- Xenia Vladimirovna, Serge Ermoll Jr (3 months), Sergei Ermollaeff
Text by Tatiana Pentes
“Chinese cinema of the 1930s is believed to be a synthesis of indigenous art and foreign modes of production. (1) This point is best demonstrated by Ma Ning’s influential piece on a famous leftist classic, Street Angel (1937). (2) Ma argues that Street Angel exemplifies the practice of sinification among Chinese leftist filmmakers. During this period, Chinese filmmakers tended to view cinema as a specifically Western invention, yet they also felt compelled to incorporate indigenous forms appropriate for Chinese audiences.”
Yeh Yueh-yu , “Historiography and Sinification: Music in Chinese Cinema of the 1930s”, Cinema Journal, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Spring, 2002), pp. 78-97
Montage Serge Ermoll & His Music Masters, ballroom of a hotel, Shanghai, CHINA, c. 1930 (image above) Copyright Tatiana Pentes 2010
This work is the transformation of a chapter my doctor of creative arts, UTS, BLACK BOX http:www.strangecities.net . This 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.
SHANGHAI: Eastern Hollywood ?
Photograph of Xenia Vladimirovna Ermolaeff by Serge Ermoll (Ermoll’s photos) circa 1940 (Shanghai). Copyright Tatiana Pentes 2010
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 circa. 1940. Serge Ermoll and 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 traveled to Shanghai and Tokyo to conduct research and write a script. In search of Xenia’s Shanghai, I became a voyeur, walking the city, writing and shooting photographs/film with Geoff Weary. We stayed in the Cathay Hotel, Room 314, I was searching for traces of the old decadent jazz culture. And returned to Shanghai in April 2009 to promote and develop new work on the Shanghai milieu.
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 淞滬會戰 the Japanese war ships in the harbour. A decade later these audiovisual fragments were shaped into a film SCENES FROM A SHANGHAI HOTEL (2008). 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 jewelery 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. [sic] ” (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.
SHANGHAI NOSTALGIA:: Motorola’s MOTO
Film star & songstress Li Xianglan (李香蘭) a hybrid matrix
of Japanese and Chinese modern girl. Born Yamaguchi Yoshiko (山口 淑子)
to Japanese parents in Manchuria, Remembered for 1940s film Shanghai Nights
(上海の夜), the tune The Evening Primrose (夜來香)
Image source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li_Xianglan [Accessed 1 April 2008]
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/ [Accessed 1 April 2008]
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 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 Posted 19 April 2008 [Accessed 10 February 2009]
Shanghai: Harbin:Russian Jazz: 1930s: Sergei Ermolaeff
Alexander Vertinsky originator of black Russian cabaret
Originator of black Russian cabaret Alexander Vertinsky (pictured above), Sergei Ermolaeff (Serge Ermoll), and Ira Bloch authors of words and music, Strange Cities and Over the Rosy Sea (The Pink Sea), Shanghai c.1930 [Registered Copyright Agency USSR & APRA]
Charles Chaplin & Sergei Ermollaeff Paramount Ballroom, Shanghai, China 1933
Charlie Chaplin’s sojourn in Shanghai visiting the Paramount Ballroom pictured with Russian jazz orchestra leader Sergei Ermolaeff (Serge Ermoll) c.1933 Paulette Goddard & mother in background. Copyright Tatiana Pentes 2010
Sergei Ermolaeff (Serge Ermoll) Russian Jazz Orchestra leader & collaborator with originator of the black Russian cabaret Alexander Vertinsky – Compositions: Strange Cities & Over the Rosy Sea (The Pink Sea) pictured in RUBESK News of Harbin, Manchuria, 1937.
Shanghai! …during the 1930s and 1940s was referred to internationally as the “jazz mecca” (1) of Asia, the Paris of the East, conjuring in the Western imagination a romanticised landscape of coolies, opium, and spies. In reality Shanghai was the pearl of China’s orient, occupying a unique political and cultural place as China’s modern Metropolis. Historically, China had granted concessions to the international powers in Shanghai, British, French, and Americans occupying colonial settlements in the treaty port.
At the level of representation, Shanghai was an appropriated “exotic” location, an orientalist back-drop, and the subject of a plethora of Western novels, literary and cinematic creations. The allure of Shanghai as a mysterious cultural locale wove its way into American Hollywood cinema and popular song as an orientalist fantasy and landscape upon which the West imagination could play out illusions. Shanghai as a colonial International settlement was inhabited and visited by passing Western entrepreneurs, government officials, tourists, traders, and entertainers. American actor Charlie Chaplin’s tour in Shanghai 1933 with actress Paulette Goddard to film the Hollywood film “Shanghaied!”, was well documented by the press. He visited the famous Paramount Ballroom where Serge Ermoll and His Orchestra were the resident Russian jazz orchestra. A personal collection of family photographs pictures band leader Ermoll with Chaplin and Goddard. The first exhibition of cinema in China occurred in the Xuyuan teahouse in Shanghai (2) , eight months after the “…Lumiere brother’s epochal unveiling of their new Cinematographe…December 28, 1895, in the basement of the Grand Cafe in Paris.” (3) This demonstration
The black American jazz trumpet player Buck Clayton’s legendary journey to Shanghai was “precipitated by brisk trans-Pacific traffic in record music. Gramaphone records of the music of Duke Ellington and other artists had already reached Chinese shores, spurring a rage for black bands in the city’s nightclubs and dancehalls.”(4) The playing of this black American jazz and its local idiom performed by Russian, Filippino émigré and Chinese bands heralded the circulation of a hybrid trans-Pacific culture. Until very recently, the Chinese academies viewed “yellow music” and its Russian, black American and colonial precursors as not worthy of scholarship. Colonial modernity as articulated in pre-revolutionary Chinese film with its jazzy Chinese popular screen music was understood by its leftist critics as “decadent sound” (mimi zhi yin) (5) and opposed to the modern Republican ideology.
