Posted in 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, Movies, Silent film

Zhang Shichuan

My Masquerade post is here.

Zhang Shichuan (né Zhang Weitong) (1 January 1889 or 1890–8 July 1953 or 1954) was born in Ningbo’s Beilun District, Zhejiang Province. His dad, Zhang Heju, was a silkworm dealer.

Zhang was forced to leave school at sixteen when his dad passed away. He went to live with his maternal uncle, comprador Jing Runsan, in Shanghai. Owing to his uncle’s business, Zhang got a job at the American company Huayang. He studied English at night.

In 1913, Yashell and Suffert, Americans who’d taken over the Asia Film Company, asked Zhang to be their consultant. Though he hadn’t any filmmaking experience, he gamely rose to the challenge.

Zhang enlisted the help of famed playwright Zheng Zhengqiu, with whom he founded the new film company Xinmin. That same year, they produced China’s first feature, The Difficult Couple.

WWI forced Xinmin into bankruptcy, and Zhang’s aunt, newly widowed, asked him to run their family’s New World amusement park.

Zhang didn’t stay away from filmmaking for long. In 1916, when American films came to Shanghai, he founded the Huanxian company.

His new venture quickly closed, and he returned to running the amusement park. That didn’t last long either, as the park sold in 1920.

In 1922, Zhang, his old partner Zheng, and three other people founded Mingxing. From the jump, he and Zheng had quite disparate aims. Zhang wanted to make money from movies, while Zheng saw film as a catalyst for moral improvement and social reform.

Zhang (left) and Zheng (right)

Despite their juxtaposing views on the purpose of film, Mingxing films were very popular through the Twenties. Mingxing became China’s largest film company. After the 1931 invasion of Manchuria and 1932 Battle of Shanghai, Mingxing brought leftist screenwriters on board to keep up with the times.

Troubles increased when Japan occupied Shanghai (barring foreign concessions) in 1937. Mingxing was destroyed by bombs, though Zhang was able to rescue some equipment and material before relocating to the Guohua company.

The noose tightened in 1941, when Japan occupied the Shanghai International Settlement, previously under British and U.S. control, and melded Shanghai’s remaining film companies into China United. Zhang decided to work for them as a director and branch manager.

1930s entrance to Mingxing, known in English as Star Motion Picture Company

After the war ended, Zhang was accused of treason for cooperating with the Japanese occupiers. He was able to find work at Hong Kong’s Great China Film Company and Shanghai’s Datong Film Company, but his reputation never recovered.

Zhang directed about 150 films over the course of his long career, including China’s first talkie, Sing-Song Girl Red Peony (1931); the first martial arts film, The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928); the oldest known Chinese film surviving in entirety, Laborer’s Love (1922); one of China’s first box office smashes, Orphan Rescues Grandfather (1923); and China’s first feature, The Difficult Couple (1913).

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Movies, Silent film

Xuan Jinglin

Xuan Jinglin (née Tian Jinlin) (1907–22 January 1992) was born in Shanghai. Her father sold newspapers, and her mother was a homemaker. She was one of five children and the youngest of three sisters.

Sources differ as to the extent and origins of the family’s poverty, and the level of Xuan’s education. This isn’t helped by contradictory statements Xuan herself made on these subjects.

Some accounts say she received very little education and was barely literate, while others claim she was taught at home and had an English tutor. As for the poverty, some say the family were always poor, and others claim the troubles only started after her dad’s death.

At age fifteen, Xuan had a disastrous, scandalous relationship with an older man who turned out to already have a wife. Every time she turned to her mother for advice, she advised Xuan to break things off.

Accounts differ on whether her mother sold her to a brothel at this age, or if Xuan herself ran away from home with the help of a sympathetic aunt. She upped her age by one year when she presented herself at the Nanjing brothel, and reinvented herself as Sai Zhaozhun.

After two weeks of getting up to twenty customers a day, Xuan refused an offer from the head of the local tax service. She returned to Shanghai, where she continued brothel prostitution.

Eventually, she bought a house and started operating out of that. One of her customers turned out to be her former sweetheart Wang, who convinced her to quit prostituting.

Destiny called in 1925, when Zhang Shichuan, one of the founding fathers of Chinese cinema, cast her for a small role in The Last Noble Heart. He remembered seeing her in an amusement park many years ago, and put out an order to track her down.

Xuan claimed he bought her out of the brothel for 2,000 yuan, though this again contradicts the other account claiming she’d already voluntarily quit prostituting. At any rate, the director was deeply impressed with her acting, and signed her to a contract.

Zheng Zhengqiu, the other founding father of Chinese cinema, created the stage name Xuan Jinglin based on her nom de prostitution and a Shanghaiese transliteration of Lillian Gish’s name.

Xuan settled down with Mr. Wang, who worked as a bank clerk. After The Mistress’s Young Fan (1928), she temporarily left acting to devote herself to family life. Everyone around them approved of the relationship this time, except her parents-in-law.

Mr. Wang was pressured into breaking up with her yet again, this time forever.

In 1931, she returned to the screen. Though Asia remained silent much longer than the West, China was nevertheless experimenting with sound. All their sound films were shot in Putonghua (Mandarin). This required Xuan to learn a new language and unlearn her strong Suzhou accent.

