Song of The Female Textile Workers, UK-China digital connectivity, is a newly awarded project by UK Research and Innovation in response to the Arts and Humanities Research Council call on UK-China Creative Partnerships: Responding to the longer-term impacts of COVID-19.

The one year project sees the creation of a one-actor performance, led by Wang Rousang, a Chinese national star performer of xiaosheng role (female dressed as a male for a role) at Shanghai Yue Opera House, in collaboration with Shanghai Textile Museum, Leeds Industrial Museum, [email protected] and Yorkshire based digital SME’s Human VR and Dubit. The project will be hosted online, with rehearsals and performances live streamed between Shanghai Yue Opera House, China and [email protected], UK.

Coinciding with Chinese New Year celebrations (12–27 February 2021), this online exhibition presents historical information and six specially created documentary films to highlight commonalities between the UK-China textile industries, whilst telling the stories of industrial and cultural development in Shanghai. There are distinct links to the city of Leeds and Armley Mills, once the world’s largest woollen mill and now Leeds Industrial Museum.

From textile mill to digital theatre

This historical and contemporary footage identifies the connection between the Shanghai textile industry and Shanghai’s All-female Yue Opera. The female textile workers formed China’s first ever female working class and developed their local entertainment, from a rural male sing-song to an urban all-female theatre form. Following mass redundancy in the 1990s, Shanghai’s All-female Yue Opera lost its main audience and has since embraced new digital technologies and a fusion of performing styles, to rejuvenate and maintain popularity across both Shanghai and China.

New fashion and technology

The all female Yue Opera entered Shanghai as a migrant culture from Zhejiang Province. The entertainment form developed and prospered alongside the textile industry, becoming a way of life for the industrial workers. Reforms in the 1990s saw the dismantling of the textile industry across Shanghai, resulting in mass redundancy and staff redeployment. As the textile industry focused on new fashion and technology, and established old factory premises as contemporary arts clusters, Shanghai All-female Yue Opera also adapted. Whilst maintaining traditional performance training, Shanghai All-female Yue Opera is appealing to a new audience through new fashion and technology.

Shanghai story: 20 years of Aunt Stewardesses – part 1

In the early 1990s China was moving from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created in China’ and Shanghai was being transformed, from the manufacturing heart of the country to the new centre for financial and international trade. The textile factories bore the brunt of the change with over 500,000 female workers made redundant.

In 1994 Shanghai Airlines advertised for 14 Air Stewardesses to be recruited from the textile industry. Over 50,000 women applied, and 18 women were recruited. They became known as ‘Aunt Stewardesses’. The interviews and selection became national news and the successful candidates became celebrities.

Shanghai story: 20 years of Aunt Stewardesses – part 2

The original Shanghai TV footage from the 1994 selection process is updated with interviews from the 2014 reunion of the 18 celebrity Aunt Stewardesses. The women tell stories from their recollection of the interview process and their subsequent training and service with Shanghai Airlines.

Shanghai all-female Yue Opera, a feminist perspective

A student attends her first Yue Opera performance, the immersive show ’Fate of Love’, and explains her interest in the All-female performance. Socio-political changes in the early 1900s allowed an All-male entertainment to develop into an All-female performance which, with support from Shanghai’s textile workers, was developed for the new urban working women.

Early performances ‘broke the mould’ of beautiful feminine figures supporting heroic male characters, presenting the female characters as strong and determined individuals. Shanghai All-female Yue Opera continues to represent the urban females and continues to adapt traditional stories to incorporate new female values.

Story of Shanghai Yue Opera with Wang Rousang

Shanghai all-female Yue Opera is traced from its roots to its current position amongst the most popular entertainment forms in China. In exclusive interviews, Shanghai All-female Yue Opera star performer Wang Rousang explains her love of Yue Opera and the training that she has undertaken since her childhood. In all-female productions, Rousang is famous for her xiaosheng (male role) performances.

Rousang is currently developing a new one-actor performance – Song of the Female Textile Workers – in collaboration with this project’s UK partners. The performance will be performed in China and live streamed to the UK later this year.

Project background and development

Song of The Female Textile Workers, UK-China digital connectivity is built on the two awarded Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) projects: AHRC Newton Fund Creative Economy in China, Popular Performance for New Urban Audiences: reconnecting M50 creative cluster with Shanghai All-Female Yue Opera (2018-21), and the AHRC UK-China Partnership Development Fund Bridging the Gaps: mixed reality performance of Chinese opera in Shanghai’s rural and urban heritage sites (2019 and 2020- 2023). All three projects are led by Dr. Haili Ma from the School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds, UK.

Further information on the three projects is available on the University of Leeds website: ‘Song of the Female Textile Workers’ UK-China Digital Connectivity.

The project is continuing to develop and rehearsals for the Song of the Female Textile Workers performance are ongoing. Whilst the performance is not scheduled for completion until August 2021, the latest rehearsal footage (featuring Shanghai Yue Opera performer WANG Rousang) is available to view from Thursday 27 May 2021 on the [email protected] website.

Arts and Humanities Research Council
Shanghai Theatre Academy
East China University of Politic Science and Law
University of Leeds
Shanghai Textile Museum
Leeds Museums and Galleries
Shanghai Yue Opera House