Yam Kim Fai (Chinese: 任劍輝, 4 February 1913 (Lunar 29 December 1912) – 29 November 1989), also known as Ren Jianhui was a renowned Cantonese opera Actress in China and Hong Kong.
Yam was said to be the only Actress competitive in male lead role of a generation and survived when the ban on "male/female in same troupe" was lifted in 1930s. Yam's protégée Loong Kim Sang (Loong) is considered by some as the first Actress in male lead role that dominated the field although she was dueling with one actor very often in 1972-1992. Yam and Loong together had more than leveled the playing field for generations of actresses who have joined the Cantonese opera community since 1980s.( The list of bona fide Cantonese opera actresses in male lead roles since 1960, excluding those up-and-coming still being tutored. One of them was known as the Singapore version of Yam since 1970s and greeted Loong's crew there in 1975. Before that, Loong was in Vietnam when Chan Kim Sing was already busy in Hong Kong working for Yuen's Sifu. Chinese New Year was main Business in city center for performers. The unemployed 'why not me instead' cladded in checkered jacket, with bright red socks and sweater, sat idle on a broken armchair green with envy.)
Ma Sze Tsang formed the first Hong Kong troupe with both actors and actresses in 1933. Records show Yam's all-female troupe was the last one still doing well in theatres since then. For ten years (1935-1945), Yam made Macau her home, when her hometown in Guangdong fell to the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Meanwhile, she moved her family, including her (Chinese custom, actually paternal first cousins.) younger sister Yam Bing Yee (Chinese: 任冰兒) into her new home in Macau. Occasionally, Yam in 1939 renamed that same all-female opera troupe (「鏡花艷影劇團」/高陞戲院/紫雲霞/《夜出虎狼關》郎紫峯=郎筠玉) to perform in Hong Kong or in 1942 travelled to perform in Guangdong with Hung Sin Nui's Sifu (何芙蓮) as the co-star. Hung met Yam that year.
(Depending on individual performer's pay grade, some were paid in a less volatile currency. The top-billed (female lead) Tam Lan Hing, arrived Macau late 1942 and eventually gained weight in those years, was rumored to get one tael of gold for a day of performance.)
Yam only finished grade school while Loong did not finish high school when they had roles like Jia Baoyu in 1943 and 1964 respectively. In 1964, Yam taught Loong, age 20 with one year of formal training, line by line and word by word while there is no information as to how Yam came to be in that role so well received in Macau. Neither of them ever claimed to be child Prodigy. They both wrote for publications and are known most for their roles as romantic scholars, well-educated and fluent in literature. Contemporary performers benefiting from Yam-Loong perspiration take it that they can just clock in/clock out and produce what is now known as poor quality stencil and the demise of such repertoire once propped up the Cantonese opera community for five decades.
Yam's reputation as Jia Baoyu since 1945 has become a myth to contemporary and Future audience because of the lack of any films/videos. Cut & paste private comments to serve as evidence can never beat the unshakable proofs, although infants and toddlers cannot, the knowledgeable public can see/watch with their own eyes. Records as hard evidence can include:-
Yam legacy titles were not as well received in 1950s as a decade since the debut. That was achieved with exposure across several media. The deal was sealed with audiences from the 1970s and 1980s known to be more educated than those from the 1950s or before in Hong Kong. This is also the group that witnessed the dueling between two leading men known as super idols who dominated the only decade or two that there was an increase in audience for Cantonese opera. They can recite line by line and verse by verse of these legacy titles of Yam. These veteran audiences are not craving for run-of-the-mill low-quality performances with famous titles. They know better than even columnists (nationwide or not) or academics (worldwide or not) who are mostly motivated or paid to be biased if not just recycle second hand information or pull it out of thin air. Accommodation for entourage, including Trojan horse (二五仔), ends at water edge as always.
They reprised many of those roles when the operas were adapted for the screen between 1951 and 1968. The only two made into movies are Li Yi (李益) in The Legend Of The Purple Hairpin and Zhou Shixian (Chinese: 周世顯) in Tai Nui Fa. However, some of Yam's other roles like Liu Mengmei (Chinese: 柳夢梅) in the Cantonese opera version of The Peony Pavilion and Pei Yu (Chinese: 裴禹) in The Reincarnation of Lady Plum Blossom were never made into movies. The later is available only in vocal record. Her Liu Mengmei (Chinese: 柳夢梅) was never recorded for commercial purpose with Bak Sheut Sin.
Contrary to some comments by columnists/academics, some of the well-known signature acrobatics happened to be unintended consequence. Yam and Loong had/have spine damage from bending forward all the time to accommodate co-stars of very short statue. In 1952 film The Twelve Beauties, height difference was close to a foot when Yam still stood fairly straight in the Fantasy of Heaven of Parting Sorrow, ending scene of Dream of the Red Chamber.
Between 1953 and 1956, Bak played second fiddle (flowery role 花衫) to either Fong Yin Fun or Hung Sin Nui when Yam was the male lead opposite any one of them or Chan Yim Nung before that.
