Liao Zhi, dancer who lost legs in 2008 Sichuan quake, inspires a Hong Kong play

Extraordinary story of performer who returned to the stage just two months her legs were amputated has been turned into a drama, Angel’s Psalm, to be performed by Hong Kong’s Big Stage Theatre

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 2015, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 December, 2015, 10:05pm

Liao Zhi’s diminutive build belies her extraordinary strength and will to overcome adversity. The 30-year-old former dance teacher survived the devastating earthquake that struck Sichuan in 2008 but lost her baby daughter, her mother-in-law – and both her legs.

Seven months later she suffered another blow: unable to cope with the tragedy, Liao’s husband divorced her.

Liao, whose legs were amputated below the knees, not only managed to keep dancing, she and her dance partner beat dozens of performers from around China to win the first-runner-up prize in CCTV reality show Dance Out My Life in 2013.

Liao’s extraordinary story has been turned into a play, Angel’s Psalm, which will be performed at Kwai Tsing Theatre this week by local troupe Big Stage Theatre.

The production is based mainly on Liao’s autobiography published two years ago. However, director and scriptwriter Jimmy Lee Wai-cheung had met Liao and her parents before writing the script and was able to incorporate details that were not featured in her book.

Recalling her ordeal, Liao says, “It was frightening to be buried under the rubble. But what followed – the end of my marriage and trying to cope with life [without my child and my legs] – was even more challenging.”

Ninety-nine per cent of netizens were sceptical about my performance. They thought it was a hoax or media hype
Liao Zhi

She and her family were living in a third-storey flat in her hometown, the city of Mianzhu, in 2008 when the building collapsed.

“Under the rubble, I kept singing to my daughter, who was 10 months old, to keep her awake. But I eventually lost her. I have regrets and doubts about my protective ability as a mother.”

While recovering in the hospital, volunteers asked if she would like to dance in a show held nearby.

“I hadn’t been fitted with prosthetics at the time; I had no calves or feet.”

She accepted the offer, thinking it would be her swansong.

“I had to kneel from start to finish, and the wounds were still bandaged as there was more surgery to come. My mum saw me during rehearsals and she cried, asking me to give it up.”

But Liao stunned friends, family and even herself with the performance in front of a packed house.

“The thunderous applause from the audience touched me deeply. After this experience, I knew dancing without legs is not impossible and I wanted to continue,” she says.

However, there were plenty of detractors: “Ninety-nine per cent of netizens were sceptical about my performance. They thought it was a hoax or media hype as it seemed implausible for somebody to be able to dance just two months after their legs were amputated.”

After being fitted with prosthetics, Liao taught herself to dance again and is now occasionally invited to perform at corporate functions.

Her greatest triumph was two years ago on Dance Out My Life, when she and dance partner Yang Zhigang beat 40 contestants to take the runner-up spot.

“I had to compete against able-bodied people and I thought we would be eliminated quickly. But we got to the final round.”

That year, Liao also completed a 5km road race in Shanghai, running in regular prosthetics. This, she later learned, could damage her knees. But Liao is now having a pair made specifically for running, and once they are ready, she will be able to train for future road races.

Helping to fit Liao with her artificial limbs is Charles Wang, a prosthetics specialist from Taiwan. They met in 2013, when she visited his company’s Shanghai office to get a pair of prosthetics to be worn with high-heeled shoes for a dance competition.

Their chance meeting turned out to be a silver lining.

Company staff introduced them as both were Christians, Liao says. “He’s a technical [adviser] helping people learn how to use prosthetics. He watched my gait and helped me make modifications so the limbs were more comfortable. Later, I gave a talk at a university and he came to listen ... and we eventually had dinner together.”

They married the following year and are now looking to start a family.

Her husband has helped her become an independent person who doesn’t need to rely on others, Liao says.

“I don’t want a man who takes care of everything because I am disabled. Of course, he has to treat me well, but I can also take care of his needs. Charles is caring and attentive. When I am confronted with stairs, he will ask whether I need a piggyback.

“He’s very professional, encouraging me to train my thigh muscles to improve my walking with prosthetics.

With a prosthetics specialist for a husband, Liao has been able to have different types of artificial limbs.

“Right after I lost my legs, I feltdeep regret about not being able to wear high heels, which I love. I felt dejected whenever I heard the sounds of high heels clacking on the floor,” she says.

“But my husband helped me get a pair of prosthetics specifically for wearing high heels. I care a lot about how my artificial limbs look. I want them to look beautiful. My friends helped me design them. Now, I have seven pairs with different shapes, packaging and functions.”

Although Liao is well-known on the mainland, few Hongkongers are familiar with her story. But it inspired Jimmy Lee to create the play about her.

The stage veteran says he likes developing plays around flesh-and-blood characters. His past productions have included Queen of the Wind, based on the life of champion Olympic windsurfer Lee Lai-shan.

To flesh out his script for Angel’s Psalm, Lee visited Liao in Shanghai to seek her comments and talked to her parents in Chongqing.

“Real-life events have the so much value as they reveal the full extent of human character,” he says.

One incident related to Lee has been recreated in his play: following her recovery Liao set up a dance troupe to help lift people’s spirits. But to arrange for them to perform in different venues, a venal official asked for money to grease the palm of various parties concerned.

“Because of this, Liao had to disband the troupe after three months as the dancers were not getting paid,” Lee says.

Human weakness is also seen in the response of Liao’s ex-husband, who could not bear the sight of his amputee wife because it reminded him of the earthquake and the loss of their daughter.

Tam Tsz-ling, a drama graduate from the Academy for Performing Arts and dancer, will take the lead role as Liao.

While this isn’t her first stage role, Tam says portraying a character with such an indomitable spirt is a challenge. “I have to convey her sense of hope and zest for life in the face of all the adversities.”

Liao’s parents are played by a pair of veteran actors who also have had their share of grief: Liu Kai-chi lost his youngest child to leukaemia in 2006, while Amy Chan Sau-man had to cope with the collapse of her marriage after 28 years.

Liu says he relates most with the scene in which the father calls out his daughter’s name amid the rubble near their home.

“He refuses to leave even though everybody asks him to. In the end, it turns out that his calls sustain Liao under the rubble. She wants to give up, but regains her determination to live after hearing her father.”

Chan hopes that the optimism and hope that infuses the play will inspire the audience.

“Like Liao, I am an optimist. It’s okay to grieve over big losses in life. The key is not to dwell on them, but move on and strive for a happier life.”

After the loss and trauma that she has suffered, Liao says she has become more cautious and alert to signs of danger.

“For a year after the earthquake, I didn’t sleep well. And the slightest feeling of wobbling was hard to bear. Through prayer and sharing with friends, I gradually overcame this fear. But I have also become more vigilant about potential danger.”

Liao, who will visit Hong Kong for a cameo appearance in the play, is keen to involve herself in more stage productions.

This is the first time she has taken part in a major dramatic production, she says.

“I want to be a playwright and convey my thoughts on life and the world through the stage.”

Angel’s Psalm, Dec 17-20, 8pm; Dec 19-20, 3pm, Kwai Tsing Theatre. Tickets: HK$280-$480, Urbitix. Inquiries: 3761 6661