I spent one year in Saigon (today Ho Chi Minh City) from 1998 to 1999 and did not come back since 2007 until this early 2024 trip. The city has changed a lot since, but sometimes I got flashbacks.
The Saigon I knew in 1998 was very different from today’s tourist mecca. Just in the beginning of its opening, the city was still gray and had seen little development since the mid 70’s. Like when I came to Shanghai, French colonial presence was rarely spoken off. Memories of the US -Vietnam war were still fresh, with the war having finished less than 25 years before. 25 years later, another generation has passed and this seems far away as Vietnam is becoming an Asian economical power house.
The city features buildings of various periods, from late 19th century neo classic (like the former town hall), French colonial architecture, to Art nouveau (like the opera house) to art deco / streamline buildings. Paul Veysseyre of Shanghai firm Leonard, Veysseyre & Kruz moved to Saigon in 1937 and designed buildings including the iconic Bao Dai palace in Dalat and the renovation of the Majestic hotel in Saigon. Modernist and brutalist building have come along in the 1960s and 70s, recently joined by skyscrapers.
Very little literature was available about Saigon architecture and nothing was on the net when I lived there. It’s only years later while in Shanghai, that I got really interested in architectural styles. This trip was some sort of a catch-up.
Unfortunately, quite number of large buildings have been destroyed in the center, sometimes to be replaced my more modern ones. Sadly there are still a number empty spots.
I also have never seen a map of Old Saigon before this trip. This is when I realized that the labyrinth of housed where I used to live on Le Than Ton (former Rue d’Espagne) was built over the former French navy base. As it probably continued to be a navy base later on, no wonder my landlord in 1998 was a former military personnel, although I never connected the dot at that time.
Finally, searching in my own archives, I found an old photo of mine from that time, on the back of my Bonus motorbike… in 1999. Motorbike adventure in Vietnam lead to driving a sidecar in Shanghai about 10 years later. This story is told in post “Visit Shanghai in a vintage sidecar“.
Brooklyn Court, 153 Route des Soeurs (today Ruijin Er Lu) has attracted my attention for a number of years. Although not outstanding on the outside, the multistorey appartement building designed by an Austro-Hungarian team of architects has very nice feature inside (see post “Return to Brooklyn Court” for more details). It was built and owned by ARCO (Asia Realty Company).
My interest was first raised in this underrated building with the discovery many years ago of an original rental contract for an appartement in Brooklyn Court from 1938. Above picture shows the cover of the folded document, a Lease Contract between Asia Realty Company Federal Inc USA and Mr Char Kee Chow from Aug 16th 1938 for 67 dollars per month. The document inside the folder is actual the renewal of the contrat from October 5th 1939. A 17% was added to the rent for water (!).
Being in real estate myself, this attracted my attention as the rental contract is not much different than rental contract nowadays. The lessee was responsible for fees and taxes, using only the apartment as residence (though a law firm was registered in the same building and probably using their apartment as an office) and sub-letting was not allowed. The tenant was also not allowed to make alteration or to place any kind of sign on the exterior windows. Just as today, he was responsible for the interior and decoration. In case of need, they could always use a construction company like “Gordon & Co“.
What was is surprising is article 19, where it is specifically mentioned that an auction cannot take place in the apartment without the written consent of the owner and if all bills had been paid. It seems that this kind of auction of all properties in an apartment was quite common. Probably when people left Shanghai, they would sell off there properties to raise cash. Maybe this kind of sales also happened if they left and did not come back, for whatever reason. This is reinforced by article 22, stating that all furnitures can be used to guarantee rental debts, and that no furniture can be removed without the authorization of the apartment owner, with a watchman possibly being appointed if rent is overdue by more than 15 days, presumably so that personal effects in the apartment cannot be removed without paying the overdue bill. I found reference to such house auction while researching auction house Noel, Murray & Co in post “Letter from Hugh Martin“.
