A short review of Bound Feet Blues by Yang-May Ooi
I first heard this story of shoes and sensibility on the London stage, where author Yang-May Ooi performed a one-woman show of the same title. The show was personal, powerful and deeply moving. It tells the interwoven stories of Yang-May and four generations of the women in her family, back to her great-grandmother, one of the ‘bound feet’ women of China who hobbled on tiny, broken feet. Using the practice of foot-binding both as fact and metaphor, she draws parallels with the way society can hobble our own spirits, binding us into shapes that distort and cramp, unless we can find the enormous courage to break free.
In the theatre, this story was electrifying. On the page, it becomes a richer story, not just of a woman coming out sexually, but of a child becoming a woman, and a woman becoming an artist. The incredible stories of Yang-May’s family – not just one great-grandmother, but four married to the same man; a boy kidnapped by bandits; a grandfather who shaped a nation – give powerful counterpoint to her own life story. What seems on one level to be a life of privilege, with an influential family in Malaysia, private school and Oxford education, is revealed as a genuine struggle for identity and acceptance.
It’s a hard book to categorise – part memoir, part family history, interwoven with Chinese fairy tales and myth. But that’s kind of the point. Why fit a book into a box, any more than a life? This is a beautifully-told story of daring to be different, to be true to oneself and a testament of a courageous and fiery spirit.