24 introduction
As I have already noted, the songstress phenomenon was not confined to
a single regional locus; rather, it bridged two notable epicenters of film pro-
duction. The phenomenon demands to be understood as part of what Poshek
Fu has termed the “Shanghai– Hong Kong nexus,” referring to the “extensive
movement of people, capital, and ideas across the border” from 1935 until the
closing of the borders of the People’s Republic of China in 1950.70
As Fu argues
in his important study on this topic, the links between the film and entertain-
ment industries of these regions were critical to Shanghai’s standing as the so-
called Hollywood of the East in the 1930s, and to Hong Kong’s subsequent as-
sumption of this mantle after the decline of the Shanghai film industry. During
these years, waves of migrants poured into Hong Kong, nearly quadrupling its
population. Among these were a large number of literati, filmmakers, compos-
ers, writers, and performing artists, all of whom would play a crucial role in the
colony’s rise as a new center of cultural production for the Chinese- speaking
world. The passage of the songstress across these regions attests to the tight-
ness of these connections as well as to the continuing impact of the Shanghai–
Hong Kong nexus throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
The remnants of prewar film culture circulated throughout postwar cinema,
evident in the latter’s forms and conventions, story lines (many of which were
recycled from earlier Shanghai productions), and even musical content (a sig-
nificant fraction of the songs featured in postwar gechang pian
were Shanghai
oldies, rearranged and sometimes set to new lyrics). As reminders of another
place and time, these remnants and echoes point to postwar film culture’s
emergence at the unstable historical juncture of a great divide, when China’s
geopo liti cal map was reconfigured in the aftermath of the country’s civil war.
To a large extent, the era of film history over which the songstress reigned was
the creation of an émigré generation, whose members were steeped in their
memories of the past and deeply marked by their experiences of displacement.
The affective resonance of these songs for their audience finds a basis in a
long- standing pop u lar mythology of the songstress as a figure of existential
homelessness— orphan, refugee, or exile. This mythology was crafted in films
from Street Angel—which casts the songstress as a refugee from the Northeast,
one of many millions of people displaced by the Japa nese invasion—to Da lu
(The Big Road, 1934)— where she is embodied in the familiar cultural icon of
the wandering flower drum singer from Fengyang, forced to flee her home
by natural disasters and po liti cal unrest. Significantly, it is only through the
per for mance of song that the audience learns of the background of these char-
acters. In the volatile po liti cal atmosphere of the 1930s, songs functioned as
coded references to contemporary historical events; in subsequent de cades,
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