Article 32 even mentions that the representative of an organisation renting the premises is personnaly responsible for paying for it in case the organisation does not settle the bill. The practice of disappearing without paying rent overdue must have been common in Old Shanghai, for all these closes to be inserted. It was also possible to have a guarantor for the rent, which was governed by article 34 and 35.
Signature page of the rental contract
The most surprising for a rental contract in Shanghai, was that “questions and dispute arising out of this lease shall be determined on the basis on the Laws of the United States of America”. The principal or extraterritoriality that allowed foreigners from major powers in China to be treated under the law of their country was also applied to companies. So an American Court, at the general consulate, would decide on a dispute between lessor and a foreign tenant, or the mixed courts of the French Concession if the tenant was Chinese. It is also added that “the customs usually observed in Shanghai shall be taken into consideration”.
Finally, two specific points were added with a typewriter, one giving a one month notice for both parties and the other stating that French Concession taxes up to 13% were included in the rental price. The rental contract was signed by a manager at ARCO (signature not readable), witnessed by Adina Villers.
Becoming curious about the 43 Brooklyn court, I went in to find the actual apartment covered by the rental contract. A friend owning a flat in the same building allowed a visit to his 2 bedroom with a large dining room / kitchen. Flats in the building seem to be all the same, about 60 sqm 2 bed rooms.
Apartment 43 is facing the back of the building (see post “Return to Brooklyn Court” for outside picture). Unfortunately, the original door has been replaced, but a number of flats still have the original door with peephole and top ironwork allowing for air circulation, while keeping the place secure.
Art Deco ironwork above the doors
I could not get into apartment 43 but I now have a good impression on how its door and interior looked like in 1939.
After 3 years in the making, the first TV series of Wong Kar-wai (王家卫) has finally been released in the first days of January 2024. 繁花 (Shanghai blossoms) in English has taken like a storm. The TV series was broadcasted every night for 15 days, with 2 episodes / night. It was simultaneously available on online platforms. Every body has watched “繁花“，and everybody has watched it and everybody is talking about it. Focused on 1990s Shanghai, it is a little far away from this blogs topic, but definitely worth a post.
Shanghai born Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai 王家卫 is mostly known outside of China for the 2000 movie “In the mood for love” 花樣年華 that was nominated for Palm d’Or at Cannes festival 2000 and for which main actor, Tony Leung, won best actor. The move is also famous for its unforgettable soundtrack. Set in Shanghai in the 1990s, this new TV series offers quite similar dark atmosphere and visuals with many night scenes and and great music.
Recreating the 90s
Taking place in Shanghai, it was filmed in Shanghainese dialect (shown with Chinese subtitle). Casting required most actors to be able to speak Shanghainese, who later dubbed a version in Mandarin that will be easier to understand by the rest of China. In a similar way to 2020 movie “B for busy” 爱情神话 (follow this link to original post about the movie), it particularly resonates with Shanghainese people. Shanghainese language has been on the decline in the last 30 years, so seeing major movie in Shanghainese language is an attraction. For more information about it, best is to read the article on English language magazine sixth tone by following this link https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1014442
A lot of energy was spent in collecting iconic objects for the 90s, including cars (mostly Volkswagen Santana), portable phone, cloths and other items, recreating a realistic Shanghai 90s picture. The story is based on a book of same name, inspired by real events from the 90s. The series really encapsulates the energy and craziness of 90s Shanghai, in a time that is not so crazy anymore. This reminds me a lot of about craziness and energy about Central Europe in the 90s, having lived both in Shanghai and Budapest in the 90s, I could see a lot of similarities. I am sure the series will be shown on tv outside of China. Watch for “Blossom Shanghai” when it comes.
Some of Shanghai blossoms main characters
Although the series was filmed in a purpose built decor in Shanghai film studio, where I went for a visit a number of years ago (see post “Shanghai cinema studio“), the story takes place in real Shanghai locations. Huang He lu, 黄河路 a former hyped street behind Park Hotel that had become totally sleepy after the 90s has become crowded with young people taking selfies.
