SHANGHAI: Eastern Hollywood ?
This work is the transformation of a chapter my doctor of creative arts, UTS, BLACK BOX http:www.strangecities.net for peer review in a forthcoming eJournal interactive paper – the ensemble of image, sound, and textual research emerges from the ChineseBOX passage in BLACK BOX, exploring my hybrid cultural origins through discovery of the Russian jazz music culture from pre-revolutionary Shanghai and the Japanese occupation in China.
A re-examination of the documents left to me by my grandfather Sergei reveals a rich insight into the cultural milieu of the Russians in Shanghai, in particular the jazz world. Sergei wrote down every significant act that performed in the nightclubs, cabarets, and ballrooms of quasi-colonial Shanghai before his death.
This is a portrait of my grandmother Xenia Vladimirovna Ermolaeff. Xenia was a Russian emigre in Shanghai (a singer and dancer). The portrait was taken by her husband my grandfather a Russian jazz orchestra leader Sergei (Serge) Ermolaeff circ. 1940. Serge Ermoll & His Music Masters were managed by Vaudeville Entertainments, Shanghai and enjoyed residencies at establishments in Shanghai such as The Cathay Hotel, The Paramount, Ladlows Casanova, Wagon Lits, Astor House, and the Red Rouge. He played with Whitey Smith.
In 1996-97 I had support to develop a digital media work, with funding from the Australian Film Commission (AFC), and travelled to Shanghai & Tokyo to conduct research and write a script. In search of Xenia’s Shanghai we walked the city, writing and shooting photographs/film with Geoffrey Weary. We stayed in the Cathay Hotel, Room 314, I was searching for traces of the old decadent jazz culture. We photographed the interior of the hotel, ceilings and architectural nuances. I walked on the sound stage, Level 7, where Serge had played, and many photographs were taken, the golden dragons & pheonix design haunting the interiors. Looking out of the exquisitely ornamented window panes onto the Bund and across to the Pudong district and the oriental Pearl Tower, I imagined James Ballard’s bloody descriptions of the Battle of Shanghai or Battle of Songhu the Japanese war ships in the harbour. A decade later these audiovisual fragments were shaped into a film SCENES FROM A SHANGHAI HOTEL (2007). The interactive work would ultimately be STRANGE CITIES, [Reviewed Asiaweek [http://www-cgi.cnn.com/ASIANOW/asiaweek/magazine/99/0910/shanghai.html] based on the tune composed by Alexander Vertinsky, Ira Bloch and my grandfather Serge Ermoll. Independent radio broadcaster Eurydice Aroney produced the work and Roi Huberman created the interactive sound design. This song and the lyrics, which spoke of the longing for motherland St Petersberg (Russia), encapsulated my search for origins. Later, another film score composed by the Vertinsky/Ermoll would be the signature tune in the Merchant Ivory Hollywood classic The White Countess (2005). The strange music Serge played, a mix of Russian cabaret, Chinese pop, and American jazz, I would later understand to be the treasured hybrid genre of trans-pacific contemporary music, the renaissance of which is making many a million! (1)
In my grandmother Xenia and the portraits she would show me, I saw a cosmopolitan Eastern woman of urban sophistication, paradoxically at odds with the Australian life we were surrounded by in the Sydney suburbs. Her black coiffured hair and gold jewellery provided endless fascination, she looked so different from the ladies at the local RSL. I wanted to be like her.
“The favoured past of shanghai is that of the ‘modern girl’ in a qipao, the feminine city of exquisite Russian refugees, decadent European expatriates, Chinese gangsters and marlene dietrich in Shanghai Express (dir. Joseph von Sternberg, 1932). These are clichéd character sketches of the city, but they resonate powerfully with the international imagination. Dietrich, in the person of Shanghai Lil, continues to produce affect in cinema-goers worldwide as a persona for shanghai…. if cinema has done nothing else for shanghai, it has convinced the world and the city itself that they are, simply and utterly, superior to any others. Shanghai woman is the epitome of modern China, and the image of 1930s is the enduring foundation of the magnetism of shanghai’s identity. ” (2)
(1) Donald, Stephanie and Gammack, John G. Tourism and the Branded City: Film and Identity on the Pacific Rim, London: Ashgate, 2007. http://www.iis.uts.edu.au/research/Shanghai_Ch6_Extract.pdf
(2) Whitey Smith and .L. McDermott, I Didn’t Make a Million, Manila, 1956.
Image source. Photograph of Xenia Vladimirovna Ermolaeff n a Shanghai hotel by Serge Ermoll (Ermoll’s photos) circa 1940 (Shanghai).
