Center Stage / 阮玲玉

Actress Ruan LingYu 阮玲玉 was one of the main star of Shanghai cinema in the 1930s.’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.

Looking for Love and Duty

The 1931 movie “Love and Duty” (恋爱与义务)was a great success in 1930s Shanghai. It was the first big movie with actress Ruang Linguy who would become the superstar of Shanghai cinema, until her suicide in 1935. I have written several posts about some of the location where the movie was made in Shanghai (see post “Love and Duty” for more details). This post is showing the video that was made of the location search.

You will find more information about Ruan Lingyu, the movie “Love and Duty” and film locations in posts “Love and Duty” Part 1 and 2.

Love and Duty (part 2)

This post is the second one focused on the 1931 Ruan Lingyu movie, Love and Duty (恋爱与义务) “Love and Duty (part 1)” was focused on showing modernity and westernisation in 1930s Shanghai through some scenes of the movie. This part is focused on searching for actual film locations in today’s Shanghai.

The first part of the movie is taking place in a upper class neighborhood called “Kiangwan”. Jiangwan (today spelling of Kiangwan) was then a far suburb of Shanghai, chosen by the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek to create a new city center away from the foreign concessions (See post “Ordinary metropolis” for more details). This was supposed to be the incarnation of modern upper class neighborhood in Shanghai. The movie “Love and Duty” was released in 1931. At that time, the plan for Jiangwan was already made, but the first building, the Jiangwan civic center, was still under construction, finished in 1`932. To illustrate this modernity and high level, the director used the streets of the French Concession as film location.

The first minutes of the movie shows view of the surroundings. Despite the changes, the above picture is the same as the right and below picture. The house is located on Route Delastre (today TaiYuan lu) and Route Remy (Today Yongkang lu). Design and marking on the front wall is very unique.

Even more unique are the arcs of this residence in the Yongkang road, shown a few minutes later. Although the structure of the buildings has been altered an little, it is easy to recognise, on former Route Rémy (today Yong Kang Lu). This location is a few meters from the above one on Taiyuan Lu.

Above corner street corner is of Yongkang lu and Taiyuan lu. It has changed since 1931 and a small building on the right has been turned down but the location is still easy to recognise. The CMF stones have been covered or removed but the iconic door on the left side is still here. In 1931, this part of the city was recently built and urbanised. Like many buildings in this area, this settlement was owned by the “Société Fonci`ere et immobili`ère” also called Foncim, one of the major real estate company in the French Concession.

Later on in the movie, the main character goes to look for jobs in the business district. This is clearly filmed in the area behind the Bund, but exact locations are difficult to identify apart from one. In Old Shanghai, the French Concession was a residential area, and the International Settlement’s district behind the Bund was the location for finance and trading houses.

In front of Park Hotel

During his job search, the character walks up the street shown above. One ca recognise the famous furniture store “Arts and Crafts” that was located on the corner of Bubbling Well Road and Park Road (today Nanjing Xi Lu and HuangHe Lu). This particular building does not exist anymore and was replaced by a higher corner building. The space of the HS Honisberger building, is now occupied by Park Hotel (built in 1934). The scene was filmed in front of the Foreign YMCA (today Sport Museum), on the side of the horse race course (today people square). Just like the early scenes were filmed in the most modern residential district, this was filmed in the most modern business district of the city.

Follow this link for the next post from this thread, “Love and duty, the book“, focusing on the book used as a base for the movie. The movie “Love and Duty” can be viewed on the Chinese video platform (use this link to access it). A video about the search for “Love and Duty” locations has been published in post “Looking for Love and Duty“. For more analysis of the movie “Love and Duty” and the modernity of Shanghai life seen in the movie, please go to post “Love and Duty (Part 1)“.

Love and Duty (part 1)

Ruan Lingyu (阮玲玉) was one of the stars of Old Shanghai movies. Acting in silent movies her career brutaly stopped when she committed suicide in 1935.

Ryan Lingyu in « Love and duty »

One of her main movies, “Love and Duty”(恋爱与义务)1931, was supposed to be lost until a full copy was found in Uruguay in the early 1990s. After restoration, the film was shown at Shanghai Film festival in 2014.