黄河路 Huang He lu is suddenly the place to be
The English room of Peace Hotel (former Cathay Hotel) where part of the action also takes place is now booked for months in advance by people willing to recreate the experience of being there. Many restaurants now serve special “繁花” with food inspired by the series. Hopefully the hype will create interest in Shanghai history and help Shanghai preservation.
Xiamen/厦门, historically called “Amoy” after the local dialect pronunciation, had a long history of international trade before becoming one of the five “Treaty ports” in 1842 following the treaty of Tianjin. Foreign consuls moved from Amoy city to the island of Gulangyu (鼓浪屿), located opposite the city in 1902. The whole island became an international settlement, with land regulations and municipal council like in Shanghai and consulates from many nations. Gulangy (鼓浪屿) is one of my favorite places in China, and I have been to the island 5 times since 2005 (See posts “Night on Gulangyu“, “Rain on Gulangyu” and “The revival of Gulangyu” for more details). This new trip was an opportunity to search for the former Amoy French Consulate on the island.
Gulangyu’s main beach
The backwater island I first saw in 2005 has now transformed into a tourism Mecca since getting on of the UNESCO protected heritage list in 2017. Although tourists have come in number, it is still possible to avoid massive crowds by visiting the island in the low season, like in the winter apart from Chinese New Year. With a little sun, temperature gets easily to 15-20 degrees, perfect for walking around. Most crowded roads are the one going along the coast overviewing Xiamen city, as well as the one going through the island to the main beach. They are best avoided in the afternoon, when most people come over.
South of Gulangyu
As per the old maps, the former French Consulate of Amoy (or “Consulat Français de Amoy” in French), was located on a secluded beach on the South West side of the island. The whole area around “11” on the map is now the Gulangyu Piano museum. The former Chan Bay West road (today Tian Wei Road) is blocked, as part of a large estate that was probably military zone a few years ago. Fortunately, today’s Tianwei Road splits into two branches, one of each is open leading to the former Danish Telegraph Office and former Oeitjoe Garden.
Former Oeitjoe Garden and the jetty
As indicated on the map, the former French Consulate is the building on the other side of the jetty, on the Chan Bay Beach. Although the building itself cannot be accessed, I managed to catch a picture (see below). A large plot of land around the former consulate was surrounded by large tents, and 2 rickshaws (!) were parked in the front. My guess is that it is currently used as a film set.
Former French Consulate, Amoy
Although it has quite a vast plot of land, Amoy French Consulate was never really seen as important by the French administration. Very little information is available on the internet about it. After consulate closure in the late 1940s, the Consulate’s archives were kept at the French Embassy in Beijing until 1981, when they were brought back to France. As French historian Roger Pérennès explains, France had a presence in Amoy since 1901, with a vice-Consulate from 1906 to 1916. Below picture from the Australian University archives stating “Amoy, at the French Consulate” is dated from 1907.
A proper consulate was only open on 1st December 1925, with Fernand Roy (1885-1967) being the Consulate for most of the time until end 1939. With little activity during WW2, the consulate finally closed down in February 1946.
Since the consulate was actually open very much later than others, it could explain that the location is away from the main port, on a more secluded part of the island as better located ground were already taken. As a comparison, the American, British and Japanese Consulates were located on the other side of the island, overlooking Xiamen and the main port. I did not find any information about the construction of the French consulate building, but the building looks like it was “ruinovated” at some point later. Below is another picture I shot in 2009 in a previous visit that is mentioned in post “The revival of Gulangyu” when garden and the building was much better maintained.
Former French consulate in Amoy (2009)
The site of the French consulate is located near the former Northern telegraph office, which was built in 1918 in a somewhat similar style (see below).
Northern telegraph building
The next building on the road, shown on the map but with no mention, is also of similar style. It was probably built around the same time.
