Eternal Xiao Yan Zi

Of late, my father has really enjoyed watching Chinese films on the television while he washes up dishes — if it makes the task more interesting for him, who am I to complain? When he watched Painted Skin yesterday however, the appearance of Zhao Wei reminded me of the first time I ever saw her act, which was all the way back when I was in primary school, and possibly also the first time I really learnt about Mandarin.

The year was around 1999, or the early 2000s, and I remember sitting with my parents in the kitchen as we watched Princess Pearl, or 還珠格格 as it is called in Chinese, on the family computer. One the weekends we would often watch more than one episode, often letting two or three play, with one of my parents sometimes falling asleep halfway through or walking out to do some chore.

It was interesting look into a historical era and its values and fashions, and I really liked the tomboyish main character of Xiaoyanzi (小燕子, played by Zhao Wei) as she challenged the need to act ‘lady-like’, given her new position in life. I remembered telling my mother I wanted headdresses like the court girls, and there was an attempt to fashion one out of cardboard, but it never really got anywhere. I still have an appreciation for those hair accessories and headdresses though — exquisite.


However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. My father went through so many hurdles in order to obtain the episodes of Princess Pearl in a language we could understand — Cantonese. However we never could find the second season in Cantonese, and I would sit and watch intelligibly though the whole season as my parents sometimes stopped to fill me in as they were reading the Chinese subtitles which I could not read.

Mandarin was such a nuisance.

My dad made a tape out of the series’ soundtrack and played it in the car on the way to and from extracurricular activities, and I always enjoyed singing along, or whistling along to the tunes, because obviously I didn’t know any Mandarin. My favourite was Xiaoyanzi’s theme song, ‘有一個姑娘’ (lit. ‘There was a young girl’), and from these songs slowly I developed the idea that I somehow liked the sound of Mandarin better than Cantonese.

Mandarin was so smooth, and versatile for singing, yet Cantonese always sounded so ‘clunky’. Perhaps it’s because there are many more tones in Cantonese, which can make it a more intricate process to sing while still delivering the correct meaning. Mandarin was like a steady flowing stream of water, while Cantonese was like floating down rapids, constantly hitting rocks.

Nonetheless, here we are now, with me at the age Zhao Wei was when she first filmed Princess Pearl — 21 years of age. Zhao is now 38 and a top actress in China, recently also debuting as a record-breaking director. It’s amazing how far she has come since her school days. :)