appearances, Yam played the male lead. Such performances include scholars (as in The Tragic Story of Leung Shan-pak and Chuk Ying-toi from 1958, or 1959’s Butterfly and Red Pear Blossom), magistrates (Snow Storm in June, 1959), officers (Two Generals in Contention for a Wife, 1962) and emperors (Emperor Zhengde’s Night Visit to the Dragon and Phoenix Inn, 1958).
Out of the many Hong Kong opera performers, Yam was the only one able to perform not only with all the top male stars but also opposite the divas in screen romances.
We otften think of the past as being more rigid about gender roles, but surprisingly Yam’s masculine persona gained equal acceptance in contemporary comedies and dramas. A sterling example is Yam’s turn as a family tutor secretly in love with unhappily married Fong Yim-fun in Too Late for Divorce (1956), the teacher ‘himself’ tutored on the niceties of rock’n’roll dancing by teenage pupil Bruce Lee.
In her career, Yam also took on female roles, but more often than not those female roles required her to put on a masculine disguise. In The Young Master is a Girl (1952), for instance, she masqueraded as a guy to convince misogynist Cheung Ying that gals weren’t so bad after all. At times the gender confusion was taken to a whole new level, as in A Perfect Marriage (1963), where Yam played a man pretending to be a woman to gain Fong’s affections.
In an era where terms such as ‘homosexuality’ and ‘lesbianism’ barely existed, Yam made romance in its most platonic and unthreatening form appealing. The appeal she represented was also mirrored off-screen by the perception of her relationship with diva Pak Suet-sin. Their association spanned 40 years and 60 movies, and was seen as the embodiment of pure maidenly friendship.
Cantonese opera, and Yam’s career, peaked in the early 1960s. Ironically, this was when Cantonese opera became less popular, but Yam’s reputation had transformed and tool on a new role as Hong Kong society became more open to so-called alternate lifestyles, and she became an unwitting gay and feminist icon.
Yam died in her Happy Valley home on November 29, 1989. Thousands of fans turned out for her funeral in Hong Kong.