By Merle Exit
After a lifetime spent in the world of opera, Woodhaven resident Qi Shu Fang has gathered more than her fair share of unique mementos.
But two letters in particular stand out among her collection.
“Artists who draw on the traditions of their ancestors help to ensure the continued vitality of the arts in America,” President George W. Bush wrote her in August 2001.
That same year she received a letter from then U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, congratulating Fang on being selected as a recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship.
Fang is the president of the Peking Opera Co., which travels the world performing.
Peking opera is a stylized Chinese form of the art that uses speech, singing, mime and acrobatics in the performances.
“I have been performing Peking opera all of my life,” Fang said. “I created a stir in Beijing when I acted the lead (male) role in ‘Three Battles with Zhang Yue’e.’ In Japan I am known as one of that country’s most beloved Peking opera stars.”
Born in Shanghai in 1942, Fang began studying Peking opera at the age of 4. She later enrolled at the Shanghai Dramatic School, where she studied with her sister-in-law, a renowned actress and skilled wu-dan, or woman warrior.
Fang later studied with a male teacher and can play roles written for either sex. In Peking opera, roles are highly stylized and actors specialize in either playing men or women.
During the Cultural Revolution in the mid-60s, Chairman Mao’s wife, Madame Jiang Qing, picked the then 18-year-old Fang to perform the female lead role in one of the country’s eight model operas, which were written to glorify the People’s Liberation Army and the bravery of the common man.
Overnight, she became a sensation in China.
Fang won first prize in a competition for rising actors, then garnered praise from the master female impersonator Mei Lan-Fang for her performance in “Fighting Thrice Against Chang Yeuh Wo.” Her performance in the “Flaming Phoenix” won acclaim at Hamburg’s International Drama Festival.
It was in 1988 that she and her husband moved to Woodhaven and established the Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera Company.
Her husband, Ding Meikui, is the company’s vice president and managing director. He comes from a family with four generations’ experience in Peking opera.
The Peking Opera Co.’s mission is to “foster a deeper cultural understanding between East and West,” Fang said.
Performances have taken place in all parts of the country, making history by staging a critically acclaimed complete performance of “The Women Generals of the Yang Family” at the New Victory Theatre on Broadway. Just last year, the Peking Opera Festival took place at Flushing Town Hall where Fang had the leading role.
“Next year,” Fang said, “I will be having the lead role in the Peking Opera Festival.”