Film can tell a lot about a place and time, but not many film industries have gone through as much change as China’s. Not only has the Chinese film industry transformed as the politics of the country have changed from the years of silent movies to the Communist era, but records of the pre-Mao era largely succumbed to political movements like the Cultural Revolution, which outlawed everything old and western. It’s a miracle that film advertisements and movie magazines from the period survived at all, and in his new book, film critic and historian Paul Fonoroff presents a stunning collection of 590 illustrations, mainly movie magazine covers, that he found in Hong Kong and in flea markets around Southeast Asia.
The book opens not at the beginning of the film industry in China, which can be traced back to the very end of the 19th century, but rather in the early 1920s with the publication of the first Chinese movie magazines from Shanghai, the most cosmopolitan city in China and the center of the Chinese film industry by the time the magazines first came out. The book goes on to show other magazine publishers in Hong Kong, Macao, and Guangzhou as well as some cities in China which also produced movie magazines, especially during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Fonoroff observes that women almost exclusively graced the covers of these magazines, in part because nothing sells like a pretty face, but also to celebrate Chinese stars. Very few western movie stars adorned the covers apart from Anna May Wong. The Chinese film industry was rightfully upset with Hollywood for portraying Chinese characters in derogatory ways, so seldom featured Hollywood actors and actresses on its magazine covers. And even though Wong had no choice but to play Chinese stereotypes in Hollywood (it was either take those roles or not work), she was celebrated in China when she traveled there in the 1930s. This trip came after Wong wasn’t given the lead female role in the film version of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. (It went to a white actress.) Incidentally, the Charlie Chan series, mainly starring Swedish-American Warner Oland as Chan, was extremely popular in China. Oland’s portrayal of derogatory Fu Manchu, on the other hand, was not.
It wasn’t all glitz and glamor for these Chinese starlets. Quite a few died prematurely from suicide, both at the height of their careers in the 1930s, but also years later during the Cultural Revolution. Others like Zhou Xuan died in a mental institution in 1957 at the age of 37. However, one actress who made her film debut in 1935, Lan Ping, ironically became Jiang Qing or Madame Mao in later years, and went on to run the PRC film industry during the Cultural Revolution.
The covers correspond to the climate in China at the time, with Art Deco illustrations dominating in the late 1920s and early 1930s, while pinup photographs became au courant in the mid- to late-1930s. During the Japanese occupation of cities Shanghai and Hong Kong, when the industry had relocated to free areas like Hankou (Wuhan) and Chongqing, featured. magazine covers that emphasised new and photos of the war rather than glamor. Glamorous starlets returned to the movie magazine covers at the conclusion of WWII despite the reemergence of the civil war.
The Hong Kong film industry exploded as many directors and actors moved from Shanghai down to the British colony in the 1940s and early 50s. Hong Kong success as a film center undoubtedly owes much to political instability in China. As Fonoroff writes,
While the star system and the concept of movies as commercial entertainment disappeared from the PRC, the old ways flourished in Hong Kong thanks to an influx of Shanghai capital and talent. The latter was a two-way street: many idealistic left-leaning movie personnel [in Hong Kong] also returned to mainland China.
1951 marked the end of the golden era of Chinese cinema. The new regime completely dismantled the film industry and nationalized publishing, which put most of the movie magazine publishers out of business. Countries like Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand imported Hong Kong Cantonese movies, so the culture of Chinese movies changed from Mandarin to Cantonese and would continue this way until the Fifth Generation filmmakers revived Chinese cinema, both on the mainland and internationally.
Chinese Movie Magazines is a treat, not only since every page includes color images of movie magazine covers, but also for the telling of modern Chinese history through the covers and the text provided by Fonoroff. This hardcover volume of high-quality reproductions is rounded off with a fabric cover over the spine.