by Dr Anthony Pun
Bai Guang (白光)The Asian Marilyn Munroe & Marlene Dietrich rolled into one.
In the 1950s, Radio Malaya was very active in the Kinta Valley with the main antenna on the top of Kledang Hill, broadcasting in medium waves and 3 languages namely, Malay, Chinese and English. Many pop songs in these languages were commonly broadcasted. In the beginning of 1950, most household would have a radio and some with gramophones (mechanical ones). Within a few short years, radio shops sprang up in Ipoh/Menglembu, and record players and amplifiers moved in. All these gadgetry have helped to entertain people. In particular, my mother was an enthusiastic Chinese pop song listener and she would turn on the radio for Mandarin songs that come from the Shanghai song birds.
As a little 5 year old kid, I can vividly remember my mother’s favourite’s pop songs as she would listen to them on the radio and could later hum the tune or sing the song. After a while, I began to realise that these were Mum’s favourite songs and even today, these tunes still rings in my mind. I may not remember the name of the song but when it is played, I can remember some of the lyrics.
There were many song birds of China but one of my Mum’s favourite was Bai Guang. In the early 1950s, Bai Guang did a tour of Malaya. In those days, it was the norm to show a movie then followed by a stage show. I remembered more than 60 years ago, my Mum took me to the Majestic Theatre (Da Hua大华) in Ipoh to see a live performance by Bai Guang. The theatre was full of people but unfortunately I cannot remember which songs she sang. It was the first time I saw the famous singer and unfortunately, I cannot reproduce her image in my mind. Maybe I fell asleep, as it was passed my bedtime.
My next encounter with this singer was when I was doing some shopping for music books in Malaysia in 1990s and I came across several books which feature Chinese artist pop songs from 1930 to 1970. I had no idea what was printed in these books until I sat down on the piano and started to play the tunes. Soon I realised that I had got onto some great old songs known to my mother. As I started to play them on the piano, the memory of my late Mum came flooding into my mind and my eyes were a bit wet. I stopped playing and sat in my garden relaxed with my eyes closed. A few more encounters with the songs helped me to overcome the emotional aspects of the songs.
I wish to share with readers a short biography of Bai Guang.
Singer and film star Bai Guang (Cantonese Pak Kwong 白光) was born in Beijing in 1921 as Shi Yongfen 史永芬. Educated in a Beijing Performance Troupe (北平沙龍劇團), and later studied dramatic arts at the University of Tokyo, she then returned to China in 1942 with an ambition to become a film star. Her first film was Love Peas of Southland (紅豆生南國) (1943) followed by 9 other films, and the last one was Tears of Songstress (歌女紅菱艷 1953). She was known for playing seductive roles due to her flirtatious image on screen, an Eastern equivalent of the Hollywood film star Marilyn Munroe.
Bai Guang’s songs have a flirtatious tone or sexy attitude. Her songs were often used in many of her movies as soundtracks. In an age and culture where “operatic” soprano voices were the norm, her slightly deep and hoarse voice, akin to Marlene Dietrich of Germany during WWII years, did helped her become a big star in Shanghai and at the same time, won her the title of the “Queen of the Low Voice” (低音歌后).
Some of her hits include “Autumn Evening” (秋夜), “Without You” (如果沒有你), “The Pretender” (假正經), “Revisiting Old Dreams” (魂縈舊夢), and “Waiting For You” (等著你回來). For her singing success she was billed as one of the 8 great singers in Shanghai. (Note: The first two songs were indeed my Mum’s favourite and now mine too). To assist readers to enjoy the songs, please paste the URLs on your internet search engine (or google) to the relevant Utube site.
白光 – 秋夜 – Bai Guang – Autumn Nights
如果没有你 (Ru Guo Mei You Ni) – 白光 (Bai Guang)
黑膠唱片分享: 白光 如果沒有你
白光 – 魂縈舊夢 Revisiting Old Dreams (lyrics)
(白光 -等著你回來)Shanghai Lounge Divas – Bai Kwong – “Waiting For You” (original)
白光 BAI GUANG 假正經 The Pretender 78RPM PATHE 1947
白光 – 魂縈舊夢 – Bai Guang – Pondering Dream
白光 － BAI GUANG 等着你回來。35739 PATHE 78RPM 1947
In those days, Chinese artists were expected to possess talents in both singing and acting and by today’s standards, it is still a rare quality. Julie Andrews in the movies Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, is a good Western example.
Bai Guang moved to Hong Kong after the formation of the PRC.. By 1950 Bai retired as an actress in China. After marrying an American GI in 1951, she lived in Japan and successfully opened a nightclub in Tokyo’s Ginza District in 1953. She then returned to Hong Kong, recording some music through 1959 when she officially retired. In 1969 she resettled in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. . She performed to wide acclaim in 1979 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Her last public appearance was in 1995 at Hong Kong’s TV top 10 Chinese singer award presentation. On August 27, 1999 she died in Kuala Lumpur due to colon cancer at the age of 78 and was buried in Nirvana Memorial Park, Kuala Lumpur. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkn-SRGbjIE.