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A Perfect Match

28.7.2017 | chinese opera.
Chau Ying

Chau Ying

Premiered by Fook Sing Cantonese Opera Troupe on 10 February 1994, A Perfect Match is a comedic Cantonese opera written by renowned mainland playwright, Qin Zhongying (1925–2015). In February 2017, it was part of the Chinese New Year programme of the Rising Stars of Cantonese Opera presented by the West Kowloon Xiqu Centre, and won general acclaim.

Rising Star Ruan Dewen as Wang Zi-mei

Rising Star Ruan Dewen as Wang Zi-mei

The seven-scene play has a tight plot and structure and recounts a matchmaking story about magistrate Wang who would like his son Guangqing to marry the daughter of nobleman Li, Yuejiao. Mindful of his son’s plain looks, he asks his handsome nephew Wang Zimei, whose family has fallen on hard times, to pose as his son in the matchmaking meeting. Reluctantly, Zimei agrees as he needs funds for his trip to the capital to sit for the civil service examination. Meanwhile, Yuejiao, who is also aware of her own homely looks, enlists her beautiful cousin, Zhang Yufeng, to go in her place. When Zimei and Yufeng meet, they immediately fall for each other. Li is very pleased with his handsome and talented future son-in-law, so much so that when Zimei tries to explain the misunderstanding, Li locks him up in his house to force the marriage. Hearing the news, Guangqing rushes to the scene where he bumps into Yuejiao and realises what has happened. As Guangqing and Yuejiao take an instant dislike to each other, they devise a ruse that will allow them both to marry their preferred partners.

Rising Star Li Pui Yan as Zhang Yu-feng

Rising Star Li Pui Yan as Zhang Yu-feng

The convoluted series of mistaken identities is reminiscent of classic comic novels and plays such as Judge Qiao’s Slapdash Matchmaking, The Mistake Caused by the Kite and Mistake at the Flower Festival.

The staging is on the light side, with some elements of Western music and dance, and stylised, larger-than-life gestures and movements that enhance the comedic effect.

The old Chinese saying goes, “One’s face is a reflection of his heart.” While we know that judging someone by their looks is not reasonable, we may still be swayed by subjective initial perceptions. That appearances can be deceptive and it takes extra efforts to change the first impressions have inspired many stories, such as The Ugly Duckling, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Beauty and the Beast. This is also why we often see anecdotal stories about “kind-hearted, ordinary-looking benefactors” and “shabbily-dressed billionaires” in the news.

Rising Star Alan Tam Wing Lun as Wang Guang-qing

Rising Star Alan Tam Wing Lun as Wang Guang-qing

Interestingly, A Perfect Match seems to affirm the idea that the face reflects the heart. While this may seem discriminatory to modern audiences, I think what the playwright had in mind is to let the audience rethink what the Chinese proverb quoted above truly means. Essentially it means if the heart is kind, the face will look pretty; if the heart is wicked, the face will be distorted accordingly. In other words: the heart is the cause and the face is the effect.

Rising Star Juliana Kwan as Li Yue-jiao

Rising Star Juliana Kwan as Li Yue-jiao

A detailed reading of the script of A Perfect Match shows us that the writer has gone to great lengths to contrast the character, speech and behaviour of the four leads. Apart from reinforcing the comedic mood, these contrasts also help the audience reflect on how the face connects with the heart. For instance, Magistrate Wang’s son Guangqing, a member of the elite, judges people purely on their looks. He even flirts with the matchmaker on seeing how pretty she is. Wang Zimei knows very well that to falsely pose as a suitor at a matchmaking date is a form of cheating that could ruin someone’s life. Letting the audience know that he would prefer to decline the offer, he says, “Even if I succeed in fooling the other party, my ethics and code of conduct will be seriously breached. I have always been open and honest; I have avoided engaging in scams and falsehoods.” Li Yuejiao, however, is eager to marry the handsome Zimei, and cares little about the unethical act of pushing her cousin into Guangqing’s arms. Zhang Yufeng, knowing Zimei has been locked up, rushes to his rescue at her own peril. She is aware that he may despise her for her part in the deception, but she refuses to cheat her lover and proceeds to reveal her true identity. Towards the end, the audience will have understood the playwright’s intentions: the character of each protagonist is the crucial factor determining their destiny and conjugal happiness. What the script makes fun of and satirises is not physical appearance but human weaknesses such as selfishness and lack of empathy.