Sergei Ermolaeff (Serge Ermoll) Russian Jazz Orchestra leader & collaborator with originator of the black Russian cabaret Alexander Vertinsky (Compositions: Strange Cities & ; Over the Rosy Sea (The Pink Sea) on the cover of RUBEZ News of Harbin, Manchuria, 1937
In the contemporary context, this trans-Pacific culture and music is experiencing considerable attention and re-discovery by the Chinese government and international community, as Shanghai overtakes Hong Kong as China’s major trading port city. A recent cover of the American Times magazine proclaimed “Shanghai! Inside the most happening city in the world” and the accompanying article “Shanghai Swings! The long slumber is over, and Shanghai is grooving to an exuberant beat”(6) . The image of the contemporary Shanghai Bund skyline glittering with electric lights evokes the former glory of Shanghai’s jazz age when the colonial façade of the Bund housed China’s wealthiest banks and trading houses. Indeed it is no mystery a musical metaphor has been woven to paint a picture of the re-emergence of Shanghai as a global destination. The article chronicles the restoration and the re-opening of Shanghai’s most legendary nightclub the Paramount Ballroom. Another Time magazine article “Cholera, Cables, Piano’s”(7), alludes to a Chinese symphony of chaos to evoke the human crisis of colonial modernity in Shanghai. The dischord between images of extreme opulence and wealth, manifest in the architectural spaces of the colonial dance-halls at their zenith: the Paramount Ballroom, Majestic Hotel, the French Club, the Cathay Hotel, Astor House, the Canidrome, Ladlow’s Casa Nova et al – juxtaposed with the struggle of the underclass of Russian émigrés working inside these spaces and the exclusion from these spaces of the desperate and displaced Chinese refugees, reveal the economic, class, and gendered dimensions of Shanghai’s urban metropolis, a cultural entrepot forming the ‘modern’ Chinese man and woman.
In most historical and popular accounts of Shanghai nightlife (post 1930s) the White Russian émigrés, who fled the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, are notoriously depicted as desperate refugees finding work in the bars, clubs, and nightclubs Shanghai as either “taxi-dancers”, “body-guards”, or prostitutes. The project argues that the affinity between “yellow music”, foreign jazz, specifically the Russian émigré jazz and its interpretation as “pornographic” and decadent evolved from the social spaces where this music was performed. The contribution of Russian émigrés to the cultural modernity of Shanghai is considerable. The Russians, many stateless and without citizenship, occupied a liminal place in the city below the oppressed and poor Chinese. The construction of the “White Russian” refugee stereotype founds its way into trans-Pacific popular media culture and has long been associated with “Sinified jazz music”.(8)
This brief account of Shanghai’s history and the role of Russian émigré jazz shows that this underclass of refugees were central to modern notions of urban Chinese identity. Scholarship in the field of musicology, ethnomusicology, media, history and sociology in China, America, Britain, and in Europe has not previously focused on the remarkable contribution made by Russian émigré jazz during the pre-revolutionary period in China, precisely because this cultural history was erased with the formation communist Republic in China.
Sergei Ermolaeff (Serge Ermoll) and His Russian Jazz Orchestra pictured at the TsingTao cafe, China circa 1930
in RUBEZH News of Harbin, Manchuria, 1937
The recuperation of this history through Russian émigré sources abroad, Chinese scholarship, archives that were moved from mainland China to Taiwan, Hong Kong, France, England, Russia and the United States and an existing archive of material in the possession of this project could recover an inform through interdisciplinary, cultural studies method a new historical case study. (9)
(1) Andrew F. Jones, Yellow music : media culture and colonial modernity in the Chinese jazz age, Durham [N.C.] : Duke University Press, 2001, p1.
(2) Yingjin Zhang, “Teahouse, Shadowplay, Bricolage: ‘Laborer’s Love’ and the Question of Early Chinese Cinema”, in Zhen Zhang (Ed), Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, Stanford University Press, USA, 1999.
(3) Jones “Listening to the Chinese Jazz Age”, op cit p11.
(4) Jones “Listening to the Chinese Jazz Age”, op cit p1.
(5) Jones “Listening to the Chinese Jazz Age”, op cit p8.
(6) Hannah Beech, “Shanghai! Inside the most happening city in the world” and the accompanying article “Shanghai Swings!”, in Time magazine, September 20, 2004.
(7) Foreign News, “Cholera, Cables, Pianos” in Time magazine, September 27, 1937.
(8) Jones op cit p73.
(9) Andrew Field, “Chapter 5: Selling Souls in Sin City: Shanghai Singing and Dancing Hostesses in Print, Film, and Politics, 1920-49 inZhen Zhang (Ed), Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, Stanford University Press, USA, 1999. See forthcoming publication Andrew Field, Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919–1954.