12 introduction
movie queen Hu Die as a Peking opera singer.32 Solo per for mances by singing
actresses predominated throughout the transition to sound, and many of the
female stars of early sound cinema, like Zhou Xuan, came to filmmaking by
way of the musical stage and recording industry. As the mainland- based film-
making and pop u lar music industries entered a phase of nationalism and mass
mobilization starting in the late 1930s, the female singing voice was joined by
male voices and eventually swallowed up in a revolutionary chorus. But this
did not mark the last gasp of the solo female vocalist, for she would emerge
with even greater force in the postwar period of Mandarin cinema, as the sing-
ing women of early sound cinema were borne along on the tides of the war time
exodus of cultural workers and intellectuals to Hong Kong. Stars like Zhou
Xuan, after building successful careers on the mainland, resumed their work
in the colony’s reconstituted entertainment industry and were eventually suc-
ceeded by a new generation of performers cast in their mold. These singing
actresses reigned over the Hong Kong movie world in the postwar years, over-
shadowing their male costars. Their voices dominated the airwaves, and their
images graced the screen in picture after picture dedicated to displaying their
talents to the fullest advantage. The gendering of lyrical expression grew even
more pronounced during this period, as the idea of “no film without a song”—
to use an oft- cited phrase from the pop u lar music historian Wong Kee- chee—
became something of an industry watchword.33
The songstresses of Chinese cinema call to mind counterparts from film-
making traditions around the world: in Hollywood, stars like Jeanette Mac-
Donald, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Doris Day; enka singers of Japa-
nese cinema, such as Hibari Misora;34 and the playback singers whose voices
permeate the soundtracks of Indian cinema, to name just a few examples. But
in most global traditions of musical filmmaking, song per for mance is not
the exclusive province of female vocalists. Given the tight association between
song and femininity in Chinese films, the Chinese songstress is more akin to
the chanteuse réaliste of French cinema in the 1930s and 1940s. Kelley Conway
has described the ways in which the adoption of sound technology catalyzed an
absorption of performers and styles from a culture of pop u lar music rooted in
the café- concert, cabaret, and music hall. As realist singers like Fréhel, Damia,
and Edith Piaf became involved in film production, their chanteuse personas
were mythologized in stories that unfolded in a working- class underworld
of cafés, nightclubs, and city streets. The earthiness and bold sexuality that
characterizes the personas of these singers set them apart from their Chinese
counterparts, who were for the most part more idealized and held accountable
to restrictive notions of feminine virtue (a point to which I will return). But
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