Hopefully more information will come up about the former French Consulate in Amoy as French archives and others are researched. I will definitely come back to my favorite Island Gulangyu. For more posts about this topic, see posts “Night on Gulangyu“, “Rain on Gulangyu” and “The revival of Gulangyu“.
The post is the second part focused on author Horose or Stéphanie Rosen-Hoa. To access Part 1, follow this link.
Stéphanie Rosen-Hoa, also known as Horose or 羅琛華, settled back in Paris in 1926 with her two children, Leon and Simone Hoa. During her stay, her first book in French “La muraille de Pékin à Paris” (The Beijing Great Wall in Paris) in 1929 by Argo, a small publishing house. She managed to get noticed by several newspapers. An article from local paper “l’Avenir de la Touraine” from 11 November 1929 explains that author is a French/Polish lady who married a Chinese and went to live in China. It adds that the book offers a true and interesting picture of the real China including many anecdotes. A few lines with similar comments were also published in in the “Le Bien Public” (Dijon daily), on first Octobre 1929, as well as in “Les dimanches de la femme” (Women Sundays) on 23rd feb 1930.
She returned to China in 1928, leaving her children to be educated in France. In the same year, she published novel “Him and her” in Chinese.
“La symphonie des ombres chinoises” is the French version of Love and Duty. (see “Love and Duty, the book” for more details about the various editions and translation of this particular book). It was published by edition de la Madeleine in 1932, 11 rue Tronchet, a different publishing house from the previous book. I found a copy in an olnine bookstore.
The book forewords end with “Written in Beijing, reviewed in Paris and finished in Geneva” 1932. S Rosen-Hoa definitely took a trip back to Europe in 1932, publishing an article about “Chinese women” in June 1932 in the montly magazine”L’ Egyptienne” and giving a conference about the condition of women in China at the same period at the Lyceum theater in Paris. She is mentioned by the magazine as “famous novelist Horose”. She also was still in Paris on 16th February 1933 as she was a speaker in a conference about China and Japan.
S. Rosen-Hoa in 1932
Her son being educated in France came back to China for a visit in 1934. She published the novel “Double practice” in Chinese in the same year.
In 1937, as Japan was invading part of China including Beijing, S. Rosen-Hoa went back to France, probably to escape the war. Hua Anjin followed her in 1939. We have very little information about their life in occupied France, but the refuge from the war that they were probably seeking did not last long. Jews in France were also persecuted and many died in Nazis concentration camp, but S. Rosen-Hoa seemed to have escaped it.
She was still living in Paris in 1947, as she wrote a congratulations letter to novelist André Gide who had just received the Nobel price for literature. It is clearly stated that she was living in the same building as André Gide, 1Bis Rus Vaneau in Paris 7th district, near Invalides.
1Bis Rue Vaneau in Paris 7th district
Her husband Hua Nangui returned to China after the war, along with her son Leon who was an architect and his French wife. S. Rosen-Hoa published one last book in France, “Nos sangs mélés” in 1957. Hua Nangui passed away in 1961.
S. Rosen-Hoa went back to Beijing in 1966 to a China very different from the one she had left nearly 30 years earlier, as the communist party had taken power in 1949 and applied many changes to society. She passed away in Beijing in 1970. Her grand daughter 华新民, still lives in Beijing.
Famous Old Shanghai movie “Love and Duty” was based on French novel “La symphonie des ombres Chinoises” by S. Rosen-Hoa also called Horose. Very little has been written about Horose, but putting together current academic articles and own research, we now have quite a clear picture of who she was and about her unusual life.
Stéphanie Rosenthal was born in Kalisz, Central Poland, in 1883 in a jewish family. She moved to Paris around the turn of the Century. In the 19th century many Polish artists, aristocrats and intellectual came to France, and many spoke French. Stéphanie Rosenthal and her family likely already spoke French when they came to France, allowing her to join the French schooling system. She then studied at the Sorbonne University, where she graduated in botany, with a thesis on germination of Plantago in 1910, aged 27.
