The lead­ing ladies of old Shang­hai

Ahead of the up­com­ing In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day on Mar 8, China Daily USA takes a look at some of the most fa­mous Chi­nese celebri­ties from the past

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By ZHANG KUN in Shang­hai

zhangkun@chi­ cn

In a time when there were no such things as cos­metic pro­ce­dures, eye­lash ex­ten­sions and com­plex skin serums, China’s fe­male celebri­ties of the past were best known for their poise, im­pec­ca­ble fash­ion sense and au na­turel looks, clas­sic traits that till to­day are still revered by Chi­nese peo­ple.

The fas­ci­na­tion with their time­less beauty had resur­faced dur­ing Chi­nese New Year this year when a WeChat user posted a pic­ture of an old al­bum con­tain­ing pho­tos of a gor­geous lady from the yesteryears. The im­age promptly went vi­ral on Chi­nese so­cial me­dia and count­less users soon con­trib­uted to the trend­ing topic by shar­ing im­ages of their grand­moth­ers.

Here are some of the most prom­i­nent fe­male fig­ures in old Shang­hai who were best known for their nat­u­ral beauty and flair in the arts and en­ter­tain­ment scene.

One of the most fa­mous Chi­nese stars of silent movies in the 1930s, Ruan is of­ten com­pared to the leg­endary Amer­i­can ac­tress Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, not sim­ply be­cause of her se­duc­tive curves and co­quet­tish man­ners, but be­cause she too took her own life, and at a very young age of just 24.

Ruan was not con­sid­ered to be the typ­i­cal “pretty face” ac­tress un­like many of her in­dus­try peers but she was a highly ver­sa­tile one who had taken on myr­iad roles through­out her very short but il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer.

She started her ca­reer play­ing the roles of des­ti­tute women and pros­ti­tutes be­fore mov­ing on to de­pict strong-willed and re­bel­lious char­ac­ters who all had one thing in com­mon — the abil­ity to show com­pas­sion in the face of per­se­cu­tion and mis­for­tune. Be­cause of this, film crit­ics of­ten said that she had a dis­po­si­tion for “sup­pressed sad­ness”. In her nine years of act­ing, she had starred in 29 films, and this feat ce­mented her place among the sil­ver screen leg­ends in the early 20th cen­tury.

Born to a father who died dur­ing her child­hood and a mother who worked as a maid, Ruan’s foray into the en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness started early at the age of 16. One of the main rea­sons for this was that she needed a job to sup­port her­self and her mother.

Zhang Damin, the youngest son in a wealthy fam­ily — the one which Ruan’s mother worked at — fell in love with Ruan dur­ing this time and it was his brother who kick­started her act­ing ca­reer af­ter in­tro­duc­ing her to a film stu­dio.

Zhang, a hardcore gam­bler, was later dis­owned by his fam­ily and re­lied on the bud­ding ac­tress to pay off his debts. Ruan even­tu­ally left him for a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man named Tang Jis­han, who bought a three-storey house so that they could live to­gether. Their old res­i­dence is still stand­ing at No. 9, Lane 1124 Xinzha Road in Jing’an district.

Driven by jeal­ousy and bit­ter­ness, Zhang ha­rassed Ruan and threat­ened to black­mail his for­mer lover, say­ing that he would claim she was his con­cu­bine. Zhang even filed a law­suit to de­mand repa­ra­tion from her. The me­dia caught wind of Zhang’s an­tics and Ruan soon be­came the first celebrity in mod­ern China to suf­fer from bad press.

On the eve of In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day on 1935, Ruan suc­cumbed to the pres­sure and scru­tiny of the pub­lic and the me­dia, and de­cided to take her own life by con­sum­ing bar­bi­tu­rates. She left be­hind a sui­cide note that said, “Gos­sip is a fear­ful thing.”

The peo­ple of Shang­hai were over­whelmed by grief over her sud­den demise and hun­dreds of thou­sands of mourn­ers lined the roads dur­ing the fu­neral pro­ces­sion. Lu Xun, one of mod­ern China’s great­est au­thors, wrote an es­say that blamed the me­dia for be­ing re­spon­si­ble for Ruan’s death.

