Shanghai Divas, part 2 | #music | #history | #legends

Zhou Xuan, like two other singers of her time, namely Billie Holyday and Edith Piaf, had a desperate and sad but somehow glorious life. She was born Su Pu, in Changzhou, Jiangsu in the year 1918.

Her impoverished family soon sold her to a procurer, who placed her in a brothel, to be trained as a courtesan. But when she was 2 or 3, a Shanghai couple named Zhou saw her and were so charmed by the little girl that they adopted her, giving their daughter the name Zhou Xiaohong. She displayed exceptional vocal promise at an early age, and her family had the means to get her some formal training to go with her talent. In 1931, she joined Li Jinhui’s Ming Yue Society, a Shanghai musical company.

In her first performance, the 13-year-old sand a song called “The Glory of a Nation”, one line of which was “Contend with the enemy on the battlefield.” Her performance was so well received by audiences that troupe director Li Jinhui changed her stage name to Zhou Xuan (Xuan meaning “contend” or “deal with”). She continued acting in several movies in the 1930s including a star-making role in 1937’s “Street Angels”, today often considered one of the classics of the “leftist” filmmaking period that reached its peak in the 1930s. It was selected as one of the Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures by the 24th Hong Kong Film Awards, ranked 11th. At the same time her film career was flourishing, Zhou Xuan was China’s top female vocalist in the 1930s. Among her biggest hits were “Night time Shanghai”, “Song of Four Season” and “Smiling Forever”.

Street Angels

After World War II, she moved to Hong Kong where she continued acting but her personal life was unhappy, she was exploited by others, especially men in her life. This sent her over the edge. After 1950 she never performed again and spent the rest of her life in and out of institutions, later dying of encephalitis in Shanghai, on the 22nd of September 1957.


In 2003, in the city of Mumbai, global music company EMI was clearing out an old warehouse in preparation for demolition. EMI had been there since the 1920s when it manufactured and distributed records under Pathe Label. In the warehouse, workmen unearthed a trunk with Chinese writing on it and inside were the mother shells of about 800 songs from the thirties and forties. These were the reels used to press the stamper that produced the old vinyl 78s.

Recognizing the historical value of what they had, (this songs had been out of circulation for seventy years), EMI decided to preserve this musical heritage by recording it on CDs. The trunk was shipped to Hong Kong. EMI Hong Kong first put out a five-disc set of the original material. The CD included brief histories of the divas whose lives spun out in very different directions after their moment of glory in Shanghai.

Chang Loo, recently passed away at age 76, said at the time of the release after revisiting the songs - "It made me feel young again". The French had Edith Piaf, the Germans Marlene Dietrich and China had its own legends like Chang loo, Chow Hsuan and Bai Hong.

The Shanghai Divas compilation transports you back to the golden era of the 1930s, a time when the Chinese avant-garde on the east coast was heavily influenced by the West. Beijing may be the unquestionable capital as far as traditional culture is concerned, but Shanghai has long upheld a more modern and playful profile. In celebrating the 100th anniversary of EMI China in 2003, the label tasked Ian Widgery to rework some of the classic tracks for a new generation of listeners including the original unmolested songs as well as some other pieces from the era.