- Sounding the Modern Woman: The Songstress in Chinese Cinema by Jean Ma
Sounding the Modern Woman: The Songstress in Chinese Cinema
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015: 281pp.
The enigmatic figure of the Chinese female performer, embodied on the silver screen via the focal point of her singing voice, is the subject of Jean Ma’s excellent new monograph. Dexterously bridging the various disciplines of history, cinema, music, and gender studies to form a compelling five-chapter narrative, Ma’s labour of love addresses an important lacuna in what has long been appreciated – if somewhat taken for granted – as an important trope in the popular, contemporary, and historical Chinese imagination.
Exploring several archetypes of the Chinese songstress in film through investigating the street singer, rustic princess, vivacious teenager, nightclub cabaret artist, and fallen woman, Ma brings conscientious attention to quirky detail within broad, sweeping accounts of history. Her storytelling is clever and eloquent – who could come up with more melodious turns of phrase than ‘historical residues yet to be discharged’ (p.27, on songstress nostalgia) and ‘flashpoints of porosity in these closed generic systems’ (p.93, on Cantonese opera films cross-breeding with the Shanghai hangover industry)? At the same time, the book is interjected with multiple examples of practised, technical analyses of complex media tableau that corroborate the author’s main arguments.
Chapter one introduces the songstress herself in 1920s Shanghai, by way of her departure from the musical stage for the silver screen amidst a whirl of intrigue and romance. The iconic Zhou Xuan is discussed here almost as a synecdoche for the era and the birth of the Chinese songstress herself. Here, due diligence is paid to interesting mirrorings and mappings of the tragic star’s life and those of her characters in film, bringing up reflections upon the notion of the gaze itself.
Chapter two delves into the migration of the Chinese film industry from Shanghai to Hong Kong. The resulting attendant reconfiguration of filmic imaginations of the urban cosmopolis from the glitz and nostalgia of Shanghai (eventually becoming ‘stranded objects’) to the modernity and buzz of British-governed Hong Kong is examined. The family-run Shaw and Cathay film companies are identified as the key movers of the new industry. They help construct idealistic – often unrealistic and aspirational, and occasionally also progressive – notions of modern city [End Page 83] life, in which the songs of rising female actresses are implicated. Aspects of transmedia and transnational hybridism are hinted at here too, as Ma describes the tentacles of these two film companies reaching into sister scenes in the pop world, as well as new markets of the diasporic Chinese in Southeast Asia (the ‘South Seas’) and Taiwan.
Against this backdrop of industry and wider, international ecology, Ma digs deep into a specific case study of the singer-actress Chung Ching in Chapter three. Here, she argues that the late actress almost single-handedly created the trope of the vivacious village girl made over as glamorous starlet. Less celebrated today than other cult figures such as Ge Lan (Grace Chang) and Lin Dai (Linda Lin), Chung is allocated the breadth of an entire chapter within which Ma examines the paradoxes of authenticity in the layered construction of her various screen personae, particularly via her reliance on the pop star Yao Li to give voice to her screen songs.
The redoubtable Ge Lan herself is next given two whole chapters for investigation. Ge Lan is referred to throughout the book by her alternate Anglicised name of Grace Chang, in respect of her specific identity articulation in colonial Hong Kong and her subsequent tentative foray into the United States, but perhaps more importantly in reflection of her advancing of the role of the modern, progressive female cosmopolite – both young and innocent (in Mambo Girl [Wen Yi, 1957]), and fallen and betrayed (The Wild, Wild Rose [Wang Tian-lin, 1960]). Chang’s early appropriation of popular Latin American genres and jazz – via rock and roll – is contextualised against changing cultural and political landscapes in an aspirational Hong Kong of the 1950s and 1960s. Her later dramatic maturation into...