During the 1920s and 30s, Shanghai’s movie, music and fashion industries started to take off. Modelled on the fashion of Western countries and imitating the ‘star-making factories’ that produced starlets and sirens became the driving force behind the Chinese entertainment industry. The result was a generation of actresses – from the traditionally demure to the modern seductress – that have become legends for both their successful careers and scandalous personal lives.
by: Coco Shen & Cecilia Chan
Special Thanks to the Shanghai History Museum
The Establishment of Record Companies
Shanghai was the first city to introduce the music record in China. In 1889, gramophones were imported along with a variety of other foreign products and sold by foreign firms in the city at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1908, Pathé Records – an international record label and producer of phonographs from France – set up their Shanghai subsidiary, Pathé Orient. This marked the beginning of China’s record industry.
This arrival was followed by a glut of record companies rushing to set up shop in China’s most glamorous city. By the end of 1926 a staggering 30 companies specializing in records and record players had set up business in Shanghai. The three biggest players – Pathé Records, RCA Victor (America) and Great China Records (China) – dominated the market with the highest volume of record production.
In 1927, Li Jinhui, dubbed the “Father of Chinese Popular Music,” produced the first pop song in China called ‘Drizzle’ (MaoMaoYu), which was sung by his then 18-year-old daughter, Li Minghui. The song’s unprecedented style was immediately made into a record by Pathé Records, and was broadcasted through radio and gramophones throughout Shanghai, spurring the advent of the nation’s pop music industry.
It wasn’t until the 30s that pop music gained widespread acclaim with famous singers like Zhou Xuan, Li Xianglan, Bai Hong, Yao Lee, Bai Guang and Wu Yingyin making pop music records. Their songs are now classic and are well-known to Chinese people around the world. They revolutionized the Chinese music industry, and many Chinese turn to these hits to relive the legendary old Shanghai.
The Second Hollywood
In 1896, only two years after the first motion picture was screened to the public at the Chicago 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, China’s first short film debuted at a teahouse in Shanghai, marking the city as the epicenter of the nation’s movie industry. The proceeding two to three decades witnessed the proliferation of motion picture development in Shanghai, with domestic film companies creating their own films and subsequent celebrity culture. Movie theaters in Shanghai were never far behind those in Hollywood, most of the time premiering films that had only been screening for a week in America. The introduction of Hollywood culture to Shanghai altered the fabric of the younger generations. From fashion to lifestyle choices, the framework of western life spread like wildfire throughout the country’s metropolitan cities. Women began to perm their hair, style their makeup and wear high heels to emulate the starlets that littered the silver screens. Chinese lifestyles began to depart from traditionally conservative pastimes and become more concerned with frivolous pursuits: people began to date, party, go to bars, dance and live together outside of wedlock. The lifestyles projected by Hollywood films quickly became the how-to guide for Shanghai’s young and fashionable.
The post-1930 era is often referred to as the first “golden period” of Chinese contemporary cinema, with the cinematic movement continuing to revolve around western-influenced Shanghai. Movie stars like Hu Die, Ruan Lingyu and Zhou Xuan enjoyed the earliest examples of fan-fueled stardom and celebrity culture. The American influence continued to be felt with burgeoning markets for magazines, clothes, and the beauty industry.
The Wandering Songtress Zhou Xuan
Music played a prominent role in the development of Chinese cinema, and Singer Zhou Xuan was groundbreaking as the first singer-actress. Popularly known in China as the “Golden Voice,” Zhou quickly became one of the most admired – and profitable – singers of the gramophone era and remains one of the iconic figures of Chinese pop music. Born in 1920 in Changzhou, her signature ‘nightingale-like’ voice was known for its pairings with the er hu – a traditional Chinese two-stringed bowed instrument. Her classic looks and her appetite for the big stage saw her turn to acting, and she would later be celebrated for performing songs from her own movies.
Unfortunately, Zhou’s real-life story of her rise to fame and ensuing Hollywood-inspired stardom echoes the lives of a few western starlets of her generation, namely Marilyn Monroe. Adopted at a young age, Zhou never knew her parents or the date of her birth. In order to make a living from a very young age, Zhou would have to perform at up to 10 to 20 different venues a day, which would leave her exhausted and hoarse. Through her most famous years, Zhou led a life marked by failed marriages, betrayal, illegitimate children, and a number of nervous breakdowns that eventually landed her in a mental institution until an untimely death aged 39.