Xuan went on to great success during this second wind of her career, after the long, hard effort to perfect her Mandarin. A 1935 illness forced her away from the screen again, and then WWII precluded anyone from moviemaking.

Her eponymous Xuan Jinglin Road Company toured China during the war, giving musical performances. In 1949, she returned to the screen, one of very few Shanghaiese actors permitted to keep acting after Mao’s takeover. Unlike many others, she never compromised herself under the Japanese occupation.

Her films were sporadic after her return to the screen. Her final one was in 1964.

Posted in Photography, Travel

The Fleishhacker Pool and the French Concession of Shanghai

San Francisco’s Fleishhacker Pool was built in 1924 by philanthropist and financier Herbert Fleishhacker. Its grand opening was 22 April 1925. The pool was 1,000 x 150 feet (300 x 50 meters), and held 6,500,000 gallons (25,000,000 liters) of heated seawater pumped in from the Pacific Ocean.

Since the pool was so immense (with room for 10,000 people), lifeguards used rowboats. During WWII, it was used for training servicepeople. This was one of the world’s largest pools.

A diving pool was fifteen feet (4.5 meters) deep and fifty square feet (fifteen meters). Both pools heated 2,800 gallons a minute from 60 to 75ºF.

In 1929, it gained a new neighbor, Fleishhacker Zoo (now the San Francisco Zoo).

The grand opening hosted an Amateur Athletic Union swim meet, with 5,000 spectators. One of the swimmers was Johnny Weissmuller, representing the Illinois Athletic Club. Weissmuller returned to Fleishhacker Pool for many future swims, and always drew a crowd.

Other famous swimmers who frequented the pool were Esther Williams and Ann Curtis.

The general opening was 1 May 1925, and drew 5,000 patrons. Adults and teens paid a quarter, while those under age twelve paid fifteen cents. This fee not only allowed them use of the pool, but also a rented swimsuit and large towel (sterilized between uses) and a huge dressing room with showers.

There were also a cafeteria, childcare area, and a tree-lined miniature beach.

Sadly, the pool went into disrepair and decline, and a January 1971 storm was the straw which broke the camel’s back. The repairs cost too much money, and an attempt to convert it to a freshwater pool failed due to uncontrolled algae.

In June 1971, it closed forever.

My characters Nadezhda Lebedeva and Vsevolod Smirnov go to the Fleishhacker Pool during their exhilarating first full day in America in April 1933, after their visit to the Emporium department store. Among their purchases were swimsuits.

Nadezhda, who’s just been released from twelve years in Siberia, can’t remember the last time she went swimming, and Vsevolod, who’s lived his entire life in the small Siberian town of Bulun, has never gone swimming.

It’s been so long since Nadezhda last visited a public bath, she’s forgotten it’s customary to offer rental swimsuits as part of the entry fee. She feels buyer’s remorse for the swimsuit she bought, since that money could’ve been spent on more important things.

Copyright Alan Levine; Source

The French Concession of Shanghai was formed 6 April 1849, in a narrow area around the Old City, south of the British Concession. In 1861, a strip of riverside land east of the Old City was added to enable the building of a dock for French–Chinese shipping.

Starting in the 1860s, “extra-settlement” roads outside the concession began being added.  The first of these roads connected the Old City’s western gate to a Catholic stronghold in Zi-ka-wei (Xujiahui). This enabled French troops to swiftly move between the areas.

In 1899, the concession doubled in size, and in 1913, France gained police and tax powers over the extra roads. In return, France could evict Chinese revolutionaries in this territory. This gave France control over an area fifteen times larger than the original grant.

The French Concession was Shanghai’s most exclusive area by the 1920s. It attracted not only upper-class Chinese and French, but many foreigners. Many luxury apartments were built as the demand for housing grew.

White Russian émigrés brought the Russian population from 41 in 1915 to 7,000 after the Revolution and Civil War. By 1934, it was 8,260. Many Russian employees of the Chinese Eastern Railway fled after the Japanese occupation of northeast China.

Shanghai also became a haven for European Jewish refugees, since it was one of the few places in the world which didn’t require an entry visa or work permit.

Copyright stevechasmar

Just before the outbreak of the Second Sino–Japanese War in 1937, the native Chinese population had grown to 500,000. During WWII, they continued coming to the French Concession to escape the Japanese occupation. They eventually numbered 825,342.

On 30 July 1943, Vichy France handed the French Concession over to the puppet Wang Jingwei government. In February 1946, France gave up all her Chinese concessions.

Avenue Joffre police station; Copyright Fayhoo

My character Inga Savvina defects to the French Concession from Vladivostok in June 1942. Her grandfather and a Navy vice admiral arrange for her to be smuggled onto a Pacific Fleet ship, wearing a nurse’s uniform.

Vice Admiral Agapov handles the Japanese officials at the Huangpo River port, and accompanies Inga a short distance inland. Left on her own, she approaches a non-Chinese couple and speaks to them in the elementary French her grandfather taught her.

She’s taken to Avenue Joffre, where most of the Russians live, and put up in the home of White émigrés who help her gain passage to America to meet the father who has no idea she exists.