She’s a lawyer, author, storyteller, and now, performer. Poised to begin a three-week run of her one-woman show Bound Feet Blues, it’s hard to believe that Yang-May Ooi first set foot on a stage just two years ago.
“I’m getting three years of drama training in three months,” remarks Yang-May. She appears unfazed, taking the challenge in her stride. It’s not surprising, once you discover how she got to this point.
In December 2013, Yang-May stood in front of 250 strangers at a TEDx event and told them about her journey of self-discovery. About how she’d tried to mould herself into what society expected of a young woman lawyer in London in the 1980s: big hair, boyfriend, high heels. And how—through ‘small acts of rebellion’, also the title of her talk—she shed those outer trappings to reveal her true inner self: a brave creative soul, with a preference for short hair, sturdier shoes and women.
Her coming-out tale, and its message that authenticity has the power to unleash love and courage, moved some in that audience to tears, and inspired thousands more who have viewed her performance on YouTube.
For Yang-May, the TEDx experience emboldened her to pursue new creative outlets. By then she had already written two works of fiction: The Flame Tree and Mind Game.
She turned her efforts to Bound Feet Blues, a personal account of Chinese foot-binding and her life in shoes, which she’d previously struggled to write as a memoir. Now she could write it the way she would perform it on stage, with different voices and crucially, different accents. “I found a new way of looking at the text. With Bound Feet Blues, I moved from long-form story-telling to performance,” she explains.
Last March, she tested waters with a one-night only 30-minute showcase of Bound Feet Blues. Next month she’s back on stage, this time for an hour each night, for three weeks. “I’ve had a personal trainer since the summer,” she says, smiling. “I have to build up my stamina, both in terms of my breath and physicality. I run every other day, alternating between 3 miles and 6 miles. And I’ve tried to cut down on carbs, because I need to be energetic on stage.”
The audience this time round can expect to be just as enthralled as at Tedx, and also entertained, as Yang-May explores her pet themes—female desirability, identity and empowerment—through shoes. “I would like to leave the audience wondering, ‘Could I be sexy wearing plimsolls?’” she says.
She credits director Jessica Higgs for shaping her as an actress as well as shaping her script for stage. But, while she’s learning the techniques and has an instinct for acting, she has no thespian ambitions. “I don’t intend to become an actor. I’m more interested in writing for performance,” she says.
Yang-May, at a glance
Hometown: Kuala Lumpur
How long have you been abroad? 40 years. Left for boarding school in England in 1975, aged 12. Studied English at Oxford University, qualified as a solicitor and practised law until 1994.
What do you do for a living?
I work as a project manager in social housing finance, for four days a week. One day a week is dedicated to my writing and performing.
Favourite thing about living in London?
Being able to walk everywhere. I enjoy discovering the parks, alleyways and history; it’s more interesting and pleasant than taking the Tube.
What do you not like?
London can feel too big at times. We live in Dulwich, south London and we hardly get to see our friends who live in north London. In terms of travel time, it’s probably easier to meet in Paris!
What do you miss about Malaysia?
Laksa lemak. Specifically, the one sold by the lady with the bicycle in Taiping covered market.
What do you not miss about Malaysia?
The traffic, the pollution and the haze.
Bound Feet Blues runs from 24 November to 12 December 2015 at the Tristan Bates Theatre, Covent Garden. Book now.