Shanghai Nostalgia: Historical Memory, Community-Building, and Place-making in a late Socialist City
Pan, Tianshu. “Historical Memory, Community-Building and Place-Making in
Neighborhood Shanghai.” in Restructuring the Chinese City: Changing Society, Economy, and Space, ed. Laurence J. C. Ma and Fulong Wu, 122–37. London: Routledge 2005.
“For the first time in post-Mao Shanghai, the local people found their colonial past was no longer baggage to carry but a rich resource to be fully utilized. “Shanghai nostalgia” thus “became entangled with a (dys)utopian fervor to embrace global capital and its ideology, the appearances and normalcy of the Shanghai modern entered intellectual and commercial circulation at the standard version of historical memory” (Zhang 2000: 354). Shanghai quickly became a “re-colonized” site for various kinds of joint ventures in film production. Old buildings in the Municipal Concession and small villas in the west end were renovated in order to attract more Spielbergs and boost the tourist industry. Those sinified cafes and European restaurants that somehow managed to survive communism changed their names back to their original western names. The famous Red Mansion Coffee House, for example, was once again Chez Louis. So did the theaters, movie houses, department stores, and dance halls. The Old Man Jazz Band, who had a brief appearance in Spielberg’s movie, started to perform all year around in the Peace Hotel (Sasson House, previously owned by a famous Jewish billionaire). Colonial Shanghai rekindled collective memory and in the process of remembering, itself was re-invented. With its success in the colonial past in setting trends, finding opportunities, and witnessing miracles, Shanghai provided a somewhat “infectiously decadent, but alluring background and setting” (Dai 1997: 158) especially for those working in the film industry.”
Zhang, Xudong. 2000. “Shanghai Nostalgia: Postrevolutionary Allegories in Wang
Anyi’s Literary Production in the 1990s”, in Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, pp. 348-387. Duke University Press.
This is a portrait of Asja Mercoolova as a girl, my grandmother Xenia’s goddaughter. Xenia wanted me to be a dancer like Asja. She wanted me to be on the stage. She would ask me to sing and perform songs for her in the old fashioned lounge-room with the radio on in the background. They sent me to dance classes – modern, jazz, tap and later I studies Flamenco. I still wear Flamenco shoes every day to work (!) I grew up listening to my grandfather Sergei’s jazz. He would practise in his music room on the trumpet, at the piano and at his vibes. One day in the future I would be packing away his musical scores, piled high on top of his piano, and he would be gone and buried. River Lights club in Sans Souci is a vivid memory, staying up too late, and watching him play. He wore exquisite tailored suits and painted on his eye-brows, cabaret style. The music was a melange of Russian folk ballads, American jazz, and Chinese pop. The compositions were for a famous crooner he remembered, Alexander Vertinsky, writer of the legendary tune “Immortal Road”, that world sings today as “Those Were The Days My Friend!”.
Before my grandmother (Xenia Ermolaeff) died, she gave me a set of hand painted studio portraits she had produced while living in Shanghai (1923-1951). Wrapped in tissue, when she was feeling sentimental, she would produce these from the musty old wardrobe that was filled with beautiful dresses and shoes. When she went out to the club for lunch, I would try these on and pretend I was her, standing in front of the large oval mirror. In the noirish light through the blinds in her bedroom, wearing her oversized patent-leather shoes, I painted on her lipstick. These portraits conjure the decadent life of a a beautiful young Russian woman living in Shanghai at its zenith. The mystery in those eyes reveals suffering a life of extremes. In Sydney, in the Holden, we would sit waiting for Serge, as she sipped sherry from a silver hip flask, telling me about her feelings. As a young girl in Russia, she was the daughter of a wealthy Tsarist naval officer, but was reduced to stateless person seeking refuge in Harbin, Manchuria after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917). Later she married my grandfather Sergei, a wealthy Russian big band leader in Shanghai (husband No#2). The Shanghai sojourn was a wild ride, until she was made refugee once more with the Chinese Revolution. Her life ended in the Sydney suburbs with a three acre block and hills hoist – and a moonshine plum orchard. I was a great joy in her later life – the daughter she longed for. When she pointed to photographs of her god- daughter Asja the ballerina, she told me that she had married a Broadway musical director, and would I be a dancer like her?
Film star & songstress Li Xianglan a hybrid matrix of Japanese and Chinese modern girl.
