It is the beginning of autumn, but still hot and dry. While my wife and I were out visiting friends, we were invited to attend a cosplay event paying tribute to Yang Li-hua (楊麗花), a Taiwanese opera performer who was revered as a “national treasure.”
Entitled “Everyone is Yang Li-hua” (人人都是楊麗花), the event was promoting Taiwanese opera television show The Timeless Virtues (忠孝節義), which is to premier on Tuesday next week.
Yang passed away on Nov. 4 last year, but the show marks her return to the spotlight after 16 years.
The event featured more than 40 guests of all ages — from five-year-olds to 68-year-olds — in period costume, all dressed as they remembered their idol Yang.
Their introductions about their connection with her were almost all identical: The vast majority grew up watching Yang’s performances with their mother or grandmother. Regardless of whether they were fluent in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), they were all more or less capable of singing a few lines from Taiwanese opera.
We were all sent back to Taiwan in the 1960s, when everyone was glued to the TV screen at 8pm on weekdays to watch Yang Li-hua Taiwanese Opera (楊麗花歌仔劇).
One of the guest performers, a mother in a handsome-looking outfit, said with tears in her eyes that after her son’s accidental death, she could not stop crying, and in the end, she followed a doctor’s advice and returned to her habit of watching Taiwanese opera.
She said that Yang helped her get through that difficult period.
Another guest, a middle-aged mother who had brought her two daughters to perform with her on stage, said that she was not didactic in the way she raised her children — instead, she watched Yang’s opera performances with them, because children watching opera never go astray.
My wife, who grew up in southern Taiwan, said that during midday reruns of Yang’s performances, everyone was glued to the TV and the streets were empty. It was truly grassroots music and created a bond among family members, between grandchildren and grandparents.
For me, a second-generation Mainlander, the daily two-hour show in Taiwanese was my biggest exposure to the language, making my Taiwanese listening comprehension better than some of the young people performing on stage at the event.
This might just have been a promotional event for an upcoming show, or a fun social gathering, but for me, born and raised in Taiwan, Yang’s performances bring together common people and create bonds of friendship. They demonstrate the vitality and resilience of grassroots people and this is where Taiwanese values can be found.
Yang’s return has completely absorbed older people and has made them forget their age. It is a great example for us elderly people.
Yang’s disciple Chen Ya-lan (陳亞蘭) was there, thoughtfully reminding the performers to “hold your head up high, stand up straight, suck in your stomach” and so on.
Whenever she talked about Yang, Chen would respectfully call her Auntie Yang.
The Timeless Virtues has yet to be aired, but thanks to Chen, I have already seen what the timeless virtues of loyalty, filial piety, chastity and righteousness really mean.
Ku Li-jen is an adjunct associate professor of history at National Taipei University.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai