Casting “Flophouse” Shanghai (1947): Yedian (“Night Inn”)

Yet another classic BW film – to my mind the best of them – about Historic Shanghai (SANS waiguoren!). Though it could be about any Big City slum…”Night Inn” (“Flophouse”), 1947. Once again: the credit sequence and its underlying montage catch our attention. How does the matrix of actor and enacted operate and what view of social morality does it pre-communicate? How ambitious is the portrait of Urban Place as an overbridging unity? Why did its eye-catching portrait take such precedence in the first minutes of the 30s films? But here cease to enthrall by the post-War years? (After all, the Shanghai Bund and other of that city’s icons from the 30s have not just survived but- as “restorations” – climbed very high indeed in the post-1980s re-imaging of China). Again, the “overture” (credits, establishing shots, aerial takes, etc) has a great deal of impact- more than in these times – on how we apprehend what follows.


Shanghai, still dark (阴暗) and gloomy, perhaps even more so now that we are looking back from the late 40s. Dir 黄佐临, playscript 柯灵, 文华影片公司 studios, rel. 1947. But the screen credits play out in a way entirely different from the ’30s “left” films discussed above.

The opening sequence is characterologically specific – actors/characters are all people with sharp-etched names, often caricatured ones, who make choices (or discover by trying that they can’t). They are all trapped yet also above or beyond mindless despair (Malutianshi), or for that matter “chin up” bonhomie (Crossroads) an affectation that still overrides character and choice. So they not only have mis-en-scene appellations. But abrasively ironic ones, taking us before we start, into the conflict between self-perception and other-perception.

Night Inn (1947) Credits roll (first 6 of 20)

Titles Yedian 1947

Role Name            Name  Means…                                                  Played By

Wen Taishi       |    “Grand Tutor”   Wen                                      |      Shi Hui
Sai Guanyin     |     Goddess Guanyin                                         |      Tong Zhiling
Yang Qilang      |    Yang Sibling 7                                                 |      Zhang Fa
Shi Xiaomei      |     “Litle Sis” Shi                                                    |      Zhou Xuan
Jin Laotou         |     Old Jin                                                               |       Shi Yu
Lin Daiyu          |     Ill-fated heroine, Dream of Red Chamber           |      Wei Wei

Street Angel (Malu Tianshi), 1937, I: Entrapment in the Neopolis of Back Alley Shanghai

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The iconic music+sound-film of Shanghai in the pre-War years is – I think all will agree – Mu Yuanzhi’s Street Angel (malutianshi), Mingxing Studios, 1937, semi-sound. Studies of pre-1949 Chinese film rarely appear with full filmscript and dialogue/lyrics in translation, but this one does. (By Andrew F. Jones, 2000, available at OSU’s MCLC Resource center ( That is no coincidence: It is that widely studied, and deservedly for the director’s skill in montaging or otherwise signalling double meanings is sans pareil.

Its subject or rather topos? The film’s opening titles – highlighted by a very slow pan down the side of a luxury art-deco highrise (for rich foreigners) and then a splendid montage of bar/hotel/dancehall neon lights (for dandified Chinese, taxi-dancers and whores)- prefigure what we shall see: a grim story of life in the Lower(st) Depths of the Shanghai Neopolis, what life is “like” for an admixture of street “professionals” chained to the entertainment + “leisure” industries (“food and fun”), and that is what we are shown. For-hire “Western-style” bugler, newspaper vendor, barber, saloon songstress, fruitseller, unemployed semi-mute, and prostitute. All under the hoof of downmarket victimizers: landlords/ladies, tavernkeepers, showbosses, brothel madams, and of course petty gangsters dealing in human souls and opium etc.

The Story.
This is how the Baike “encyclopedia” – probably the best source for Chinese film summaries – abbreviates the tale. (

“The story takes place in Shanghai in 1935.

(The [male lead etc characters are:
Chen (little Chen) a player (bugler) in a “fife and drum” (chuigu) corps
Wang (“old Wang”) a newspaper vendor
A (nameless) barber
A (stutterer who is) unemployed
A (fruit) hawker

It is the end of yet another day of scrambling for a livelihood along the paradeway/boulevard (malu) for these 5 gallant street-brothers who (are engaged to) “share in both hardship and blessing”, and they have returned to their cramped second-story digs in the Taiping (“Peaceful”) Quarter.

Selling Songs for Supper: The Cry of the Clapper or Abing in the Marketplace

Here I shall begin from the end and with a notated subject that i fear most of you will not read/hear/ even intuit from the script alone. There is a point to this, though. What we see (leave it at that) is a persistent but impossible to translate sequence module characteristic of most – just about all – stage or open-air “aria” song, usually as sung by fem-gendered voices, called (a confusing translation!) “tune-counter”, counter in the sense of marker or chip, or even a card, 牌 pai. A kind of label with internal hint (key, rhythm, BUT NOT MELODY) of the opening line of the song to come. For reasons no one has tried to explain, this mini-overture (never sung, always left to voice-mimetic instruments, mainly the 2-string “fiddle” or erhu) is almost always inserted as the “counter for xxyy” before XXYY is heard.

What is it, and what is its function?

Author’s Transcription of “Wuxi Lakeside Miniature” (xiaoxiao Wuxi jing) as recorded in film erquan yingyue (1979): “tune-counter” in msrs 1-6, much abbreviated.


To my excitement I learned yesterday that the new in-plan subject for the annual Sinomusicological “summit”, hosted by CHIME, will be “Sound, Noise and … Everyday Soundscapes in contemporary China” ( Aarhus University, Denmark / CHIME, 21-24 August, 2014).

According to the initial announcement, 4 of the (over many) possible topics include:

Sound and Music
Defining Urban Soundscapes
Defining Rural Soundscapes
Sound and the Everyday

At the most obvious level, I suspect what accounts for the qupai pre-announcement is (just as with the overture) the need to get audience attention, a kind of throat-clearing without overdoing it. It seems likely to me to be a technique that street-“musicians” of all stripes – before/without the tool of amperage-boosting megaphones – adopted to fashion any sort of recycling, messaged song (from hawker’s cry to what I shall call “begging-bowl opera/beggar’s ballad) to reach out to a consuming/buying open-air crowd. Which in turn makes it part of as well as a response to the noise (acoustical chaos) that always surrounds outdoor anything, most of all the public concert.



Or: Huang Doudou (“Yellow Bean”) rediscovers his metier.

The players:

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This little-heralded dance-drama (wuju) is a backstage musical presenting jingju (Peking Opera) from the inside and as seen through a kind of broadway musical production in the making.

But presenting and trahsforming one subcategory in particular: the wuxi 武戏. (“Military plays”. heroic in nature, full of loyal generals, glorious emperors, wise ministers, all of whom struggle against traitorous opposing forces – Farewell My Concubine and Hua Mulan, to name 2 we have studied). This was thought of as a lower art form than wenxi (civil plays) because so much of the action was imitation combat, acrobatics and the like. It is played mainy by wusheng 武生, which is the class of apprenctices, who must fist train as acrobat-athletes for the combat scenes (a means of testing their stamina).

But forms of Opera both hard as hell to “modernize” or render as hybrid Western/modern. Meaning rescore and rechoreograph such that a Broadway or Soho audience could “get it”, be glued to their seats by (just) watching or listening, without having to endure garbled tutelage from the producer. And without having to recruit audiences by “star”-studding, something that ended with Mei Lanfang’s tours.

The musical is also (or even mainly) about the revival of the career of Huang Doudou, quondam star of the Shanghai Ballet, who has staggered from hit to non-hit as a star player in the world of wushu – tumbling, gynmnastics. appurtenances of the Wuxi. (His Hua Mulan was a flop). The drama of this very short piece rests in whether or not his troupe can rescue the form from its relegation as bottom-level pure show, disappearance on hand. And even more on whether, as tghe junior of the “three musketeers” among the apprentices, and loser in love, he can somehow find the way back to or even create dr nobo something even better.

Well, while we weren’t looking.

November, 2011, 2 Beijing performances only, the rest in Taiyuan (?), the Shanxi Provincial “Opera” Company, not even recorded for CCTV (that I know of)

A 1-hr plus Broadway style adaptation of the “show” that actually works.
The “libretto” by Lilian Lee, who 18 years earlier had made it to the silver screen with the same subject, in Bawang bieji (Farewell my Concubine, see my earlier posts and the “sword dance”), but managed to keep audiences coming only by studiously AVOIDING anything but the shortest take of genuine or even derivative performance. In fact, hardly any “opera” at all, just backstage stuff and back-back-stage political hackery about the Cultural Revolution.

The trick (isn’t it obvious from Maurice Bejart’s In the Mood for Love (2008), a take on Shanghai stage art in the 30s via Zhou Xuan) that scoring it as a musical, with dance featured, was the solution?

Well it is. Or rather was: no invite came from abroad. Not exotic or esoteric enough?

Mo Yan’s “Graffiti Realism” and Metamorphobic Fantasy

It has been pointed out that reductive caricature – the naming of characters by out-of-the-ordinary (usually undignified) physical attributes or the attrbutes’ metamorphoses into free-floating body parts – regularly swallows up the human actors in Mo Yan’s fiction. A tag of eccentricity (what unusual attributes of clothing, complexion, height, etc. associate with a character’s initial appearance?) comes to stand in for the persona, as it were, “behind” them.

This can at first pass be seen as no more harmful than a means of establishing a character’s identity within a blurred and alien and pressingly overpopulated village/commune world (or one so perceived by the writer); as such it seems cousin to the more-or-less harmless teasing of the nickname, the monicker that a not terribly self-conscious interloper might accept and even re-broadcast. (The “Unicorn” in BBWH for example).

Thus in Frogs, Dec. 2009 (commentary by Yinde Zhang):

“The given names of the characters, …nearly always refer to a part of their body, Chen the Nose (Chen Bi 陳鼻), Wang the Liver (Wang Gan 王肝), Xiao (father 肖上唇) = Xiao Upper Lip, Xiao son =
Xiao Lower Lip (Xiao Xiachun 肖下唇)….”

(Yinde Zhang, China Perspectives, 2011/4, p. 60 The Biopolitical Novel: Some Reflections on Mo Yan Frogs

But this is no recent digression: it turns up in one of his first works (1981, much earlier) Minjian yinyue where we encounter
Lame Fang 6, “Pocky” (pockmarked) Du Shuang, and “Yellow Eyes” Huang Yan (fn)

This stretching – and diminishing – of identifying perception by the superimposition of an isolated and normally non- referenced body part attachment (moustache, nose) or deformity (acne, smallpox scars etc) is of course a universal attribute of the very long-lineaged genre of satire, in which regard it is (at least) cruel but still not meant to terrify: in “inclusive” satire it somehow transforms into engaging playfulness. (Children of course play/play at this double-faced badinage all the time).

The film Dalu (Great Road, Trunk Road, 1934) in Neo-Magical Decode

Man vs Machine: Real vs Magic Roadbuilding

coolies 1kemna 3(continued from previous post, May 14 2013)

1. Wartime Machines and Wartime Marooning

The Film Dalu 大路 (Lianhua Studios, Shanghai, 1934, Dir. Sun Yu (1900-1980)) is incontrovertibly a B class film, using Hollywood borrowed sub-plots and role-playing to spin a yarn of Resist Japan, much earlier than the Resist Japan art film hit its stride (if it ever did).

But as if by accident it tells its tale in a distinctly Magic(al) Realist mode, this well before that genre was in play globally. It is “about” the isolation (sometimes poetic or freedom-tolerant, at other times demeaning or dangerous, an unwanted condition) of backwater China, a country of meager roads and dependence on river transport, though we do not get to see see to much it in “magical” construct, except where it links to freelarking and custom-defiant cavorting by the “Leonora” -Mo Li – the “plus” side of isolation, for a puckish figure of the sort she plays could scarcely be imagined or scripted in an urban setting.

To start: where are we? Again in Magical Realist mode, in a static nowhere land: perhaps in the Huai basin (Anhui)- [in the heartbreaking “documentaries” of flood victims, shown as Li Lili sings of Fengyang, in the Huai catchment, where Good Earth is also set]; perhaps along the Zhejiang/Anhui border where the Huling Pass (terminus of the road) is actually located; but certainly divorced from the metrocenter of Shanghai. The DEPARTURE from which is the story told in part 5 (20:00 ff) of the film, and even set to its own diegetic harmonica music. (An instrumental pre-quote of the song “Songstress under the Boot” 铁蹄下的歌女, “themesong” of 风云儿女 (1935), also composed by Nie Er, an “aria” of/for an extra-urban wandering female musician).

Mo Yan’s “Republic of Wine”: Satiric Allegory of Deng Era Liberalization or Confessions of a Nightmare Dreamer

an age of pygmiesJiuguo, or “Liquorland”

(GB “Republic of Wine), 1992, may be regarded as Mo Yan’s first venture into the tradition of Swiftian satiric travel-allegory, though (as ever) no advertisement of this kinship appears anywhere. The structure is that of a journey to and back out of a never-never-land insulated from conventional norms and outside scrutiny. As perhaps a reference to the Fijian indigenes “discovered” in one or another 18th century “travelogues”, the narrator lands in a “country” where cannibalism is a major – and privileged – entertainment of the Party elite, who feast on carefully prepared “meat children” (routong) at state banquets.

The excursion into a never-land-land has of course a very deep history in Chinese “pulp” fiction of the post-1880s (or perhaps even further back, in Xiyouji or “Monkey”, rerversals (satires) of the clericological travel-narratives sparked by the transfer of Mahayana Buddhism to Tang China.

What is presented is “quasi” caprice hiding under the canopy of reportage, a strategy of epistemological “play” that was both useful and “safe” as a means of popularizing trans-oceanic societies and their hardware (at once miraculous and frightening). “Believe it or not, dear reader… but this was what we have seen…”. All this of course is radical tension with the unambiguous run downs on “why the West is strong” and how to redress the balance (fuguo qiangbing and lifa/lixian) pamphlets – filled with alarm and predictions of doom – that poured in mainly as translations of Japanese reformist tracts.