Love and Duty, movie title

Love and Duty is a melodramatic movie about the terrible choice of a lady between her high school sweetheart and her husband and family. It is a silent movie, with all intertitles both in English and in Chinese as it was often the case then in Shanghai. The first part of the movie is taking place in the high level neighborhood. It gives a great look into the life of upper class Chinese people in Old Shanghai. I have read many books about it (including ‘Remembering Shanghai“), or seen modern movies (see post “Shanghai the movie“) as well as tv series taking place in Old Shanghai. However, seeing a real movie from the area depicting the real life of people is amazing.

Eating in a 1930s western restaurant in Shanghai

The restaurant scene in the movie is stunning. This is taking place in the early 1930’s. A couple in love goes for a date in a western restaurant, eating with fork and knife, drinking (imported) red wine (a few images before), while listening to Jazz music with Art Deco back ground. When I came to Shanghai about 20 years, this kind of scene was not so common in the city and very rare out of Shanghai. A place like legendary M on the Bund, opened only in 2002. It was really difficult to imagine that 1930s Shanghai was already so modern and westernised.

Just like today, imported drinks were readily available and consumed.

The former French Concession was clearly then one of the desired place to live. Above image is newspaper article read in the movie (first in Chinese, then in English), clearly mentionning Rue Lafayette (today Fuxing Lu) as a place of living for “a local wealthy resident”.

On the top of intertitles in Chinese and English, signage shown in the background is always bilingual, as it was surely usual in Shanghai then. A large part of the movie takes place in Shanghai city. Although it is not mentionned, it is either in the International Settlement or in the French Concession. I am working on a specific post will be dedicated to film locations.

Bilingual No parking allowed sign in English and Chinese

Cars were a luxury items but private cars and taxis were readily available for the upper part of the society. Old movies from the 1920 or 1930’s Shanghai ( see Old Shanghai short movie) often shows the busy streets of the international settlements. Some of the scenes are filmed along plane tree planted road that were surely located in the former French Concession. I have never seen this kind of pictures before. There are a few scenes of 1920s modernity with cars, including one with road work (!) as seen below.

Driving along the plane trees

The last piece that I thought really showed that Shanghai was a very modern city is the hero scene. The main male characters reads a novel, called the hero. Then he dreams that he is saving his beloved after a pirate style sword fight.

This scene is very strongly inspired by some Hollywood movie scene from the period. Sword fight movies, also called swashnucklers, were really fashionnable at that time. The Hollywood start of the genre was Douglas Fairbanks, with movies including “The mark of Zorro” (1920) and “The three musketers” (1921). “The black pirate”(1926) clearly influenced the movie as seen in this sword fight scene. Hollywood movies were very popular in Shanghai. Douglas Fairbanks arctually visited Shanghai and stayed at the Majestic Hotel. The success of Hollywood moviedhelped to make the Spanish colonial revial architectural style popular in Shanghai (See post “Spanish revival architecture” for more details) as well as Art Deco. Hollywood movies also strongly inspired the local production, turning Shanghai into a little Hollywood in Asia.

For a look into actual film location of the movie “Love and Duty”, please go to post “Love and Duty (part 2)“. Before being a successful movie, “Love and Duty” was first a book written by mysterious author Horose. For more details, please follow the link “Love and duty, the book“.

爱情神话 / B for busy

爱情神话, in English “B for busy” is a recent Shanghai movie that has taken the city like a storm. This is a story of Shanghai people, taking place in the heart of Shanghai… in Shanghai dialect.

爱情神话 movie poster

爱情神话 can be translated as “love myth”. The movie is a romantic comedy centered on Old Bai, a Shanghai man in his mid 40s. Divorced since years, he still looking for love and find himself the center of attention of three women. His Tango lover ex-wife is still around, and his own mother never accepted their divorce. One of his female student is also showing clear interest, though he is mostly some kind of distraction for her. Along comes a new friend that is attracting a lot of his attention. This trio of women makes a mess of his own little comfortable life, along with old friend Lao Wu, with his legendary past adventures with women.

