May - Jul 2014:
Tong Yuejuan –
The Iron Lady of Chinese Cinema
In 1930, 16-year-old Wan Shouying traveled from Shanghai to Jiangxi to become a performer under her artist name “Tong Yuejuan.” In 1933, she married “Movie King” Zhang Shankun. Living through five decades of tumultuous changes in both the political world and the film world, Tong always had one thing on her mind: Cinema. Tong Yuejuan is not only an important name in Chinese cinema history, but in
contemporary Chinese history as well.
Hsin Hwa Company was established in Shanghai in 1933. With Zhang’s ability to produce hits and Tong acting as both a high-level executive and its star performer, Hsin Hwa quickly found success. Zhang had an eye for creating hits, and Tong’s outgoing demeanor created a broad network of top stars and industry professionals. Hsin Hwa had a long streak of hits, including Song of Midnight (1937), Hua Mu Lan (1939) and China’s first feature-length animated film Princess Iron Fan (1941). Even when Shanghai became an isolated city following the Battle of Shanghai, Hsin Hwa continued to make films.
After the occupation of Shanghai by Japanese forces, Zhang acted as the general manager of two Japanese-controlled film companies. On the surface, Zhang worked for the Japanese, but in reality, he used his power to prevent Chinese films from becoming pro-Japanese propaganda. Nevertheless, he was branded as a “traitor” after the war ended.
Moving to Hong Kong after the war, Zhang established Yonghua with Shanghai businessman Li Zhuyong and Great Wall with Yuan Yangan. Zhang withdrew from the former due to the company’s is management, and the latter closed down because of differences in political beliefs. Nevertheless, Zhang and Tong never gave up on filmmaking, establishing Hsin Hwa (Hong Kong), creating stellar early works such as Qiu Jin , the Revolutionary Heroine (1953) and General Chai and Lady Balsam (1953). The studio’s Songs of the Peach Blossom River (1956) even kicked off a new wave of musicals.
In addition to its work in Hong Kong, the studio also produced 35mm color films in Japan and co-produced films with Thailand and Japan. When Zhang died of a heart attack in Japan in 1956, Tong continued to live her late husband's dream by taking over the company’s operations, producing films in Hong Kong and Taiwan until she retired in 1984 at the age of 70. In addition to performing and producing, Tong has also served as the chairperson of the Hong Kong Theatrical Enterprise Association for 15 years and performed for troops in Taiwan, playing an active role in Hong Kong and Taiwan cinema.
Tong has been very supportive of the Hong Kong Film Archive since its establishment, donating priceless film-related material. As we reach the centennial of Tong’s birthday, the HKFA now pays tribute to her legacy with screenings of her films.
The Morning Matinee series is guest-curated by film researcher Yuen Tsz-ying
Chasing Dreams in Hong Kong
Tong Yuejuan and Zhang Shankun braved though quite some hardship's when they kicked off their film business in Hong Kong. In the end, Hsin Hwa embraced success thanks to the support of prominent Shanghai stars like Bai Guang, Li Lihua and Wang Yin. Zhang’s tactful enterprenurship helped him through the Japanese occupation period, when he was able to produce colour films in Japan with the support of Nagamasa Kawakita.
Singin' and Dancin' with Hsin Hwa
Though director Wong Tin-lam and star Chung Ching were untested newcomers, Tong nevertheless decided to use them for Songs of the Peach Blossom River . The film was a sensation, and its songs even became huge hits in Hong Kong. Musicals with village songs became Hsin Hwa’s trademark, while Wong, composer Yao Min, singer Yao Li and lyricist Chen Dieyi all became hot properties.
Carrying the Torch
After Zhang Shankun’s death, Tong worked hard to make sure her husband’s projects would not go unrealized. Zhang had known that the popularity of musicals would eventually run its course, shifting to martial arts films. Tong took advantage of an abundant amount of available resources in Taiwan, trying out new genres and moving her film crews between Taiwan and Hong Kong. She eventually moved Hsin Hwa to Taiwan altogether.
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