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Title:Queering the body: cross-dressing performance and identity politics in Cantonese opera of post-1950s Hong Kong
Author(s):Tse, Priscilla
Director of Research:Buchanan, Donna A
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Buchanan, Donna A
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Solis, Gabriel; Silvers, Michael; Manalansan IV, Martin F; Guy, Nancy
Department / Program:Music
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Chinese opera
Chinese music
Cantonese opera
Gender studies
Queer studies
Identity politics
Hong Kong studies
Women's history
Chinese studies
Abstract:This is an ethnographic study of women’s cross-dressing performance in Cantonese opera (yueju) productions in Hong Kong since the 1950s. Stemming from ethnographic research conducted from 2012 to 2016, my study concerns issues of women’s history, fandom, and social identity (gender, cultural, and national). Taking a musicological, ethnographic, and historical approach, I examine gender performativity as it pertains to those women performers who play the leading male role-type (the wenwusheng) in Cantonese opera—performers who also attract mostly female fans. I interpret their performances within a broader framework concerning the colonial history of Hong Kong. By focusing on the performance of female masculinity in traditional Chinese expressive culture, I study how gender authenticity and cultural authenticity, as discursive formations, carry political meaning. Under British rule in the twentieth century, Cantonese opera in Hong Kong did not shrink but thrived and later became a local cultural icon. I argue that, by examining how practitioners and fans perceive the authenticity and legitimacy of local performance practices and styles, sentiments of cultural inferiority and national belonging internalized by this former colony’s residents are confronted. The queer body of the female wenwusheng, perceived by both local and mainland practitioners and fans as inauthentic in its staged representation of masculinity, takes on new significance in the context of Hong Kong’s contemporary political climate, where these perceptions of inauthenticity also belie an ambivalence displayed by Hongkongers toward the cultural, national, and political identities they embody. While hangdang (role-type) and wenwusheng have been defined in historical scholarship on Cantonese opera, my ethnographic study of recent practices challenges the conventional understanding of both concepts within the context of Hong Kong. By examining repertoires, vocal timbres, and stage performances, I investigate how gendered identities, sexuality, political power, and social legitimacy are enacted in female wenwusheng performance. While some people presume that orthodox masculinity is embodied in male bodies, the analysis of gender performativity in singing and acting illustrates how relationships between both voice and vocal gender, and the performing body and gendered role-types, can be denaturalized. The phenomenon of female fans pursuing female wenwusheng is a notable characteristic of Hong Kong’s Cantonese opera scene. This ethnography challenges stereotypes of these fans, who have been viewed as ignorant “groupies.” I study the gendered dynamics between fandom and stardom by bridging the literature on traditional patronage in Chinese opera with that of fan studies in Japanese pop culture. Beyond the exchange of social, cultural, and economic capital, my observation of and interaction with fans during their events and opera performances provide insight into the interplay between actresses’ public, onstage performances and their informal, offstage engagement with fans. The blurred boundary between actresses’ onstage and offstage personas demonstrates that it is commodified homoerotic emotional intimacy that ties female wenwusheng and their fans together. This homoerotic emotional intimacy is also manifest in media (re)presentations of an iconic female wenwusheng, Yam Kim-fai (1913–1989). By examining her appearance on different “public stages”—opera performances, films, and in the entertainment press—I focus on how the actress’s star image is asexualized and resexualized. My intertexual reading, contextualized in reference to recent studies of sexual minorities in Hong Kong, illustrates that Yam’s female masculinity not only carries queer overtones, but also serves as an enabling space for new identity possibilities. These possibilities are not limited to gender and sexuality, but also hold cultural and political implications. Given that traditional Chinese cultural practices are considered better preserved in mainland China and/or Taiwan, and that the female wenwusheng tradition in Guangdong was basically discontinued in the 1950s, the artistic value and authenticity of women’s cross-dressing practices in Hong Kong are frequently questioned. While some local practitioners have recognized the threat to female wenwusheng caused by the new wave of recently migrated male wenwusheng from China, what these “real men” embody is not only a different performing style and aesthetic; in the eyes of many practitioners and fans in Hong Kong, they also symbolize a more orthodox masculinity and a “purer” form of Chinese performing arts. An investigation of female masculinity discourse and the “impure” form of Chineseness embodied by female wenwusheng provides a performative perspective for understanding the complexity of Hongkonger cultural and political identity, especially given the increasing tension between Hong Kong and China since 1997. This dissertation on women’s cross-dressing performance therefore not only enhances our understanding of gender politics in and the cultural history of contemporary Chinese societies, but also enriches scholarship on Chineseness, cultural hegemony, and geopolitics in the Sinophone world.
Issue Date:2017-07-12
Rights Information:Copyright 2017 P. Priscilla Tse
Date Available in IDEALS:2017-09-29
Date Deposited:2017-08

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