Wang Da Hong House Theatre, Taipei Fine Arts Museum
‘Above’, May 30, 2020
‘Strolling’, June 20, 2020
A house built by an architect for himself in 1953 comes to life in 2020 in the latest work by choreographer and Taipei National University of the Arts (國立臺北藝術大學) graduate Yeh Ming-hwa (葉名樺). The House Behind the Wall (牆後的院宅) is the most apt title, describing the building perfectly, the work itself evoking memories from the past.
The residence in question is a replica of the former home of Wang Da-hong (1917-2018, 王大閎), one of the first Western trained modernist architects from China. He contributed many signature buildings in Taipei after moving to Taiwan in 1949 following the Chinese Republican government’s leaving Mainland China when the Chinese Communist Party took over.
Now the Wang Da Hong House Theatre (王大閎建築劇場), the 1953 single-story home was rebuilt in 2017 in the grounds of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM, 臺北市立美術館), after the original in downtown Taipei near the JianGuo Expressway had been torn down.
Almost completely hidden behind a high red brick wall in the museum’s gardens, and situated between the white rectangular main building and the Indigenous Pavilion built during the Taipei Floral Expo in 2010, the house is truly humble and low-key, characteristic of its former owner. Minimal and modernist, yet retaining the classic Chinese round windows and interior design reminiscent of the Chinese residential houses Wang recalled from his childhood, it is now open to the public and regularly used for productions.
Designed as a trilogy to take place over the summer months, The House Behind the Wall slowly draws audiences inside the building. In ‘Above’, performed twice at the end of May for an audience of just 50 per show, the performers could only be watched from outside the wall, by the front gate. In ‘Strolling’, performed in late June for two groups of 30, audiences stepped inside the garden but could only peer through the glass windows and door panels at the activities taking place inside. Only during ‘Living’, scheduled for August, will just four even more select groups of three people step inside and have tea with the performers.
For the work, Yeh researched Wang’s work, who was not only a prominent architect but also a noted translator, writer and essayist. His works include the well-received rewrite of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray into Chinese, with the story shifted to 1970s Taipei.
That was the decade leading up to the so-called ‘economic miracle’ of Taiwan; a time of urbanisation when many historic neighbourhoods in Taipei were torn down to give way to new infrastructure. Wang designed many modernist buildings in that time, including the Sun Yet-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei. With its hallmark yellow flying roof corners symbolic of the officials’ hats worn in Chinese imperial courts, it’s a perfect example of Wang’s belief in incorporating the aesthetics of the East with Western architectural function.
Wang’s rich history presented Yeh with many challenges. He was also a man brought up somewhat like a royalty with all the luxuries of life but who lived humbly during his later years. Yet, in The House Behind the Wall, she successfully channels his life and work through what to date has been an intimate and fascinating production.
Both ‘Above’ and ‘Strolling’ took place at twilight, the dark sky forming an excellent backdrop for the lighted scenarios.
For Part 1, ‘Above’, the audience enter along the museum garden path, facing the wall. There are no chairs. We stand, looking at a big white round balloon flying in the sky like a full moon. In the dark, Yeh Ming-hwa appears in front of the black gate with its round metal door knockers. After a long stillness. with the sound of a gong, she opens her eyes and dances along the red brick wall right in front of us.
In a purple lace outer jacket over shorts, a fancy triangular necklace (costume design by Juby, 邱娉勻), and with her long ponytail cleanly tied back, she dances in her black flat soles. As the ambient music loudens, she lies on the floor with her legs up, and even moves across to the low tree branches in the far corner, before wandering into the crowd. The lighting design helps to direct our attention.
Reflecting Wang’s hybrid East-West architecture, the music (sound design by Tseng Yun-fang, 曾韻方) combines electronic and Chinese opera tunes. When it pauses, Yeh knocks on the door of the house. It opens to allow her to enter. We remain kept out.
As we wait, we hear footsteps, water even. Our attention, though, is mainly directed to the white round balloon hanging above Wang’s house. It seems to brighten with shadows projected vaguely onto it.
To western symphonic music, Yeh again appears on top of the wall above the door. Now in a white gown like a Chinese opera diva, she trails red and black fabric like a tail that hangs down from her narrow perch. In a risky act inspired by Wang’s essay about the night climbing tradition of students at Cambridge University, where he studied, Yeh lifts a leg in a high balance, proof of her solid ballet training.
