‘The Electric Shadows of Shanghai’ was published in December 2015 as an eBook by Watchword, the digital imprint of Impress Books. I am very pleased to be participating in this blog tour for which Clare Kane has written a guest post. But first you’ll be wanting to find out what this book is about.
It’s 1931 and British diplomat William Graves and his wife, Amelia, are flung headfirst into the enticing, neon-lit streets of Shanghai. As Will helps to maintain the fragile peace between China and Japan, Amelia, alone in a foreign city, seeks solace with a Russian ballet troupe that are more than they seem. Whispers of protest, revolt, even war, buzz through the city as Will is tasked with rooting out Communist propaganda that could push tensions over the edge into war. But the city’s streets hold other intoxicating allures. Will falls into a deep obsession with Feifei, a beautiful silent film star, who is desperate to escape the volatile city and sees Will as her only chance at freedom. As Amelia starts to sense Will’s betrayal and the personal and the political begin to blur, will they lose themselves in the electric shadows of Shanghai?
Rediscovering the lost glamour of Shanghai cinema
In March 1935, an actress’ funeral brought thousands of women to Shanghai’s streets, snaking through the city in a mourning procession several miles long. Some were so moved by the actress’ death they took their own lives in her honour. The actress, Ruan Lingyu, had cemented a special place in the city’s heart through her career of silent movies featuring dazzling leading ladies, doomed romances and family feuds compelling enough to challenge Hollywood’s reign over cinema.
Shanghai’s Golden Age of cinema is little remembered these days: the proletarian cinema of the Mao years, the worldwide success of Jackie Chan and the sparkling consumerist sheen of modern Chinese cinema have painted over the celluloid evidence of Shanghai’s time as the Paris of the East. But back in the 1920s and 1930s Shanghai was the pulsing heart of Chinese cinema, producing original, classy cinema featuring devastatingly charismatic actors so popular that, at least in Ruan’s case, their deaths sparked city-wide grief.
It all started with Hollywood – just like today, China was a major market for American movies in the early 20th century. Films would be released just shortly after their U.S. premieres and crowds flocked to Shanghai’s cinemas to watch the likes of Mae West light up the screens. Then in the 1920s a crop of Chinese-run studios started to produce Hollywood-style features with a Shanghai slant. Stars were billed as equivalents to their Hollywood peers: Ruan Lingyu was China’s Greta Garbo. Actresses played a key role in shaking up conservative forces, encouraging metropolitan women to throw off their sartorial shackles by bobbing their hair and wearing qipaos slit to the thigh. The actress’ curled hair and red lips featured on magazine covers and in ads for everything from champagne to cold cream.
Many of them had life stories worthy of one of their gritty but glamorous characters. Zhou Xuan, a singer and actress whose perfectly arranged features adorn countless tourist prints, was an orphan who attempted suicide and was eventually committed to an asylum. Ruan Lingyu, born into poverty and later impregnated by the son of the rich family her maid mother served, starred in a series of socially-minded films before committing suicide at just twenty-four. She left a note blaming the gossip-hungry press for her desperation.
Following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 Shanghai movies diverted from the Hollywood model to become a vehicle of protest. Directors didn’t shy away from social reality, telling tales of poverty and prostitution from Shanghai’s streets. At its peak, the glittering lights of Shanghai even attracted Madame Mao, who starred in a number of films under her stage name Blue Apple.
A quick YouTube search will bring up films such as New Women, Street Angel and The Goddess. These films lift the lid on Shanghai’s neon-lit years of vice, war and glamour. But even better, Shanghai’s glorious celluloid history is still hidden in pockets around the city. The Cathay cinema, first opened in 1932, boasts a brilliant Art Deco exterior, even if the inside has lost much of its charm. It’s easy to miss the Zhejiang cinema near Fuzhou Lu, but this building, designed by Hungarian architect Laszlo Hudec, is worth a second look.
The Shanghai Film Museum on Caoxi Bei Lu brings Shanghai’s dazzling cinematic history to life through photographs, costumes and memorabilia. The exhibits go right up to the current day, but it’s easy to get caught up in the Golden Age. There is also the Shanghai Film Park, a much newer addition to the city’s movie history, which boasts a mock-up of Nanjing Road in the 1930s. And on Duolun Lu in Hongkou you’ll find the Old Film Cafe where the classics are sometimes screened.
A walk down the Bund, eyes trained away from the 21st century splendour of the Pudong skyline, can convince you that Shanghai’s roaring 20s never ended. But if the Shanghai winter proves too chilly for all this exploration, the sofa isn’t a bad place to rediscover the city’s faded glamour. From classic 1930s’ flick Shanghai Express to 2010 thriller Shanghai starring John Cusack and Gong Li and the slow-moving, elegant sweep of Old Shanghai that is The White Countess, Hollywood has tried to capture the magic of the city several times over. But Chinese cinema still does it better. A remake of Dangerous Liaisons set in 1930s Shanghai and starring Zhang Ziyi is a feast of stiff-necked qipaos, glinting chandeliers and unbearable sexual tension. Lust, Caution, based on the story by Shanghai writer Eileen Chang, combines passion with politics in a dangerous, sexually charged and cruel film about Japanese-controlled Shanghai.
Chang herself said between memory and reality there were “awkward discrepancies” and no doubt 1930s’ Shanghai looks more glamorous on the big screen than it did from the Bund. But a glimpse into the city’s film archive might just illuminate how it came to be the Shanghai we know now, or at the very least reveal exactly what Marlene Dietrich meant when she purred: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”
About Clare Kane
Clare Kane studied Chinese at the University of Oxford. Following this she worked as a financial journalist for Reuters in London and Madrid. She is a Fellow at marketing communications group WPP and currently based in Shanghai, where she writes about culture, travel and Chinese history in her spare time.