Rising Star Zeng Suxin as Mei-zhu

Rising Star Zeng Suxin as Mei-zhu

Extended Reading: Mistaken identities that lead to the best match

Judge Qiao’s Slapdash Matchmaking comes from Ming dynasty writer, Feng Menglong’s (1574–1646) collection of short stories Xingshi Hengyan (Stories to Awaken the World). It tells the story of the Liu and Sun families, each with a son and a daughter. The Liu’s son Pu was betrothed to the Sun family daughter Zhuyi. The Liu’s daughter is betrothed to Pei Zheng, while the Sun family’s son Yulang is betrothed to a girl named Xu Wenge. When Liu Pu falls ill, his parents try to expedite the marriage to bring an auspicious lift to the situation. Unwilling to agree to the change of plan, the Sun family secretly send their son Yulang to impersonate his sister. As Liu Pu is still sick, the Liu’s send their daughter Weiniang to keep her “sister-in-law” company in the conjugal chamber. Yulang and Weiniang fall in love at first sight, and make a secret pledge to marry. Later, when Liu Pu has recovered and the Sun’s want their son to return, Sun Yulang and Liu Weiniang refuse to part. When the secret is revealed and reaches the Pei family, Pei Zheng’s father is so enraged he takes the Liu’s to court. After Judge Qiao has summoned everyone and found out what has happened, he passes the verdict: Sun Yulang and Liu Weiniang must tie the knot, and Xu Wen-ge should marry Pei Zheng.

The Mistake Caused by the Kite was written by Li Yu (1610–1680) of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. Excerpts from this play are still performed in the Kunqu form of Chinese traditional theatre, and it has also been adapted as a Peking opera production The Phoenix Returns to the Nest. The play tells the story of two sisters of the Hou family: the elder Aijuan, who is shrewish and ugly and the younger Shujuan, who is sweet-tempered and pretty. One day, Shujuan finds a kite in the courtyard with a poem by Han Qizhong. Shujuan feels that she has found a soulmate in the verse and writes a poem in response. Qizhong has been under the care of the Qi family since he was a boy and has grown up with Qi Youxian, the owner of the kite. When Youxian retrieves the kite through a servant, Qizhong is overjoyed to read Shujuan’s responsive poem. He writes another poem on the kite and flies it in the hope of wooing the fair respondent. But this time it is Aijuan who picks up the kite. She thinks it is Youxian who writes the poems, and sends him a message for a moonlit rendezvous. Qizhong disguises himself as Youxian for the meeting but is scared away by Aijuan’s appearance. Later, Aijuan marries Youxian in an arranged marriage. On their wedding night, Aijuan thinks the groom is an impersonator, and Youxian is equally irate about his bride’s appearance, but nothing can now be done. When Qizhong returns after great success in the civil service examination, he takes Shujuan as his bride.

Originated from the fifth chapter of Chinese classic novel The Water Margin, Mistaken Identities at the Flower Festival was adapted into Peking opera by the renowned artist, Xun Huisheng. In Hong Kong, the famous Cantonese opera librettist, Tong Tik-sang, also rewrote the play become for the third season of the Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe in January 1957. In 1962, the play was turned into a Mandarin-language film Bride Napping, featuring Betty Loh Ti and Diana Chang in the lead roles. The story tells of Liu Yuyan, daughter of a rich squire Liu Deming, and Bian Ji, a scholar selling calligraphy and paintings, who fall in love at first sight at the Flower Festival. Yuyan’s maid, Chunlan, reports to the squire, who sends word to Bian Ji to propose formally. By mistake, Zhou Tong, a notorious young local bully, is invited instead. Zhou gives them three days for the marriage to take place. Acting as go-between, Chunlan the maid asks Bian to dress as a woman and visit Yuyan at her home. Meanwhile, Zhou Tong has sent his men to kidnap the bride. Mistaking Bian for Yuyan they take him away. At this point Zhou Tong is arrested as a suspect in robbery of the royal consignment. His sister Yulou realises Bian is a man, who tells her everything. She not only sets him free but also finances his trip to the capital to sit for the civil service examination. Squire Liu, thinking that his daughter has been kidnapped, sends his men to the Zhou family home to get his daughter back. In the confusion, the men take Yulou instead. To prevent the marriage between Yuyan and Zhou Tong, the quick-witted maid Chunlan has Yulou dressed as a man to tie the knot with her mistress. When Zhou Tong is released, he threatens to come for his bride that evening. On learning this, the hot-headed monk, Lu Zhishen, flies into a rage. He disguises himself as the bride, hides himself in the curtained bed, and gives Zhou Tong a good beating when he turns up. Zhou runs for his life, with the monk in hot pursuit. On the way, the monk encounters Li Zhong and together they subdue Zhou Tong and force him to apologise to the squire. At this point, Bian returns from the civil examination after distinguishing himself as a top scholar, and marries Yuyan without further mishap.

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