by Dr Anthony Pun
A top soprano vocalist and great film start of the 1930s and 1940s
This article re-introduced Zhou Xuan (周璇), who was one the best songbirds and film star in China in the 1930-1950 period. Despite her talents and popularity, she led a tragic personal life which was complicated by failed personal relationships and ended up in tragedy. She was probably the first known Chinese example of popular entertainer leading a tragic life. Despite her death had occurred more than 50 years ago, her songs continued to reverberate and resonate in the minds of people who have come to hear her songs and liked it. Soon her songs will remembered as “classics” of the modern songs created in the early 20th century. The amount of information on her in the internet is a reflection of her undying popularity in the diverse overseas Chinese Diaspora.
My Mum and all her sisters, were familiar with Zhou Xuan’s songs. The family had an old mechanical gramophone and they use to play her songs on the Pathe label 78 rpm vinyl record. As a young lad, I too have heard these songs and I have presented the source of these songs on U-tube where you can listen to it for free. My Mum’s favourite was 周璇 永远的微笑 Zhou Xuan Forever Smiling
If I looked at the Chinese title of the songs, I had no idea what the tune is. However, when it is played, my brain retrieved the tune from the depths of memory and I whistle the tune. Sooner or later, I shall put the tunes in musical notes when I get a midi-software which can convert the played tune into musical notes.
Zhou Xuan’s short biography
Zhou was born Su Pu (蘇璞), but was separated from her natural parents at a young age and raised by adoptive parents. She spent her entire life searching for her biological parents but her parentage was never established until after her death.
According to later family research, a relative who was an opium addict took her at the age of 3 to another city and sold her to a family named Wang, who named her Wang Xiaohong. She was later adopted by a family named Zhou, changing her name to Zhou Xiaohong.
Zhou displayed exceptional singing talents at an early age and was supported by her adopted family to have her talents groomed in a professional school. In 1931, she joined Li Jinhui’s Ming Yue 明月 (Bright Moon) Society, a Shanghai musical company. In her first performance, the 13-year-old sang a patriotic song called “The Glory of a Nation,” which contained the lyrics “Contend with the enemy on the battlefield”. She later adopted the stage name ‘Xuan’ (璇) meaning beautiful jade in Chinese.
Zhou Xuan started her film career in 1935. In the 1937 film Street Angel, directed by Yuan Muhi, Zhou Xuan was given a role as the lead singing girl. This film propelled her to stardom and she became the most popular and marketable singer in the “gramophone” era. Many of her songs originated from the movies she starred in. She was also casted in Hong Kong made films between 1946 and 1950 and these films include “All-Consuming Love” (長相思), “Hua wai liu ying” (花外流鶯), “Qinggong mishi” (清宮秘史), and “Rainbow Song” (彩虹曲).
After completing “Shanghai Nights” (夜上海) in 1949, Zhou Xuan then returned to Shanghai but her in the next few years she had suffered from depression. Her unhappy life was characterised by complicated and unhappy situations marked by her failed marriages, illegitimate children, and suicide attempts. She spent the next few years in and out of mental institutions owing to frequent breakdowns.
In 1957 she died in a mental asylum in Shanghai at the age of 39 and the probable cause of death was encephalitis following a nervous breakdown. Zhou Xuan was survived by 2 sons, Zhou Wen and Zhou Wei,
Zhou Xuan’s Films
Zhou Xuan was a super film star in the Chinese Film industry. She notched 43 movies and most fans would agree that their favourite would be Street Angel (馬路天使, 1937), which contained two popular theme songs “Four Seasons Song” (四季歌) and “The Wandering Songstress” (天涯歌女). Shanghai Nights is still a popular old favourite with the theme song of the same name (夜上海). Other films include 狂歡之夜 (1935) 西廂記 (1940), 孟麗君 (1940), Dream of the Red Chamber 红楼梦 (1944), Night Inn 夜店 (1947), 長相思 (1947), 清宮秘史 (1948). 花外流鶯 (1948), 歌女之歌 (1948), 莫負青春 (1949), 花街 (1950).
Zhou Xuan’s Songs
As Zhou Xuan’s movie career was peaking, she was still China’s top songbird in the 1930s. The songs I have indicated below, are very popular in Malaya in the 1950s.
周璇 采槟榔 Zhou Xuan Plcking Betal nut
周璇 知音何處尋 – Zhou Xuan – Seeking a Bosom Friend
周璇 叮嚀 Zhou Xuan Reminder
周璇 百花歌 Zhou Xuan Flower Song
**周璇 永远的微笑 Zhou Xuan Forever Smiling
周璇 黃葉舞秋風- Dance of Autumn Yellow Leaves
周璇 夜上海 Zhou Xuan Night time Shanghai
*周璇 四季歌 Zhou Xuan Singing “Song of Four Seasons”
*周璇 天涯歌女 Zhou Xuan – The Wandering Songstress 1937
周璇 月圓花好 – Zhou Xuan – Blooming Flowers Full Moon
Age of Bloom(Best days of our lives)-Zhou Xuan
周璇 不要唱吧 Zhou Xuan – Don’t Sing 1947
*周璇 – 何日君再来 Zhou Xuan When Will My Gentleman Return?
周璇 凯旋歌 (1947) Zhou Xuan Triumph Song
Thank you for tunning in this article and I hope it will bring you back good memories as it has done to me.