Graduation thesis for Stéphanie Rosen-Hoa at Paris Sorbonne, 1910
She met her future husband during her studies, both of them being keen learners and practicers of Esperanto. Hua Nanhui (华南圭) 1876-1961 was a native from Wuxi, Jiangsu province, China. He arrived in France in 1904 to study at the Public Work High School (ESTP Paris) where he was the first Chinese student graduating from the School in 1908. They got married in 1908, after which he worked for “Les Chemins de fer du Nord” (Great Northern Railway). After the wedding, Stéphanie added the name of her husband to her surname, being now called Stéphanie Rosen-Hoa. They always communicated in French as witnessed by relatives. They moved to China in 1910.
Hua Nangui and S. Rosen-Hoa in 1910
Hua Nanhui worked for the Beijing-Hankou railway until 1913 when he took an official post in the Ministry of Transports and Communication of the new Chinese republic. From that point he was involved in promoting of modern technologies, education and railways in China, publishing the first Chinese Railway engineering textbook in 1916.
The first child of the family was born in 1912, Hua LanHong 華攬洪 also called Leon. The French edition of Love and duty (La Symphonie des ombres Chinoises, 1932) is dedicated to him. The family bought a plot of land in Beijing 量大人胡同(Wuliangdaren Hutong), built a house and moved in in 1914. Her first novel was published in Chinese by Shanghai based Commercial Press in 1915, under the name of 羅琛華. The topic is centered on a women doctor who got educated in France and returned to China. It is likely that the novel was written in French and translated in Chinese, probably by Hua Nanhui. The topic of Chinese students returning from studies abroad and having to adapt back to China was a quite a key topic amongst Chinese returnees in the 2000s, but it was clearly a revival, having been discussed in the 1910s. It is likely that the circle of friend of Stéphanie Rosen-Hoa included many returning students from Western countries, and maybe Japan that was also very popular for studies at the time. Her daughter Leila was born in 1916.
Her most well known is probably “Love and Duty” which first published in Chinese in 1923 then in English in 1926. With its modernity theme focusing on the opposition between traditional and modern values, in particular about arranged marriage and women’s education, it clearly resonnated with the popular Chinese literature movement at the time, the May 4th movement. This lead for the book to be made into the movie “Love and Duty” that kickstarted the popularity of Lian Hua movie production company (also called UPC) as well as being the first main role for upcoming Chinese superstar Ran Lingyu. The book credited for the 1931 movie is called in French “La symphonie des ombres”, although it was already published in Chinese as “恋爱与义务” from 1921 and in English as “Love and duty” from 1926. As mentioned earlier, it shows that the original novel was probably written in French, although only published in France much later.
Hua Nanhui, S Rosen-Hoa and their two children (about 1920-22)
China in the 1920s was far from politically stable with the Beiyang government being very weak and the country being mostly controlled by warlords fighting war against each other for territory control. One of the many examples of the lack of safety at that time was the attack of the Peking Express train in 1922 (see post “The Peking Express” for more details). This is probably one of the main reason why she took a trip back to France in 1926 along with her two children. The second part of her life including travels between China and France will be covered in post “The story of Horose or S. Rosen-Hoa (Part 2)“.
For more details about publication of the Chinese, English and French versions of the “Love and duty” please go to post “Love and duty, the book“. For more details about the movie “Love and duty”, please got to post “Love and duty“
Ruan Yinglu movie “Love and Duty” has been the theme of several posts on this blog, focusing on the movie itself, but also on film locations (To read the thread from start, go to post “Love and duty (part 1)“). The 1931 movie was produced by United Photoplay Service, or a 联华影业公司 in Chinese for the Chinese market. It briefly mentions a foreign novel in the opening session, which attracted my attention.