The movie reminded me a lot of French movies, that are often centered around a couple of people in a short period of time. It studies the interaction between and how they change each character’s life. It also gives a sense of intimacy that really helps the viewer to relate with the movies characters. It’s a romantic comedy, and like in many French movies, the viewer will experience both laugh and sadness within short periods of times, making the movie very close to real life. Like many intimate French movies, it is depicting the life of the middle class, with cultural or artistic background.

Having lived in Shanghai for more than 18 years, I could also find a lot of reminders of my own life in Shanghai. All characters speak Shanghai dialect and characters are a real reflection of Shanghai life, including food and habits. All exteriors have been filmed in the streets of the Former French Concession, where a lot of Shanghai people in their midlife have spent their childhood in, just like characters of the movie. Walking down one of those streets, I am half expecting to meet the movies characters along the way. The whole movie actually feels like a love letter to life in this city.

The combination of strong Shanghai feeling and close intimacy with the characters is surely what has made the success of the movie in Shanghai. At the same time, it is also attracting foreigners who live in the city, as it gives all of us a sense of proximity and belonging. .. thanks to the English subtitles in the theater version. Hopefully, this will also make successful abroad as well, showing a very human face of Shanghai to the World.

Update 2024: The new series “繁花 / Shanghai blossoms” in Shanghainese is the new pride for Shanghai people.

The last tycoon

This new movie about Old Shanghai attracted a lot of attention and a large media campaign. With a line of stars including Chow Yun-Fat and a massive budget, it was one of the high profile movies of the end of last year. This is not the first movie about Old Shanghai that I have seen, but it is definitely one of the best.
Last Tycoon poster
Last Tycoon poster

It is clear that a lot of attention was given to the decor and costumes. A number of the scenes were filmed in real Old Shanghai properties, with many antique objects and furniture used in the back ground. This contributed a lot to the atmosphere of the movie and it really does feel right. This is surely the best effort for a Chinese movie ever. The main outdoor scenes were filmed at Shanghai Cinema Studio (see post on this topic), particularly the ones a taking place on Nanking Road, as well as the ones taking place over an iron bridge (supposedly) over Suzhou Creek (the brigde is a copy of the original one, located in the Cinema studio).

Bridge in Shanghai Cinema Studio
Bridge in Shanghai Cinema Studio

The movie is clearly linked to 1980’s Hong Kong TV series “The Bund”, taking place in Old Shanghai, that started the acting career of Chow Yung-Fat. The story is loosely based on the life of most famous Shanghai Mobster Du Yue Shen, although it often departs from historical facts. Like it’s inspiration, the main character is an humble boy in countryside China, who climb through the criminal organisation to become the leader of Shanghai gangster. The movie adds to it number sub-plots, including gangster warfare and romance. Like some of the American movies about Chicago gangster, it creates quite an romantic and legendary image of them, forgetting in the meantime that their fabulous wealth mostly came from crime, kidnapping, drug trafficking and prostitution.

Special effects and war scenes
Special effects and war scenes

The movie includes many special effects, in particular in all the warfare scenes. They really help to recreate the vision and feeling of Shanghai during the Chinese / Japanese war, including the devastation of bombs falling in Shanghai streets. Fight scenes are very vivid, sometimes brutal, depicting fights, injuries and death in graphic details. It is probably the most graphic movie I have seen about Old Shanghai, but this also makes it one of the most realistic. The movie also manages to escape talking too much about politics then which is a good think. Unfortunately, it also pictures the main Kuomintang official as a traitor to the Japanese enemy which is far from historical truth.

Finally, it was really weird to have one of the scene taking place in a winery, as it is clear there was no such a thing in China in that period. It is somehow weird to have spent all this attention to make a movie that has the right feeling, but stumble on such a clear mistake. For real historic information about wine in Old Shanghai, go to post “French wines in Old Shanghai“. In any case, this does impact so much on the whole story, nor distract from viewing this very good movie about Old Shanghai. To been seen in an Old Shanghai Art Deco theater for best atmosphere.

Other movies about Old Shanghai include “天堂口 / Paradise“, “Shanghai, the movie” and “Lust Caution“. TV series include “Shanghai Shanghai” and “繁花 Shanghai blossoms“.

