Chinese language cinema

Yam Kim-fai

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 10:03am

In the highly ephemeral world of Hong Kong celebrity, it is virtually unheard of for a star to retain multi-generational recognition decades after departing the scene.

Bruce Lee, of course, is the major exception, his fame played out on a global arena and ended abruptly at the height of his career. More local, and far less conventional, was Yam Kim-fai, perhaps the most unique personality of Cantonese stage and screen. Twenty years have passed since she died, at age 77, on November 29, 1989, but Yam's star remains undimmed, a remarkable feat given her last film premiered in 1968 and final stage performance took place in 1972.

Even more extraordinary, the craft she exemplified - Cantonese opera - is now so outside the realm of mainstream entertainment that few below the age of 60 know how to distinguish between 'genius' and 'mediocre' in evaluating an actor's accomplishments.

The basis of her reputation is singularly intertwined with two important factors: brilliant talent and sexual ambiguity. In the majority of her 300-plus movies from 1951 to 1968 and countless stage appearances dating back to her initial stardom in the 1930s, Yam essayed the male lead - most famously playing 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). Thanks to her signature status, Yam alone among Hong Kong's pantheon of opera greats was able to perform not only with all the top male stars but also opposite the divas in screen romances.

More surprising in view of today's preconceived notions of yesteryear's supposedly rigid gender categorisations, 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.

Which is not to say Yam did not also take on female roles, although more often than not the scenarios were tailor-made to necessitate her assuming a masculine guise. 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.

Through it all, Yam was idolised by female fans as the personification of unsullied male affection, hence her sobriquet of hei mai ching yan (or 'theatre fans' lover', which lends the Hong Kong Film Archive's current Yam retrospective its Chinese title).

In an era where terms such as 'homosexuality' and 'lesbianism' were far removed from the public's consciousness, Yam brought the allure of romance in its most platonic and unthreatening form, mirrored off-screen by the perception of her relationship with diva Pak Suet-sin - which spanned 40 years and 60 movies - as the embodiment of pure maidenly friendship.

Cantonese opera, and Yam's career, reached a zenith in the early 1960s. It is ironic that as the art form went into decline, Yam's reputation took on new resonance as Hong Kong society became more open to so-called alternate lifestyles and the lady became an unwitting gay and feminist icon.

Not the least of her achievements was the independence with which she led her life, a quality reflected in her vast cinematic legacy.

The Forever Yam Kim-fai retrospective runs until Jan 2 at the Hong Kong Film Archive; Splendour of Cantonese Opera: Masters Tong Tik-sang and Yam Kim-fai, an exhibition of artefacts from Yam's life, runs from Dec 20 to Sep 27, 2010