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Ladies of Old Shanghai on the 4th Avenue

29 June 2009
 

Ever since more than a century ago when China became the semi-colony of the Western Power and Shanghai was forced to be under the rule of the white supremacists, there have been two different cultures co-existed in China: one is so-called Beijing Style (京派), distinctively Chinese and traditional but with a sour twist as its authenticity had long been lost following the demise of the last indigenous regime, the Mind Dynasty (1368 - 1644); and the other is dubbed Shanghai Style (海派), characterized by a rather Westernized approach, more cosmopolitan yet extremely self-indulgent.

     
 

 
     

The first photo studio Wang Kai Photo Shop (王开照相馆) in Shanghai's "Cultural Street" 4th Avenue ( 四马路) in 1930s, the heyday during Shanghai's colonial era.

     
 

 
     

Apart from "high culture" represented by book stores, pop culture such as photo shops and theatres and cinemas, 4th Avenue was also a centre for "low culture" - brothels.

     
 

 
     

With a high concentration of book stores, stationary shops, theatres, cafes and dancing parlours in and around the 4th Avenue, the street became one of the favourite haunts of the young ladies of elite in the old Shanghai.

     
 

 
     

These noble girls were known as mingyuan (名媛) typically born into a rich family and received scholarly upbringing and artistic training with an educational qualification at an elite girls' school.

     
 

 
     

In those days, a proper noble Shanghai girl must be capable of speaking fluent English, knowing how to drive a car, ride a horse and play tennis.

     
 

 
     

A Noble Girl also needed to be able to compose classical Chinese verses, produce fine calligraphy, create exquisite ink paintings, singing the archaic Suzhou style opera Kuiqu (昆曲) and play ancient music.

     
 

 
     

If the Noble Girls were the products of "high culture", then the dancing, singing and performing girls in old Shanghai were a group of people who helped shape the pop culture on the stages and screens.

     
 

 
     

One of the most memorable pop song and film star was Zhou Xuan (周璇). Hauntingly beautiful and extraordinarily talent, she was abandoned at birth and then sold to brothel by her foster father.

     
 

 
     

During the semi-colonial era, it became so common to see those pretty and pretty sensitive Shanghai actresses to end their young lives by committing suicide.

     
 

 
     

There were exceptions though. This gorgeous performing artist named Qin Yi (秦怡) sustained her professional career and gains wide popularity for half a century. Well entering 80s now, she is still adored by her fans for her dignity and elegance.

There were three First Ladies in modern Chinese history and they were all closely associated with Shanghai:

Song Qingling (宋庆龄, 1893 - 1981), the wife of Sun Zhongshan (孙中山), the founding father of the modern China;

Song Meiling (宋美龄, 1897 - 2003), the wife of Jiang Jieshi (蒋介石), the president of the Republic of China.

Jiang Qing (江青), the wife of Mao Zedong (毛泽东), the founding father of the People's Republic of China.

Born and grown up in Shanghai, two Songs, who were sisters, were the classical noble Shanghai girls with a distinguished family background, while Jiang had a rather humble upbringing and started her career as a film actress in Shanghai. The endings of the three First Ladies were also quite typical to their classes: The Songs surrounded by their loved ones at a grand funeral respectively, while Jiang committed suicide and died alone.

Today, the 4th Avenue is renamed as Fuzhou Road (福州路), and still the home to most book stores in Shanghai.

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(Source of info/photo: 法制晚报)


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