Born Yamaguchi Yoshiko to Japanese parents in Manchuria,
Remembered for 1940s film Shanghai Nights, the tune The Evening Primrose
Image source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li_Xianglan
MECCA cosmetics corporation
has recently launched its “Shanghai Lil” make-up range, a homage to the high fashion
(haute couture) & make-up used in Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932)
Image source http://www.meccacosmetica.com.au/
Jospeh Von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932)
Image source http://www.imdb.com/media/rm711432192/tt0023458
Image source MOTO Nostalgia campaign 2004
The Parisian wave (coiffure) and the fur coat over the shoulder evoke the Shanghai gesture, a powerful imaging (and re-imagining) of the Shanghai advertising lady, her urban face charmed the packaging of a plethora of mass products from face powders to cigarettes. She is the face of Motorola’s 2004 mobile phone campaign. Reminiscent of a 1930s Shanghai calendar girl, an evocation of the legendary film star Ruan Lingyu (阮玲玉), or perhaps Hollywood’s The Lady From Shanghai (dir. Orson Welles), or Anna May Wong in Josef Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) http://www.theauteurs.com/films/432, or Street Angel (馬路天使) (1937) http://www.archive.org/details/street_angel starring Shanghai songstress Zhou Xuan (the “golden voice”) and pre-revolutionary film star. Perhaps Motorola’s Shanghai lady resembles the famous Li Xianglan (李香蘭) a hybrid matrix of Japanese and Chinese modern (modeng) girl (!) She was born Yamaguchi Yoshiko (山口 淑子) to Japanese parents in Manchuria, and became a famous Chinese and Japanese film star. She is remembered for 1940s film Shanghai Nights (上海の夜), made by Manchuria Film Productions and singer of the immortal tune The Evening Primrose (夜來香). Nostalgia for decadent old Shanghai and its hybrid brand of quasi-colonial East meets West is articulated in the the plethora of contemporary Hollywood , Hong Kong and Chinese films devoted to the Shanghai Gesture. Academy Award winning director Ang Lee’s latest offering Lust Caution (2007), a case in point, Merchant Ivory’s The White Countess (2005) http://www.sonypictures.com/classics/whitecountess/, to touch the tip of the iceberg. On this note, the multi-national MECCA cosmetics corporation http://www.meccacosmetica.com.au/ has recently launched its “Shanghai Lil” make-up range, a homage to the high fashion (haute couture) and make-up used in Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express.
According to DANWEI: Chinese media, advertising and urban life blog http://www.danwei.org/advertising_and_marketing/motorola_shanghai_nostalgia.php [Accessed 28 March 2008]
“This is a new Motorola advertisement appearing on billboards and in glossy magazines. The copy means ‘MOTO nostalgia’ or ‘MOTO era’, highlighting the Shanghai 1930s feel of the image.” [Posted by Contributor, July 2, 2004 1:09 PM]
The evocation of the Shanghai lady in this MOTO campaign contains echoes of a contemporary Ballardian neo-landscape, the Bladerunner megalopolis that is Shanghai. This kitsch, pastiched, noirish sophistication is a parody without the humour and articulates Jameson’s postmodern and consummerist project of futuristic nostalgia (Jameson, 1985, p116).
Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumerist Society”, in (Ed) Hal Foster, Postmodern Culture, Pluto Press, Great Britain, 1985.
I recently stumbled upon this article in a blog – a confirmation of the currency and commodification of the old Shanghai lady as an aesthetic still capable of marketing a dream about a city that has entered into the postmodern vernacular in “Selling Cosmetics by vending machine ?”, Hong Kong Hustle: Hong Kong nightlife, streetculture, and cool http://www.hongkonghustle.com/shopping/389/cosmetics-vending-machine/#more-389
Selling cosmetics by vending machine?
April 19th, 2008
“In Japan you can find all sorts of things for sale in vending machines. Since I’ve lived in Hong Kong however, I’ve never seen an explosion of this sort of retailing in the city. So it came as a surprise to encounter a lonely looking vending machine while walking through Silvercord shopping center last week.
“The vending machine had a traditional 1920’s era graphic of two girls covering the outside.
“The image looked like a cigarette ad from old Shanghai, the type that tourists purchase on “antique” posters featuring beauties from the time period. On closer inspection, the image actually represented the logo of a brand of cosmetics, Two Girls.
“This sort of vintage look doesn’t really match a vending machine. Vending machines typically denote a sort of modern, mechanized and impersonal shopping experience. You don’t normally associate this type of experience with female shoppers. Further, a product like cosmetics would usually require the purchaser to read the labels and check the ingredients, which isn’t possible from inside a machine. Typical products that are sold in this way are ultra well known products. Perhaps the cosmetics are well known, however if I were a shopper unfamiliar with the brand, not being able to read the label and study the product would be a major impediment to sale.
“The location of the machine was also somewhat off. It was buried near the side of an escalator in an alternative entrance to the shopping center.
“Yet another factor to consider, does the product match the target consumer of the youth-oriented Silvercord mall?
“So in essence, the product, the brand image, the target consumer, the location of the machine and the technology all need to be considered when selling a product by vending machine. In this case, the factors appear to be a bad match.”