"Whom to learn what from" then is the most difficult question. People only see what they are prepared to see. How to learn if never see the good in other people. One privileged student of a master from her vintage point backstage observed nothing more than a female lead as born without a good voice or good look and concluded that "She only hided it well. Nice thread.". That student never played the legacy classic roles such female lead best known for. Neither was her 1956 Pan Hing (顰卿) a success to say the least. (For ten years in Macau, HK and Guangdong, strong built (big and tall) Chan pulled it off. One veteran audience was convinced by her acrobatic skill on stage as Lin Daiyu.)
According to experience of James Wong in 1960s as backup singer for this song, Yam was louder than the four of them. They were shocked by the "little old lady" met that day.
Having spent close to 20 years with the original cast (died in 1964), Lam didn't want lads to learn from performer #2 above and showed them the video of another performer, Tam Ting Kwun (譚定坤). Performer #1 excels in backdoors/connections but his performance was not good enough for Cantonese Opera Young Talent Showcase at hkbarwoymt to some columnists.
Yam demonstrated the "Kwai" trait of her AAA in film The Red Robe (1965) and on stage titles like "Wong Fei-fu's Rebellion" or "The Revolt from Huang Feihu’s Rebellion" (Chinese: 《黃飛虎反五關》) instead of the roles (as romantic scholars) she spent more time on in her 40s and later years on stage. However, the voice still rose to the occasion. In 1960 for charity, Yam performed a duet with the late Leung Sing Bor, the song called "Gaoping level" (Chinese: 《高平關取級》).
The last overseas tour was 1968 in North America. With all of her 'next' generation, in tow, the last on stage live production of five titles in 1968/69/70 followed the last film "Tragedy of the Poet King" released in 1968.
Vocal style in Cantonese opera is personal, the brand, the signature, of performers, that they decide to teach/share for a fee or otherwise. Yam shared with only Loong how to use the mouth and surrounding cavities as an instrument while others learnt to sing like Yam directly or indirectly. According to herself, Yam was a home body who needed only 3-meals a day, sleep and mahjong solitaire to make her day since retirement. Actually, she was alone often photographed guiding Loong and others or talked to her buddy Leung Sing Bor during rehearsals in 1970s or others in the troupe since his death.
The remaining other two of the six 1972 backup Singers, since retiring as cast member (six pillar) of Chor Fung Ming, have been tutoring students of all backgrounds, including some with down syndrome for years in Hong Kong. They are wise not to brand themselves as representatives of Yam style or even compare themselves with Yam while sharing what they have learnt in the decades of Yam's guidance. Yam's (style or school of) AAA on stage has only been observed and commented on by third parties. There has been no authentic account yet since neither Yam nor Loong had published on the topic.
Yam has shared this lighter, but cleaned up, side with her protégée as well and put Loong on the map globally with just one move. In 1974, Yam and Loong in matching sweater and scarf, were in studio to record for Loong's first starring role in a film as male lead. The solo (with some Leung/Tam/Lang/Sum) scene about picking his wife-to-be became the hit theme song many now contemporary performers could even recite in reverse even though they were still a pre-teen or barely teenagers back then.
Some individuals can learn in less orthodox settings and run with what they can take away. For Example, Loong accompanying Leung Sing Bor on set of Tai Nui Fa filming in 1975 to meet fans/visitors from SE Asia was what Yuen called the best "observe, watch and learn" opportunity in the era of Sifu/apprentice system. On the contrary, wrong lessons could also be found in photographs. The ne'er-do-well was peeled off the costume cladded Loong, when group photos were taken that day in 1975. That's her day off just like several other occasions during the 1975 filming when photos were taken. Following the tag-along playbook of some "never good in her own right", said person in 1960s actually already used Loong's thigh as armrest when Loong was wearing shorts, much to Loong's dismay.
Loong and crew, so used to Yam looking over their shoulders, were not natural in speaking up on film set in 1976. Eventually, Loong picked up the necessary mentality as the chief and then Lang Chi Bak slowed Loong down when classmates were behind at manuscript reading as a group. Back in 2004, Loong requested Musicians to pick up their pace but in vain. Returning after 12 years, Loong was caught off guard by the prevailing melodramatic style. All that happened in front of the Press in 2004. What made the performance "stale jau zaa gwai " (就像隔夜油條) was caught on tape in 2005. Finally Loong could put back on stage the Yam signature style in 2015/6, without undue influence any more and working with compatible co-stars and Musicians. At the same time, Loong stopped hiring performer who refused to play the designated roles. Her hands were tied by coat tails back in 1980s. A performer got away with big fat paychecks without, playing all roles designated, filling the shoes left behind by the one before him.
By the same token, it was pointless for Yam to clarify in 1980s that myth from 1960s disgraceful episode. The truth spoke for itself on stage in recent years. Neither did Loong need to in 2014 as insiders already called out what's obvious to their eyes and ears.