By now, her ponytail is tucked in a bun, portraying a more mature woman. With sticks inside her long sleeves reminiscent of Lois Fuller, she majestically extends her arms outward, as if conducting an invisible orchestra. (Wang was an avid lover of classical music himself) As she lets go of the trailing fabric, her black dress is revealed. She moves her long bare legs seductively and at times hangs her arms down the brickwork like a resting cat. As she descends behind the wall and from view, a film starts to project onto it.
The film by Maurice Lai (黎宇文) shows a man (Chen Wu-kang, 陳武康) in a dark Western suit, playing a vinyl record. Its strong red background gives the footage a vintage retro ambiance.
As Chinese tea is being poured into a Chinese teacup with lid, Yeh walks by, now in a bright red qi-pao (the slim fit dress worn by Chinese women) and heels. The man seems to be writing. When he then reads a book by the signature round window near the bedroom, we see it is Wang’s Chinese re-interpretation of Dorian Gray. It’s a strong hint of what is to come.
Meanwhile, the film shows close-ups of a man’s athletic body. Dressed in shorts, he is exercising in a yard full of pebbles, as Wang himself would to keep fit. As the film continues to roll showing her sitting in the bathtub and flickering images of their reflections on the water, Yeh suddenly appears again in person in front of us still in her red qi-pao.
As if performing to us, singing in front of a stand-up microphone in the spotlight but no sound out from her moving mouth, she walks through the crowd, chooses an older man from the audience and takes him inside the house.
In the still running film, Chen enters the dining room, and on the signature white round table, he sees his hat. The jazzy music and dark red tone of the film bring up the sexy bar scene in Dorian Gray where the protagonist visits the prostitutes’ quarters late at night (in Wang’s adaptation, he changes the scene to the old Wanhua district of Taipei).
As we see Yeh help Chen put his watch back on, and him then fasten her necklace, it feels as if we have jumped in time, and as if they have just finished a sexual interaction. They make to leave, the door on the film becoming the real door the audience are standing on the other side of. As the door on the film closes emerging in front of us is not Chen but the man chosen earlier, in the same black suit that Chen wore in the film.
‘Above’ closed to romantic Chinese pop songs, the couple dancing an intimate tango, she wearing a sparkly black jacket over her red dress. Right on cue, the loud sound of an airplane flying close above is heard as it prepares to descend into the nearby Songshan Airport (another Wang Da-hong design). Eventually, the two of them walk out the garden path together. The end of the show, but clearly not the end of the story.
Three weeks later and I am among the fortunate few to return for the second instalment of The House Behind the Wall, ‘Strolling’.
Everyone was handed a traditional Chinese red envelope at the entrance and each asked to write their name on it using a black brush pen. Inside was a floor plan of the Wang residence and instructions for how to watch and enjoy the show.
Stepping inside the gate, we see stagehands hanging red lanterns in the front garden. We are led to the rear ‘kitchen’ area but can only watch from outside. Through the glass windows, we see the ‘dressing room’ of a Chinese opera star (Huang Yu-ling, 黃宇琳). Already with make-up on, an assistant helps comb her hair and put on her headdress and costume. Through loudspeakers in the garden, we hear her singing a Chinese opera tune.
Directed around the side of the house, we find the white-robed Yeh Ming-hwa awaiting us at a closed window. She uses her sexy bare legs to push the exterior frame open. In theatrical make up and ponytail, her legs extend flexibly inside the circular window. We hear Mandarin then Cantonese texts recited. Inside, a bright red flat bed and shelves are seen; a beam of light shining out from an opened closet door. Soon, and like a theatre curtain falling, she closes the window, again with her legs, as we are directed on.
Arriving in the front yard, we hear a Chinese erhu playing. There are stools placed orderly on the pebbled garden. Staff on the roof put out lighted red lanterns. I spotted a white sofa up there too. Through speakers, we hear recited texts from the battle scene of the famous Peking Opera: Farwell, My Concubine (霸王別姬).
Finally, the white curtain behind the glass panels open up. Huang, as the concubine Yuji walks toward the audience area to ask one lucky audience member for her red envelope, into which she puts a small note before returning it.