Shanghai Exodus

cover Shanghai exodus
DVD cover – Shanghai Exodus

As the reach of this blog grows year after year ( is now more than 6 years old), so does the number of readers. Through it I have received a few mails from researchers and met a few  people who actually lived in Old Shanghai, including (among others) Liliane Willens, Lynn Pan, Isabelle and Raymond Chao (who died this year) and  Rena Krasno (who died in 2009). Many of them have a passion for the city they call their home, although many had not been back since the late 40’s and quite a number have written books about their experience, their life in Shanghai and their families. Shanghai Exodus came to me through this blog and I don’t think I would have known it otherwise.

This documentary movie was made with the collaboration of many old Shanghailanders. It is their story and their link to the city they grew up in and that they love so much still. The 2009 movie includes a brief history of Shanghai, but is mostly interesting in the many snips of interviews of Old Shanghailanders. Many of them now live in the USA, but they and their family came from various countries including the UK, Russia and other European countries. Being from various level of society, they did not all live in the privileged world that is often associated with foreigners in old Shanghai but they all kept a very strong link to the city that can be felt throughout the movie. The movie also tells the fate of these people during WWII and how they managed to leave Shanghai in the laste 1940’s.

Although Shanghai Exodus is mostly about their life in Old Shanghai, one of the most moving part is seeing these people, coming back to their home city. The Shanghai they left has little to do with the Shanghai they come back to but some manage to find their root back to the city that they left so long ago. It is also very clear that many of them kept in touch in their new homes and feel that they lived in a very special place at a very special time. Growing in Old Shanghai is an extremely important part of their life and having to leave Shanghai left a scar in them. It is then really nice to see them closing the loop and finding back their roots. In a way, this is also the story of Shanghai and the rediscovery of its past by both Chinese and foreigners coming back to it.

About 15 minutes is available on as a trailer.

China 1932, a tourist movie

1932 tourist movie
1932 tourist movie

Photographs of Old Shanghai rarely seen in the city a few years ago are now quite common again. Exhibited in collections, used to illustrate books or by marketing companies to create a nostalgia feeling, most of the one seen are always the same. The most well known show the Bund at different period of time, as well as Nanking Road (Nanjing Dong Lu today) and Foochow Road (today’s Fuzhou lu). Old movies of Shanghai are much rarer as not that many where made and conservation was always an issue, because of the process used them as well as historical events that lead to the destruction of many.

The movie that recently appeared on YouTube (sorry you’ll need a VPN to see it): China, the flowery Kindgom, dates from 1932 and is quite enjoyable for that matter. Altough the sequence about Shanghai is only a portion of the film, it is still nice to see how little arrival on the river has changed. It reminds me of taking the ferry to or from Pudong which is always a little voyage in the city.

The movie seems to have been made by American tourists, or seamen on a tour to China. The departure from Shanghai shows a floating American flag, and they were regularly at call in Shanghai port I guess the ones making the movie were military. The other part I like is the view of camels in the streets of Beijing, that it surely not seen anymore. The time is not so long when caravans of camels would cross China and central Asia along the silk road. Xian was the original departure when it was capital of China, but the road was extended all the way to Beijing when it became the capital. This reminded of Lao She‘s novel, Richshaw boy that describe similar scenes.

Bundwalk empire

boardwalk_empire_2010_intertitleThe roaring twenties was a period of economic growth and recovery from the horrors of WWI. WWI fueled Shanghai growth by cutting supplies from Europe and the return of links with Europe brought new opportunities to the city. In the USA, it was also the time of alcohol prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Manufacturing and transportation of alcohol was forbidden, creating enormous wealth for gangs controlling this highly profitable traffic. This is the background of the TV series Boardwalk Empire. The show is based on the real story of Atlantic City godfather’s and county treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. The series’ main character is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi. Supported by a mob of gangsters and other shaddy characters, he fight to maintain his grip over the city. Like most series nowadays, the show has many sub-plots including love and hate stories and many unexpected events. It is highly popular and a great series to watch.

