introduction 13
the affective disposition of these chanteuses réalistes, with their world- weary
songs of heartbreak and abuse, their lyrical expressions of “female loss and
suffering,” closely mirrors that of the Chinese songstress, who plays for pathos
and uses her voice as a testament to suffering and pain.35 The turn to song as a
signifier of female subjectivity and desire suggests an alternative vector of mu-
sical expression in the cinema, one that can be mapped with respect to cultur-
ally specific songstress traditions and isolated moments of song per for mance
that erupt even in films that are not musicals.36
Like the chanteuse réaliste, the Chinese songstress embodies the traces of a
live entertainment culture predating and paralleling sound cinema, anchored
in a milieu of tea houses, cabarets, and concert halls. The feminization of vocal
per for mance can be explained in part by recourse to what Emilie Yeh describes
as the “female- centered musical amusements” of the urban demimonde, with
the songstress finding a kindred relative in the singsong girls and other “fe-
male entertainers who [sold] nocturnal delights to pleasure- seekers in colo-
nial Shanghai.”37
According to Meng Yue, the presence of these female singers
contributed greatly to the “de cadent anarchism” and heady, seductive ambi-
ance of entertainment districts like Baoshan Street.38 We see this world re-
created in numerous songstress films that nod to the singer’s origins in this
culture of stage per for mance, from the seedy tea houses where she works to
attract customers (Street Angel) to the luxurious art deco nightclubs where
she reigns over the dance floor (Song of a Songstress).39 The lyrical offerings of
these stage performers included regional forms like tanci (Suzhou- based sto-
rytelling songs) and other urban folk melodies; opera arias, sung individually
without the props, costumes, gestures, and interspersed dialogue associated
with stage per for mance, in a practice known as qing chang (pure singing); and
the jazzy tunes of Western- influenced modern pop music (shidai qu). These
female singers continued to maintain their central position with the advent of
mass- mediated music, moving into the sphere of radio per for mance and phono-
graph recording as shidai qu gained a foothold in the urban soundscape. In this
period there was a dearth of male vocalists in modern pop u lar music, which
was dominated instead by songstresses like Li Minghui, Zhou Xuan, Yao Lee,
Bai Hong, Gong Qiuxia, and Ouyang Feiying.40 The division of musical labor
onscreen was thus consonant with the actual division of labor in the modern
music industry, where the vast majority of professional singers were female
and most songwriters were male. Yet this fact alone cannot account for the
extreme imbalance between female and male pop stars that uniquely charac-
terizes this context, nor does it explain how things came to be this way in the
first place.
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