Google Doodle shows off ‘sexually ambiguous’ Cantonese opera legend Yam Kim-fai to the world

Tech titan offers touching tribute on the birthday of a Cantonese opera and cinema legend renowned for gender-swapping roles on stage and screen

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 10:37am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 February, 2016, 8:34am

Today’s Google Doodle is a tribute to Cantonese opera legend Yam Kim-fai, also known as Ren Jian, whose stage and screen performances stretched from the 30s to the 60s, with more than 300 film titles 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.

READ MORE: Yam Kim-Fai career retrospective

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 is alone among Hong Kong’s pantheon of opera greats for being 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.

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.

She died in her Happy Valley home on November 29, 1989. Thousands of fans turned out for her funeral in Hong Kong.

A Google spokesman said: “We create Doodles to mark important discoveries, milestones and people in history. We’re delighted to honour the iconic Cantonese opera star Yam Kin Fai on our homepage today and celebrate her cultural legacy.”