(A helpful introduction to the whimsical or even sci-fi-like travelogues that poured from the pen of Wang Tao appears in Fogel, ed. Traditions of East Asian Travel, (2006), esp. Emma Jinhua Teng, “The West as a Kingdom of Women: Women and Occidentalism in Wang Tao’s Tales of Travel”. )

So far, “merely” grotesque, or gruesome, though (since the venue is beyond the map- again Swiftian) the claim must be taken as a kind of second-hand rumor, possibly a hallucination or folk-fiction. (Local “peasants” are described as selling their boy children to a Culinary Institute by weight and quality of flesh – but these referents allude to abortion and the (still?) actual sale of children into prostitution or servitude by pauperized peasants – something nervously described in BBWH.

Much closer to the heart of the narrative is the pictorial rendering of the “new” business class. Both victims (the children) and those who corruptly extract profits for this and other exchanges are configured in terms of height, bodily height: actually (seemingly) a correlative of aggressive energy, not of inertia or evasion.

In fact, the central “actor”, Yu Yichi 余一尺 “12 inch Yu -actually 17)”, proprietor 老板 of the “town’s” most successful “new style” businesses 一尺餐厅 (12-inch Tavern) is but one third the height of the average “outsider”, and limits his hiring to (mainly) female dwarfs.

Mo Yan’s Folkhistorical Chronicle of NE Gaomi (1) : The (Real-life) Bandit-heroes of Red Sorghum Family

rEsd sorgh collage apr 9 2013

Header Illustrations: (upper right clockwise)
1. 江湖郎中的“祖传神方江湖郎中的“祖传神方
“mountebank” in marketplace, often a guerrilla spy (ditto for street martial arts entertainers and wedding/funeral “escorts”, monks and litter-bearers)
2. Chinese (Daoist) God of Intoxication, Dukang (+/- Bacchus). Sometimes claimed as the inventor of “alcohol”
3. Japanese truck-bearing bridge over 蛟龙河 Flood Dragon River: aka Sunjiakou Crossing 14-arch Bridge/Qingshakou (roadway)
built 1937-8
4. Japanese truck-bearing bridge over 蛟龙河 Flood Dragon River: aka Sunjiakou 14-arch Bridge, side view
5. Dukang (“wine god”, vendor’s advertisement)


Folk-history as Dream and Nightmare: Origin of the Red Sorghum Quintet

Mo Yan’s Nobel-crowned success – or impress – as a writer of metafiction (abstract or symbolic philosophical discourse embedded in subjective fictional narrative – my own term) – has moved critical interest away from his first success d’estime, Red Sorghum Family (Taiwan ed. 1988). A work which is unmistakably historically sequenced narrative, as is also its companion novel, Big Breasts and Wide Hips. (1996). Though the recurrent return to “NE Gaomi” (i.e. Dalan township) – reminiscent of Faulkneresque Yoknapatawpha County- creates and expands a fictional space about which more and more detail accumulates, the sense of intermittent superhumanity and magic embedded in the “NE Gaomi” chronicles drops away with the (clearly defined) mid-life coming-into- adulthood of the subject-narrator, Sima Jintong (GB 459, age “42” upon return to 76-8 Dalan), a place literally ploughed over for the construction of a hideous “new town” of ferroconcrete by typical “Deng” era predator capitalists. Though surreality and grotesqueness – what I shall call “graffiti” realism – persist across the divide (time-in-motion vs time-as-present), and the stageset remains Dalan (fictionalized “Northeast Gaomi County”), a major change in shape nevertheless occurs. Bloodline history simply ceases: the events first capturing attention, starting more or less in 1938 when the tides of guerrilla war first (literally) overflow the terrain, come to an abrupt halt with the 1993 (un-calendered) death of the writer/narrator’s mother, the super-stalwart Shangguan Lu, the novel’s unmistakable (and Christianity-converted) hero. We are at the very end left with a stage populated by two extra-maritally conceived stepbrothers, both fathered by a “Swedish” missionary-priest (Mallory). Leaving the door open to Deng Xiaoping-era capitalists to run wild and eradicate all still extant markers of the town itself.

Mo Yan and Flight in Reverse: Chthonic Legend in Red Sorghum


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(preamble): Why Red Sorghum – again. I have recently rewritten the frontispiece for this website: it now focuses on the metatrope of flight. Physical flight upward, seemingly without point of return or safety armature. Something I first noticed in reviewing … Continue reading

The Last Opera: White Haired Girl 2011 (Happy Birthday!)


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In a typically “birthday-present” mode, Wang Kun and the PLA went all out last summer to produce a nec plus ultra version of (new) China’s “first” opera:, White Haired Girl (1945). The occasion (in ancestral birthday terms) was the 90th … Continue reading