The Sex Symbol – Bai Guang
Until this day, the legendary Bai Guang remains one of the most controversial women in China’s history. Born in Beijing, she moved to Shanghai after a short stint in Japan. At a time when light, higher female voices were most popular, Bai’s magnetic alto shined in its singularity. Although her music was described as immoral and ‘decadent’ by tabloids, the criticism never hampered her popularity. Tickets to her solo concerts in Lyceum Theater were snapped up for up to 3000 yuan apiece, and while at the same price as Zhou Xuan’s, her shows were almost always sold out.
Her provocative and sensual lyrics, coupled with her seductive looks – with her voluminous and wavy hair, thick eyebrows, often photographed with a rose hanging from her red lips – marked her out as a rebel against conservatism. Her most popular movie roles were as erotic and dangerous temptresses, while her scandalous off-screen relationships with a Japanese movie producer and American pilot consistently made tabloid headlines. Bai Guang was a woman very much cut from the same cloth as Marilyn Monroe.
Fashion – Forward Actress Tan Ying
Among the vibrant and varied celebrities of the 30s, Tan Ying stood out with her unique and mysterious style – her signature smokey-eye make-up was regarded as avant-garde, and is still fashion to this day. In 1932, Tan stared in the first silent film, “Regret For False Step.” The 17-year-old starlet’s subtle performance impressed viewers, but it was the film’s basis in real events from Tan Ying’s life gave the movie a subtext that had people flooding theaters to watch it: the tale about the extramarital affair between a director and his actress was based on Tan Ying’s personal relationship with the film’s director. Tickets sold out instantly and Tan’s name was forever marked in people’s memory.
While Tan Ying is celebrated for her varied and powerful portrayals alongside other noteworthy actors of her generation, such as Sun Yu and Zhao Dan, she is mostly remembered for her high profile and gossip-laden personal life. She was the constant subject of tabloid headlines: a regular of Shanghai’s bar and club scene, she lived with a movie director who fathered her two sons out of wedlock and was involved in a scandalous lawsuit. Her boldness and self-assurance has made her the leading feminist figure of her generation.
Ruan Lingyu and Hu Die
The two most famous stars of the silent film era were Ruan Lingyu and Hu Die. In traditional Chinese film, their contrasting styles came to represent distinct typecasts of Shanghainese women and influenced proceeding eras of Chinese film actresses. Ruan was known for her slight frame and was regarded as a serious and sensitive actress, while Hu was revered for her sweet looks and her ability to sing and dance.
Inspired by America’s Academy Awards ceremony, Shanghai held its own awards show in 1933 to honor the nation’s best actresses. As expected, Ruan and Hu’s names appeared in the top three. The influence of these two actresses grew to the extent that fans divided themselves into two partisan camps of ‘Yu fans’ and ‘Die fans’ in support of their favorite. The actresses themselves, however, never entered into a rivalry for they deeply respected each other’s work.
Hu Die was famous for commenting on her appreciation for Ruan Lingyu: “Ruan Lingyu can play my role, but I can’t play hers.”People also liked to compare Hu and Ruan to Xue Baochai and Lin Daiyu – two characters whose lives end very differently in the classic Chinese novel ‘A Dream of Red Mansions’. Hu Die, a full-figured actress with a bright personality, was easygoing and good with people.
On set, she was revered for her patience and good temperament, so much so that directors nicknamed her ‘the good girl.’ She moved to Vancouver in search of a better life and an escape from the scrutiny that her fame attracted, in Canada she found what she’s looking for and settled down.
Ruan Lingyu’s life, on the other hand, did not follow such a happy projection. Born into a poverty-stricken family, she had to move in with the family for which her mother was serving as a maid. After she grew up, her life was wrought with failed relationships and marriages; not very different from the unfortunate roles she played in her movies. After a series of highly publicized nervous breakdowns, she took her life at 25, allegedly leaving a suicide note that read: “Gossip is a fearful thing”, a pointed indictment of the tabloids that ruined her life. Hu and Ruan worked together for the first time in the movie ‘The White Cloud Pagoda,’ which gave them the opportunity to become friends. Unfortunately, their friendship was short-lived as their lives went separate ways.