In 1992, Stan­ley Kwan, a Hong Kong di­rec­tor, made a movie ti­tled Cen­ter Stage about Ruan. Fa­mous Hong Kong ac­tress Mag­gie Che­ung played the role of the Chi­nese thes­pian and Che­ung’s per­for­mance won her the Best Ac­tress Award at the Ber­lin Film Fes­ti­val.

Some­times called “But­ter­fly Hu” ( the English trans­la­tion of her Chi­nese name), this ac­tress started her ca­reer around the same time as Ruan and was known for be­ing a dili­gent worker who would travel all the way to Bei­jing from Shang­hai to im­prove her Man­darin and learn Pek­ing opera from the leg­endary Mei Lan­fang.

Hu had starred in some of China’s most fa­mous shows, in­clud­ing the 1928 silent flick The Burn­ing of the Red Lotus Tem­ple which is known as the movie that first started the mar­tial arts craze in the film in­dus­try. Hu had starred in 18 of its 19 episodes. She also had a role in Sing-Song Girl Red Pe­ony, China’s first movie with sound that was re­leased in 1933. In the same year, Hu be­came known as China’s “first movie queen”, cour­tesy of a pub­lic poll con­ducted by Star Daily.

To­ward the end of her ca­reer, Hu was known for her el­derly women roles in Hong Kong. Her as­tute per­for­mances won her the Best Ac­tress Award at the sev­enth Asian Film Fes­ti­val in Tokyo in 1960. She re­tired in Hong Kong in 1966.

On the per­sonal front, Hu mar­ried Pan Yousheng, a young busi­ness­man from Shang­hai, in 1935. Their wed­ding was dubbed as the most im­por­tant so­cial event of the year and was at­tended by a galaxy of film stars and celebri­ties. It was with the sup­port of her hus­band that Hu man­aged to con­tinue with her film ca­reer in the main­land and in Hong Kong dur­ing the Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion.

Hu was later ap­proached by the Ja­panese to star in sev­eral pro­duc­tions and this re­sulted in her mov­ing to the war-time cap­i­tal of Chongqing. Dur­ing her time there, Hu was cap­tured and forced to be­come the mis­tress to pow­er­ful spy mas­ter Dai Li. How­ever, Dai died in a plane crash in 1946 and Hu was fi­nally re­united with her hus­band, who died in 1958. Fol­low­ing his death, Hu moved to Van­cou­ver, Canada in 1975 to join her son. In 1989, Hu died in Van­cou­ver af­ter suf­fer­ing from a stroke.

The ac­tress had resided in sev­eral lo­ca­tions across Shang­hai and the one which she spent the most amount of time in is the house on 52, Lane 1906 Sichuan Road North. This was also the home she lived in when she first rose to star­dom.

One of the big­gest Chi­nese stars in the 1930s who was fa­mous for her act­ing and singing, Zhou had starred in more than 40 movies and recorded over 200 songs be­fore she died in a men­tal hos­pi­tal in Shang­hai at the age of 39.

Many of the fa­mil­iar melodies from 1930-40s Shang­hai were orig­i­nally per­formed by her, who is to­day still widely re­mem­bered as the “Golden Voice”. Con­tem­po­rary mu­si­cians have fre­quently mixed her old tunes with elec­tronic dance mu­sic, a tes­ta­ment to the time­less al­lure of her songs.

Zhou had en­joyed singing since she was a child. In 1931, she joined the Bright Moon Singing and Dance Group led by Li Jin­hui. In a time when record­ing and broad­cast­ing tech­nol­ogy were still new and for­eign to the world, she quickly mas­tered the use of the mi­cro­phone, learn­ing how to op­ti­mize her voice to de­velop a dis­tinc­tive style that cap­ti­vated lis­ten­ers.

As an ac­tress, she of­ten played the role of sweet and in­no­cent young women be­fore mov­ing to por­tray Chi­nese beau­ties from an­cient clas­sics. The show that is known to have pro­pelled her to na­tional star­dom is the 1937 movie Street An­gel. Be­sides play­ing the role of the hero­ine, Zhou had also sang two of the theme songs, Four Sea­sons Song and The Wan­der­ing Songstress.