As the loud live percussion announces the beginning of Yuji’s performance, again, the loud sound of an airplane engine above brings us back to the actual world; an apt coincidence since Yeh’s concept for ‘Strolling’ reveals behind-the-scene settings of theatre-making.
“Oh King, please wake up!” says Yuji. When they meet after zig-zagging through several of the glass panels that divide the living room (stage) from the garden (audience), the King (played by the same previously sexy Yeh at the window), puts an embroidered yellow/blue shawl over Yuji.
By now, only the red lanterns hanging outside are lit, the inside living room darkened. Yuji (Huang) sings the famous tune from Farewell, anticipating the defeat of the war, before sinking into a red sofa after finishing. We next hear some men speaking, as the ‘King’ (Yeh) is on the roof, a loose white gown revealing her black-laced undergarment.
“God does not like arrogance!…” The Titanic, carrying rich and famous people on board, stacked with lots of food to cross the Atlantic, including “35,000 eggs, 250 barrels of flour, 100 pounds of tea, 1500 gallons of milk…” (from Wang Da-hong’s 2008 collection The Silver Moon.)
Yeh does another impressive balancing act, lifting her leg 180 degrees into the air. By now both the indoor living room space and the rooftop stage are lit, as if presenting both past and present coexisting at the same time.
The King, seated on his white rooftop sofa and with legs open in a dominant masculine pose, drinks to Yuji in the living room area below. With the signature exaggerated trembling hands often used in Chinese opera, he bottoms up and throws the wine cup down into the nearby bush next to our audience area (a reference to a similar motion in the Peking opera version).
In clear contrast to her earlier sexuality, Yeh moves strongly and angularly to the recorded male voice from the Peking opera, contrasting to the sharp singing voice of his consort Yuji. Interestingly, Yeh makes a few feminine gestures before disappearing from view.
Next, we hear the voice of Chen Wu-kang, reciting lines from Wang’s Chinese translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem Annabel Lee.
“It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.”
Perhaps, a reference to the longing for love and simple life that Yuji had hoped.
Yeh now in a black leotard, with a long white scarf around her head, transforms from a very masculine body to a very feminine role in a second. The long fringes from the scarf hang down from the edge of the roof, as if to lure Yuji up to her ‘outer space’ on the rooftop.
Unexpectedly, Yuji walks into the audience, where she performs the well-known double-sword dance while singing her finale farewell. When Yeh walks in from the garden, watching Yuji from our angle, as if one of us, she balances on the red bricks of the pond and hangs a white round lantern on a tree branch. Symbolising the full moon, it echoes the balloon in the first part of the trilogy.
After Yuji concludes her sword dance with the famous cross-sword backbend move, she walks to the lotus pond and scoops up the water with her hands, only to let it drip back into the pond.
Back on the rooftop, Yeh stands on the white sofa, looking down at Yuji’s performance. “Oh King, the enemies have broken in!” With this, Yuji cuts her own throat in suicide!
As Yeh whispers “Yuji!”, she lowers her scarf to let Yuji hang onto it. Will she climb up? Yuji first rests her neck on the scarf, before forcefully snatching it down, leaving Yeh by the edge of the rooftop, alone.
This is an unexpected twist by Yeh in this re-imagining of the formerly masculine Farewell, My Concubine. In the original tale, the concubine commits suicide so the King can go off to fight his last battle without worries behind. But Yeh is not satisfied with this sacrificing of woman for a man’s career, even if it ends in failure.
A male voice is heard once again: “Eternity comes from life”; … “Talk about my own failure…”, also drawn from Wang’s essay ‘Big Failures’ from his Silver Moon collection. The approximately 40-minute show ends with the lines about the Titanic and the tons of sugar, repeated.
By embodying the role of the King, Yeh draws upon her Chinese opera movement training from TNUA. She performs the role with rigor in what I interpret as a new queer reading, where the gender roles are fluid and not fixed as in heteronormative societies, giving Yuji the agency to decide her own path.
Yeh’s ambitious yet intimate production based on the life and works of Wang Da-hong has yet to be completed. As we stand up to leave, we see the single lucky audience member chosen by Yuji enter the living room to interact with the performers, a prelude to the final part of the trilogy, ‘Living’.