It’s easy to forget feet. Despite the fact they’re the most reliable mode of transport, keeping us upright and connecting us to earth, we rarely think of them in such detail, and we take them as a given until they cause us discomfort. It’s amazing how miserable people become when caught in the rain in canvas plimsolls, or after eight hours in brand new shoes breaking them in.
However, writer and storyteller Yang-May Ooi explores our feet, discussing how we confine in them plus deeper subject roots of how we value ourselves and how others perceive us in her latest work Bound Feet Blues: A Life Told In Shoes.
Described as a “coming out story”, Ooi shared the shoes of her past, from the painful Kurt Geiger heels she wore to the Oxford Ball in her university days that commanded attention from passing men, to the boy’s footwear she loved to storm about in as a child, angering her extended family.
Ooi uses shoes as a springboard into her discussion of gender and cultural identity. She shares the stories of her past through physical means, taking on the shape and manners of her mother and grandmother as well as herself as an eight year old growing up in Malaysia, a young professional in London and a debutante in Oxford.
Such personal accounts make for engaging viewing. While the practise of foot binding isn’t necessarily unknown to the rest of the world, few may have heard such close and emotive insight. Ooi’s grandmother was chosen out of three daughters to have her feet bound, giving her the opportunity for a comfortable future. Later on, Ooi describes the procedure, actively from the point of view of a mother binding her daughter’s feet and the contrasting feelings that emerge.
Ooi’s exploration of binary concepts is also compelling. She invites the reader to question how the painful practice of foot binding that practically disables a woman, can empower her – those with the most crushed feet known as “golden lotus feet” can anticipate the most desirable lifestyle provided by a wealthy husband. Ooi also suggests the power such a wife has over her husband, who finding such feet so attractive would literally worship the ground she walks (or crawls) on. This presentation of shoes contrasts beautifully with the power Ooi feels in walking boots in Australia where she realises her feelings for her best friend and they are both on an equal plain.
Shoes pose other questions – the confusion an eight-year old Ooi felt when wearing boys shoes, running free and playing the part of the oldest son, believing her family would be pleased. So why are they ashamed and angry? Why as a young lawyer were expensive Gucci loafers and tassled wedges important in presenting the right image? Why in the West, women cannot understand bound feet aesthetically, and yet some choose to forgo surgery, pumping themselves with silicon, and having body parts enlarged or reduced.
Overall whilst the themes presented were thought provoking and interesting, I felt that the delivery was the only thing that was lacking, and that the content deserved a more original execution than simple storytelling. There were some big ideas presented at points, and no matter how hard Ooi tried to change her physicality, accent and pace, her overall dynamic wasn’t pushed far enough to challenge the audience.
While Ooi was going for minimal stage interference in terms of set and props, at times, it would have been great to see a use of tangible objects, like shoes, engaged with to help aid the performance. Other than this the story and ideas were great to interact with and listen to.