Shanghai Divas, part 1 | #music | #history

Western-influenced music first came to the Republic of China in the 1920s, specifically to Shanghai, also known as the Paris of the east, a city like no other, cosmopolitan, decadent, and sophisticated. The New Culture Movement of the 20s evoked a lasting interest in Western music.

A number of Chinese musicians had returned from studying abroad to perform Western classical music, basing their compositions on a western musical notation system. The Kuomintang tried to sponsor modern music adoptions via the Shanghai Conservatory of Music despite the ongoing political crisis. Symphony orchestras were formed in most major cities and performed to a wide audience in the concert halls and on the radio. Many of the performers added jazz influences to traditional music, adding xylophones, saxophones and violins, among other instruments. Names like Lu Wencheng, Chang Loo, Bai Hong, Li Xianglan and Zhou Xuan - dubbed by the press and public as “the Golden Throat”- were some of the most renowned singers in early 20th century in China. They also played a prominent role in developing the Cinema of China.

Li Xianglan

They dominated the 1930s and 40s, up until the Communist Party of China denounced mandopop as pornography. After the 1942 Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, a large-scale campaign was launched in the Communist controlled areas to adapt folk music to create revolutionary songs to educate the largely illiterate rural population on party goals. Musical forms considered superstitious or anti-revolutionary were repressed, and harmonies and bass lines were added to traditional songs. One example is “The East is Red”, a folk song from northern Shaanxi which was adapted into a nationalist hymn. In 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was established by the communist party many of the famous performers from the 30s and 40s fled Shanghai to destinations like Taiwan and North Point in Hong Kong, some stayed in the mainland.

Bai Hong was despised by the Communists for her American style of singing and persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Chang Loo, on the other hand, escaped to Hong Kong and continued her career there for many years. Li Xiang La who was born and raised in Japanese-occupied Manchuria by Japanese parents was a mega-watt star in both Japan and China during the war. But afterwards, she was arrested by the Chinese government for treason and collaboration with the Japanese. However, she was cleared of all charges since she was not a Chinese national, and thus the Chinese government could not try her for treason. And before long, in 1946, she settled in Japan and launched a new acting career there, under the name Yoshiko Yamaguchi. In the 1950s she established her acting as Shirley Yamaguchi in Hollywood and on Broadway, she also appeared in several films made in Hong Kong.