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Transsexual Blogfest

Michael Darragh posts on Living in China about 'a sudden fascination with transexuals' in the Mainland and on China related blogs. He also links to some photos of Korean transexual Harisu that are far more revealing than the one posted on this site: here and especially here.

But nobody has mentioned China's first celebrity transexual, the dancer Jin Xing. Below is an article about her that I wrote for That's Shanghai magazine in April 2000. Please excuse the slightly jolly tone of the thing, but the facts are all there.

What's changed since the article was published? Jin Xing has adopted a baby. What hasn't changed? Shanghai is still a cultural desert.

Shanghai Tango
Beijing’s favorite dancer Jin Xing shakes up Shanghai

Jin Xing was a man until 1996 and she has only been in Shanghai few months, but that hasn’t stopped the queen of Chinese modern dance from charming the pants off the crusty city fathers of China’s biggest metropolis.

The Shanghai Opera House -- a Western opera performance troupe not a building -- invited Ms Jin to Shanghai in February this year to act as creative director of the Opera’s dance troupe. Since she arrived, she has fired 34 members of the original 50-strong troupe, introduced the remaining 16 to the latest international ideas about dance, and arranged the premier of a new piece called Shanghai Tango (Hai Shang Feng) scheduled to open in the Shanghai Grand Theater on June 16.

So who is this lady?

Ms. Jin is China’s most celebrated modern dancer. Coming from the unlikely background of an ethnic-Korean military family in Shenyang, the 31-year-old artist has performed and choreographed in Beijing, New York, Brussels and London. She has received the American Dance Festival award for best choreographer (New York 1991), trained under dance luminaries like Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, run her own nightclub in Beijing, and been a PLA colonel in an army dance troupe. She speaks Korean, Mandarin, English, Italian and French. She has worked as an in-house choreographer for Italian TV (RAI Uno) and taught dance as a professor at the Belgium Royal Dance Academy in Brussels. But the glamorous, feminine mistress of movement is also famous because she spent the first 27 years her life as a male.

Although there are now some 30 to 60 sex change operations performed in China every year, Jin’s "big change" in 1995 was extremely well-publicized because she had already made a name for herself as an innovator in the field of dance -- traditionally a conservative state-supported art form limited to ballet, theme-park-style ethnic minority performances and mincing about with guns in Revolutionary Operas. Jin was one of the first dancers to break away from traditional forms after exposure to foreign dancers in the Guangdong Dance Academy where she studied in 1987.

Like China’s early rock and jazz musicians and contemporary painters, moving away from establishment art carried the risk of official disapproval. It also necessitated leaving the state-subsidized comfort zone of official cultural organizations and making a living in the open market, vulnerable to the whims of a fickle public and of China’s meddlesome arts authorities.

Jin made time to for herself to work without financial pressures by winning scholarships to study in New York from the American Dance Festival and the Asian Cultural Council of America, based on her performances at the Guangdong Dance Academy. She excelled in the Big Apple’s competitive environment, creating her first major work in 1989, relevantly entitled Crying Dragon (Ku Long).

In 1991, she choreographed Half Dream (Ban Meng), the production that won her the American Dance Festival’s Best Choreographer award for that year.

She spent 1992 teaching and performing at the Belgium Royal Dance Academy in Brussels, and then returned to China where she performed, ran dance workshops, and directed a pop concert by Cheng Fangyuan, the Mainland’s first singer to perform English songs.

In 1996, the year after her operation, Jin set up the Beijing Modern Dance Ensemble, China’s first independent dance troupe. The company produced works such Black and Red (Hong Yu Hei) and Sunflower (Xiang Ri Kui) both of which were well received by a curious public and became financial and critical successes. Jin went on to demonstrate her abilities in other performing arts: she acted the lead female role in Cut Love (Duan Wan), a play by the Central Academy of Drama; she directed a Chinese version of Sound of Music (Yinyue Zhi Sheng), the first Broadway style musical in China. In 1998 Jin created and directed Drunken Beauty Forever (Gui Fei Zui Jiu), a contemporary dance drama adapted from the Peking Opera Drunken Beauty. This was followed in 1999 by Shaolin Warriors, in which she directed and choreographed a Kung Fu show by the famous fighting monks of the Shaolin Temple. She also worked with the Shanghai Kun Opera Troupe choreographing an adaptation of the Chinese Opera Mudan Ting (Peony Pavilion).

Shanghai Tango , her first performance with the Shanghai Opera House dance company, is a revue of new and old pieces, scheduled for June 16 and 17 in the Shanghai Grand Theater.

In preparation for the show, the troupe is rehearsing everyday. Many of the performers have little or no experience of modern dance, but Jin is confident that they will be able to adapt their classical training to suit more contemporary styles of movement.
"These dancers are mostly from other places, but they are like the Shanghainese people," says Jin. "You have to show them your ability before they respect you. But then they are eager to learn."

The new troupe’s Shanghai debut will be followed in October by Du Liniang, a new adaptation from Peony Pavilion. In the same month Jin will direct and produce a Sino-Italian joint production of Carmina Burana, with singers from the Rome Opera House and other performers from Shanghai.

The Shanghai Opera House has accommodated Jin in a spacious apartment overlooking the picturesquely dilapidated Opera House and its palm-tree filled garden, surrounded by European style three-story terraced houses, and a forest of neon-clad skyscrapers. Jin looks out at the concrete jungle with the ambitious smile of a Julius Caesar of dance.
"I am really excited to be here. I like people in Beijing, but Shanghai is a place to get things done!"

But will Shanghai’s fashion-minded -- some say vacuous -- public be persuaded to part with the price of a new pair of shoes to watch a contemporary dance performance?
Jin has more faith in marketing than a horde of dot com investors:

"Shanghainese people really do follow fashion, so if you promote the show properly, people will come. If you do it in a commercial way, you will attract large audiences."

She also believes that Shanghai will turn into an "Asian center of finance business and culture in the next ten years", and this will mean that Shanghai’s cultural life will pick up significantly.

The signs are indeed there: Jin’s invitation to Shanghai was supported by the city’s Cultural Bureau, an organization not previously known for its enthusiasm for alternative arts. Jin is convinced that the Shanghai City Authorities are becoming increasingly progressive:

"They want experts from all fields to come to Shanghai now—industrial, financial and even cultural. This city is changing. Shanghai is catching up."

It’s about time too. The spectacular Shanghai Grand Theater is unmatched in any other Chinese city, but it is frequently empty. Theater-goers in Beijing can see more productions in a month than their Shanghainese counterparts see in a year. But with property prices falling low enough to attract struggling artists, and an apparently open-minded attitude on the part of the city government, what Jin calls "China’s most livable city" may yet steal some of old Beijing’s cultural fire.

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