“La symphonie des ombres”
Although it is only shown for a short while, it is very clearly written “Adapted from Madame S. Rosen Hoa’s Novel << La symphonie des ombres >>”. This is very strange as the text is in English, but the name of the novel is in French. What is even more surprising is that Lian Hua film company was close to Chinese patriotic ideas of the time, but based one of its most famous movie on a foreign novel.
Love and duty was first released in 恋爱与义务, that can be translated as “Love & Obligations” or “Love and Duty”, as a 8 parts series in literary magazine 小说世界 (The World of novels) in 1921. The author was indicated as 羅琛華. The book was then published by famous Shanghai based Chinese publisher Commercial Press in 1924.
The book was a great success and it was then published in English as “Love and Duty” by commercial Press in 1926. The author was written then as Ho-Rose. The book in English was also a great success and was reprinted several times, at least in 1927 and 1929. In 1931 the book was turned to movie “Love and duty”, with the success that we know. The theme of the book with its rejection of traditional values definitely matched the spirit of the UPC and the May 4th movement.
“La Symphonie des ombres Chinoises” (symphony of Chinese shadows) was published in 1932 , by Editions de la Madeleine, 11 Rue Tronchet, Paris under the name of S. Horose.
Although there is no reference in this book about the Chinese or English edition, nor the movie adapted from it, he story is very similar to the movie, characters has similar names and the author mentions that she had a successful writing career in China. There is no doubt that this is mostly the same book, with maybe some minor changes.
Interestingly, the French title has little to do with the original English or Chinese title. It is also slightly different from the one displayed in the movie credit as it did not include the “Chinoises” word. It was definitely added at the time of publication in France, emphasizing the China theme of the book and probably trying to capitalise on her previous book published in France which was focused on the cultural differences between the West and China. (See post “The Story of Horose or S. Rosen-Hoa part 2″ for more details”).
The introduction to the book includes a long part where the author complains that French people or the French authorities have no idea about China. She also complains about stories written by French authors and journalists about China that are often inaccurate or sometimes totally false. Although written in the early 1930s, such comments are unfortunately still valid today.
The book was mentioned in several newspaper article, including in Art review “Septimanie” in the 1st June 1933 issue and in daily “L’home libre” from 12th July 1933. She also was invited for a few conference about China at the same time, but the book did not reach by far the success it had in China.
The building on 143 Route des Soeurs (143 Rui Jin Yi lu) has often attracted my interest. I wrote an original post about it in 2008 (See post Brooklyn Court, Routes des Soeurs for more details). The whole area has been under reconstruction for a long time, so I went to have a look again recently, taking pictures of the inside of the building.
Using every single inch
The lilong at the corner of Avenue Joffre and Route des Soeurs (today Huaihai Zhong Lu and Shaanxi bei lu) has been destroyed a number of years ago, as a metro station was built on part of it. New construction in the area has now started and no concession has been left to the history of the area, nor to aesthetic. The surrounding building kind of wraps around half of Brooklyn Court, making sure that every square inch available is used fully. The result is weird and frankly not very nice and will drastically reduce the light coming into the appartements overlooking the back side.
Backside of Brooklyn Court
I also managed to get into Brooklyn Court, hunting for more architectural details than in my first visit. Brooklyn Court was first announced in 1931, as part of the Asia Realty (also known as ARCO) redevelopment of the lot with the adjacent Luck Terrace (now demolished, unfortunately). This was an apartment building “of a medium class”, costing 370,000 taels to build. By 1934 it is finished and occupied. The outside of the building is not particularly sophisticated.
While entering in the building, one of the first sight is the large cross-shaped light wells. It is very disctinctive, while bringing a lot of light to this dark passage. Their shape is so specific that they can be seen from the sky like on below picture (right picture by Matthias Guillin).
Although Brooklyn Court was only “of medium class”, it is clearly marked by his time with inside decoration. Art Deco was the style of the time, and it really shows in the iron work for windows and doors which are really unique in Shanghai.