Boardwalk Empire set
Boardwalk Empire set

The show’s main attraction for me was obviously the look and feel of the show, taking place at the same period than the one interesting me in Shanghai. An enormous amount of work as been done to recreate the roaring twenties look and style, as well as a 1920’s Atlantic city. With famous director Martin Scorsese and broascast on a major Channel in the US (HBO), the budget for the series was one of the largest at about 18 million USD for the pilot… and it really shows. Exterior scenes were shot on a rebuilt boardwalk complete by a lot of CGI as shown in the short movie Boardwalk Empire VFX Breakdowns of Season 1. In depth research was used for rebuilding the 20’s atmosphere through decors, costumes and accessories… and it really shows. Roaming through a bygone era’s Atlantic city, I barely can stop thinking how great a Shanghai series with the same money and attention to details spent in would be. As I wrote before, there has been several TV series themed after Old Shanghai, like the excellent Shanghai Shanghai, but Boardwalk empire is still steps further.

Du Yue Sheng
Du Yue Sheng

Beyond the time period, the story of Boardwalk empire also has parallels in Shanghai. As alcohol trafficking generated immense profits for gangs in America, opium trafficking generated immense profits for gangs in Shanghai. The master of Shanghai was Du Yue Sheng, who was reigning over the city’s underworld as well as becoming a well respected anchor of the community. Just like Nucky Thompson, he managed to rise in the political system becoming one of the Chinese members of the Municipal council of the French Concession. Number of books have been written about him and he still is very well known in Shanghai. Similarly, he was known as a benefactor of the city to many, covering the dark side of his activity with largesses and a iron fist holding his “Bundwalk Empire”. However, the fascination for the USA for their roaring twenties gangster is not so popular in Shanghai and we have yet to see a movie or a tv series where the hero would be a Shanghai gangster.

Shanghai – the movie

Shanghai,the movie
Shanghai,the movie

As old Shanghai is getting more and more popular, so do movies about the period. Following the steps of “Empire of the Sun“,” Tian Tang Kou” and “Lust caution“, this Hollywood old Shanghai movie comes with very high expectations. Recently presented at the Shanghai International Film festival, it is already shown in theaters in Shanghai but will only see its debut in America in September. Just like the Majestic theater was the perfect setting for viewing a 1930’s themed musical (see post about 42nd street), the best place to see the an Old Shanghai movie is surely the Grand Theater on People Square.

John Cusack plays an American agent posing as a pro-Nazis journalist coming from Berlin. He comes to Shanghai after the death of his best friend, killed in the Japanese controlled area. Reaching Shanghai just before Pearl Harbor and the invasion of the International Settlement by the Japanese troops, Cusack finds himself in a love triangle with Gong Li and her husband played by Cho Yung Fat. Chased by General Tanaka played by Ken Watanabe, they will go through all the trouble to find the murderer and help the resistance against the Japanese invader. The movies mixes a number of genres such as spy and gangster movie, romance and historical movie. Although not filmed in China but in Thailand, it captures perfectly the atmosphere of Shanghai. Quite a number of scenes are taken under a pouring rain that will be familiar to people actually living in the city. With its film noir atmosphere, it create a kind of wet version of Casablanca perfectly matching the dark image of the period. The Shanghai created in the movie is also pretty good from a visual and historical point of view. The scenarist and set makers have clearly make their homework and there is little in the movie that does not fit right in the look or the history books.

With my strong interest in Old Shanghai, I am surely not the best person to judge this movie independently. A few critics of the movie complained about the confused historical background. For me it was crystal clear, but I’m not sure how easy it is to understand with no prior knowledge about the topic. In any case, it is a great movie to watch, an achievement in term of picture and atmosphere and a true enjoyable time. You can see a trailer with the following link: Trailer

East Wind, Rain poster
East Wind, Rain poster

Shanghai, the movie is not the only large scale movie based on this period. “East Wind, Rain” also takes place in the same background, with spies acting betwen Kuomintang and the Japanese army. The 4 minutes long introduction session is superb, including the re-created dog race just like that one that existed in the French Concession on Rue Cardinal Mercier (Now Shaanxi lu, the building was used as a flower market until being teared down a few years ago). A lot of attention was given to make the movie look good, however the action is far to slow not making the movie really interesting beyond the pretty introductory scene. As a movie, Shanghai is just so much better.