Yam went one step further by telling her supporters to see herself in Loong when time spent with Loong came to fruition. (Loong has been widely known as a quick learner.) That's the most important ringing endorsement from a mentor/Sifu. Lam gave the lad of his choice a brand (troupe) name just like Yam gave Loong the Chor Fung Ming brand name in 1982. Fung (phoenix), since the Golden Fung Ping, has been a popular reference for more than seven decades and used by many actresses as newcomers. It is golden. Early 1980s, with her successor well established as a professional career Cantonese opera performer, Yam moved to Canada. In 1989, she died at home in Hong Kong due to pleural effusion.
However, there has been more a Problem for actresses to find a female lead on stage to even meet the minimum expectation since the poor performance of the female lead in these 50+ shows are also well-documented by columnists and insiders alike since 1985. Elder/veteran in the Cantonese opera community pointed to her lack of improvement from the very low level they first saw in 1979, notwithstanding being on stage for decades non-stop, in mid-2000s on camera. They kindly blamed her busy social schedule for her being the same old rug. Lam Kar Sing didn't know what himself was really up against for close to two decades until after spending months to teach her.
She was backstage, as well as in the audience, on 20 February 1989 when Loong's troupe, Chor Fung Ming (Young Phoenix) Cantonese Opera Troupe, performed The Purple Hairpin for Tong Wah (a charity event), according to one veteran audience who kept that ticket as souvenir.
In recognition of the talents of four late artists, Hong Kong Post issued the first series of special stamps on movie stars on 15 November 1995. This stamp set focused on Hong Kong's movie stars, saluting four stars who have left their marks on film history. Yam, in Cantonese opera costume, was featured on the HK$2.60 stamp.
In 1999, the 10th anniversary of passing of Yam, Loong disclosed the first time on camera, Yam's rule of thumb, "Be Natural" (Chinese: 自然就是美). "2015 Talk on the Rendition of Yam Kim Fai", as just about all those have been speaking publicly since 1999, referred to this term first coined by Loong. James Wong, in his 2004 piece, also referenced Loong about Yam's style.
By 2000 in Hong Kong, Loong on camera talked about an AAA formula (She shared same or another one with lads in recent years. Their digestive systems were not ready yet, according to themselves on radio.) that she learnt from Yam and applied in all her performances while in 1980s Loong was already far beyond the abc123 according to the Press. Yam's approach to acquired taste could have been to advise someone to "try cabbage compresses" instead of what happened to the wet nurse of Puyi in the 1987 film The Last Emperor.
The Yam legacy titles have been instantly gratifying for generations still in infancy as a performer. As a result, they skip the essential foundation courses and perform these legendary titles en masse. Contemporary performers took in pupils within years as six-pillar member of troupes to elevate themselves to the status of guru. They have audiovisual resources from the market as well as private collection to copy/learn from or even, in return for remunerations, teach followers of their own (the let's watch the video class). Yam and Loong were never hubris and claimed Teacher status at any point. In 2004/5, Loong disagreed when one reporter suggested a performer, albeit successful to some, as a copy of her.
"Prepared but be spontaneous to keep the performance refreshing in every show, as if it were the debut (first show) even for the Nth time in the same role", a bar set by mentor Yam for Loong, resulted in close to 40 versions of each of two titles from 2005 to 2008. This requirement from mentor Yam explains the challenge for Loong to be on stage within a six-month period and provide 40 different (in some way in one or two acts out of total 6 to 8) but still GOOD interpretations without changing the show as a whole. This organic way, to hunt/harvest for the meal instead of "frozen" or "canned", was the only way acceptable to Yam and therefore set Loong apart from classmates or performers of a generation from very early days. That makes it worthwhile for those who pay for their tickets to be back every day for every show.
For her 100th birthday, Yam Kim-fai centenary celebration at HK Film Archive
Since 2011, Loong (金牌), with a Producer (製作人) in tow, have put some of those Yam aroma back on stage. The mythical character (金牌製作人) dreaming big to build an empire on quicksand does not exist. The votes (box-office records) they received came from the pocketbooks of new as well as veteran audiences coming from the time of Yam as well as of Loong, the two career performers.
In 2013, the Cantonese Opera Legend Yam Kim Fai – Repertoire Select by librettist Tang Ti-sheng (Alias:Tong Tik Sang/Tong Dick-san). was organized by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Hong Kong.
As an experienced, knowledgeable and hands-on patriarch for decades, Lam laid out on radio a job prescription for Directors in Cantonese opera; what/where/when/how and could/couldn't contribute. Yuen was more frank on camera in 2014 that Directors were obstacles to him. To be his own domain about AAA, he picked stage over film as a teenage. Desired to tell any veteran virtuoso opera performer how and what to do is just hubris for some have never seen, let alone been in those shoes of such performers. Easy-Bake Oven in baking may have an equivalent in Cantonese opera. Cheung Wood Yau was the ready-mixed cake mix for his son, assistant Director Chor Yuen in the 1956 film.
On 4 February 2016, her 103rd birthday, Google Hong Kong's homepage (Google.com.hk) Google Doodle was her illustration by Artist Sophie Diao.