Art Deco doorBeautiful staircaseArt Deco window frames
ARCO’s architects at the time of construction (1931 – 1933) were listed as J. A. Hammerschmidt & F. Schäffer. – Josef Alois Hammerschmidt was an Austria architect born in Vienna in 1891. He studied at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna, was captured during WW1 and sent to Siberia. After the war, he worked in Tianjin, part of the time with Rolf Geyling, reaching Shanghai in 1931. – Férenc Schäffer was a Hungarian architect, trained in Budapest and also taken to Siberia as a war prisonner. He reached Shanghai in 1920, were in probably first work with Lászlo Hudec in the office of American architect Rowland A Curry. During his time in Siberia, he met a fellow Hungarian, Sandor Hugo who later became ARCO’s General Manager including at the time of construction of Brooklyn Court.
This is probably through this Austro-Hungarian connection that Hammerschmidt was brought to ARCO in 1931. A few years early, ARCO already headed by Sandor Hugo had hired Lászlo Hudec’s new firm for a development project in 1925-26. The little communitee of Hungarian architects in Shanghai also included art deco star Karoly Gonda (designer of the Cathay Cinema among many others), Béla Mátrai and Janos Komor who designed the Lester Institute in Hongkou district.
French movie “The crime is mine” is inspired by a play from the 1930s. Director Francois Ozon have turned into a movie that has many references to French cinema past and present, including many actors that are famous in France. This will probably be lost to the non French viewer. What is stunning for the 1930s and Art Deco fan are the fantastic decors and costumes.
1930s locations around Paris and further have been used, including the below bridge that is located in Bagneux, a few kilometers from Paris.
Le pont des Suisses in Bagneux
The story is focused on two ladies, one of which being accused of killing a major film producer, and the other one being her lawyer. The crime is taking place in the luxurious villa of the producer, which is actually the fabulous Villa Empain in Brussels.
The villa Empain in Brussels
Costumes were carefully modeled after the 1930s fashion, creating a real visual univers for the movie. This helps to imagine how life in part of the former French Concession looked like.
Great 1930s costumes
The whole movie has a light atmosphere. Many people seem to like it, although I tend to prefer a noir atmosphere for movied taking place in this period, just like TV series Babylon Berlin taking place in the 1930s. In any case, The crime is mine will delight Art Deco et 1930s fan.
Actress Ruan LingYu 阮玲玉 was one of the main star of Shanghai cinema in the 1930s. Shanghailander.net’s series of blog posts about her 1931 movie “Love and duty” sparked interest in the readers. One of them pointed me to the 1991 Stanley Kwan Hong Kong movie “Center Stage” or 阮玲玉 (Ruan Lingyu) in Chinese.
Center stage 阮玲玉 / Movie poster
Center Stage is focused on the life of actress Rang Lingyu, from the time she became an actress for the Lian Hua studio in 1930.
Stanley Kwan Hong Kong movie mixes biopic like scenes with cuts from the two remaining original movies (The Godess 1934 and New women 1935). It also adds interviews from people who actually knew Ruan Lingyu, and of some of the movie cast. Meggie Cheung is fantastic at interpreting Ruan Lingyu sensibility.
Meggie Cheung playing Ruan Lingyu
One of stunning feature of the movie is that various actors speak different Chinese dialects to each other. Ruan Lingyu, as many people of the Lian Hua studio speak cantonese. Other characters speak mandarin or Shanghai dialect, but they all seem to understand each other somehow.
A number of surviving pictures have been studied used to recreate the original scenes. Enormous work has been done recreate the architecture, art, fabrics and objects of the time. The art deco mansion occupied by the Lian Hua studio feels like a Shanghai villa, just like the dance club is clearly inspired by Shanghai’s paramount.
Great decors creating the atmosphere
Although not so well known in the West, the movie was well received by critics, with Maggie Chueng earning a Silver price for acting in Berlin festival in 1992. It is definitely a must see for Old Shanghai lovers. Too bad “Love and Duty” was only found and restored after “Center Stage” was made, that would have been a great match.