Fol­low­ing the suc­cess of Street An­gel, Zhou en­tered the most pro­duc­tive pe­riod of her ca­reer in Shang­hai and was in 1941 dubbed “the Queen of Films”. How­ever, she was quick to de­cline the honor, say­ing that too much fame was not good for her.

Zhou’s life story is one that is as dra­matic as those seen in her movies. She was raised by adop­tive par­ents and had through­out her life searched for her bi­o­log­i­cal father and mother. How­ever, it was only af­ter her death that their iden­ti­ties were dis­cov­ered.

When she was three years old, her rel­a­tive, an opium ad­dict, sold her to a Wang fam­ily for money to fuel his ad­dic­tion. When the Wang cou­ple di­vorced, she was taken in by a Zhou fam­ily.

In con­trast to her glam­orous ca­reer, her per­sonal life was marred with failed mar­riages, chil­dren born out of wed­lock and sui­cide at­tempts, the com­bi­na­tion of which is be­lieved to have con­trib­uted to her men­tal­break­down in 1951 while she was shoot­ing the film Dove of Peace in Shang­hai. She spent the rest of her life in a men­tal asy­lum, be­fore dy­ing of en­cephali­tis in 1957.

Her for­mer res­i­dence is the flat on the sixth floor of the Brook­side Apart­ment, at 699-731 Huashan Road in Jing’an district.

She might have been an au­thor in­stead of a film or mu­sic star but Chang was nev­er­the­less a woman who en­joyed celebrity sta­tus in Shang­hai as she fre­quently used the city as the set­ting in most of her ac­claimed nov­els and es­says. She re­mains highly pop­u­lar and idol­ized to­day, pri­mar­ily be­cause of her per­son­al­ity and dis­tinc­tive writ­ing style.

Rec­og­nized as one of the most im­por­tant Chi­nese writ­ers in the 20th cen­tury, Chang is fa­mous for her sto­ries that dwell on the ten­sions be­tween cou­ples in love. Even though ma­jor changes took place in China’s so­ci­ety and ide­ol­ogy in the early 20th cen­tury, Chang man­aged to fo­cus her nar­ra­tive on the mun­dane and ev­ery­day el­e­ments in life, and this sub­se­quently earned her crit­i­cism for be­ing obliv­i­ous to the political cli­mate at that time.

Born to an aris­to­cratic fam­ily in Shang­hai, Chang’s father was an opium ad­dict while her mother was largely ab­sent dur­ing the grow­ing up years. But de­spite the lack of parental guid­ance, Chang turned out to be a child prodigy who ex­celled in Chi­nese and English.

In 1939, Chang had gained ad­mis­sion into the Univer­sity of Lon­don on a full schol­ar­ship but was un­able to at­tend be­cause of the on­go­ing war. She ended up study­ing English lit­er­a­ture in Hong Kong in­stead and in 1941 re­turned to Shang­hai where her lit­er­ary ca­reer took off.

Some of her most ac­claimed works, such as Love in a Fallen City, The Golden Cangue and Lust, Cau­tion were all cre­ated in the 1940s in Shang­hai. Crit­ics of­ten said that her works re­flected a lit­er­ary ma­tu­rity far be­yond her age. While mak­ing sharp ob­ser­va­tions about hu­man­ity and the in­evitable dark­ness of des­tiny, Chang had a dis­tinc­tive writ­ing style that of­ten re­lied on vivid analo­gies, colorful de­scrip­tions and a nar­ra­tive de­void of moral judg­ments.

In 1944, Chang was mar­ried to Hu Lancheng, a man who was 14 years her se­nior. She re­mained loyal to the man even though he was ac­cused of col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Ja­panese in­vaders. But Chang ended the mar­riage when Hu’s con­stant in­volve­ment with other women came to light. She mi­grated to Hong Kong and then to the United States in the 1950s. She con­tin­ued with her writ­ing in the US but never achieved much recog­ni­tion there.

Chang was re­mar­ried in 1956, this time to Amer­i­can screen­writer Fer­di­nand Rey­her. When Rey­her died in 1967, Chang lived in seclu­sion till she was found dead by her land­lord in her Los An­ge­les apart­ment in 1995.

Her most fa­mous res­i­dence in Shang­hai can be found at 195 Changde Road, Jing’an district.

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