Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Cinderella in Chinatown: Seeking Identity and Cultural Values in Year of the Fish

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Cinderella in Chinatown: Seeking Identity and Cultural Values in Year of the Fish

Article excerpt

The tale of Cinderella has seen some 250 film adaptations (iftf.uwinnipeg. ca), most of which are based on versions by Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and other Western European variants. American director David Kaplan's Year of the Fish (2007) provides us with the first adaptation of the Chinese variant of the ninth-century Cinderella story, "Ye Xian" (also called "Yeh-Shen" or "Sheh Hsein," all referring to the heroine).1 The tale shares affinities with the classical versions in both theme and plot. Ye Xian is mistreated by her stepmother after her father's death. She catches a goldfish and takes good care of it. The fish jumps out of the pond and rests on the bank when it sees Ye Xian. But the stepmother kills the fish. Advised by an old man who appears to her in a dream, Ye Xian hides the fish's bones in her room and gets whatever she wants by praying to the bones. She manages to attend the village festival but hurries off when she is recognized by her stepfamily. She loses one shoe, which is sold to a neighboring kingdom and bought by the king. The king finds Ye Xian and they get married (Jameson 75-77).

Year of the Fish moves the ancient Chinese tale to New York City's Chinatown in the twenty-first century. Ye Xian illegally immigrates from mainland China to the United States in the hope of earning money to cure her ailing father. She thinks she will be working in the beauty salon run by her late mother's cousin, Mrs. Su, but the salon turns out to be a massage parlor that provides sex services. Refusing to prostitute herself, Ye Xian is treated cruelly by Mrs. Su. She also has to deal with constant humiliation from an unsympathetic sex worker, Hong Ji, and with frequent harassment from Mrs. Su's brother, Vinnie. Her major sources of joy and comfort are a goldfish given to her by the fortune teller, Auntie Yaga, and the music she overhears from a young Chinese American musician, Johnny, whom she met on her first day in Chinatown. As a punishment for Ye Xian's disobedience, Mrs. Su and Hong Ji kill the fish. Ye Xian takes the fish bones to Auntie Yaga, seeking her help. She reunites with Johnny, gains her freedom with the help of Johnny's grandmother, and leaves her stepfamily, who then all feel at a loss.

When talking about the adaptation of fairy tale to film, Pauline Greenhill and Sidney Eve Matrix hold the view that adaptors can "create new tales to serve contemporary needs" (11). Their view is echoed by Jack Zipes, who notes the importance for adaptors to address social and political issues (14). Adaptors may change the context of the tale to explore pressing issues. Linda Hutcheon alerts us to the effects of such a change: "Major shifts in a story's context-that is, for example, in a national setting or time period-can change radically how the transposed story is interpreted, ideologically and literally" (28). What issues does Kaplan address in Year of the Fish? What new interpretations are given with the shift in the story's context from an ancient Chinese village to contemporary Chinatown in America?

As a "cultural enclave" in America, Chinatown has been influenced by local culture and Chinese immigrants have been confronted with cultural choice (Du 240). By situating the conflicts between Ye Xian and her stepfamily in contemporary New York City's Chinatown, the film brings to the fore the issues of acculturation and cultural identification. By retaining and enhancing the role of the fish and by showing Ye Xian's filial piety and self-respect, the film foregrounds the significance of traditional Chinese culture in a new context. What's more, by making Ye Xian go to Auntie Yaga for help and thus experience dangers and hardships that recall those undergone by Vasilissa under Baba Yaga in the Russian variant "Vasilissa the Beautiful" (see Heiner 302-11), the film calls our attention to Ye Xian's agency and strong-mindedness.

I am interested in the ways that Kaplan draws from the traditional tale and adapts it in the film to a contemporary context to represent different value systems, which are played out in terms of tensions between traditional Chinese culture and contemporary consumer/individualist society, as well as the characters' identification as Chinese or American. …

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