About this Recording
8.225836 - MOVIE THEMES OF THE 40S (Hong Kong Philharmonic, Wing-Sie Yip)
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Movie Themes of the 40s


The 1940s were probably the most tumultuous decade in Shanghai’s history. The cosmopolitan Far Eastern metropolis started the decade under foreign control, divided between the areas occupied by the Japanese at the start of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, and the International Settlement and French Concession districts which remained bits of Paris and London on Chinese soil. Thus, the “Hollywood of the East”, as Shanghai was dubbed due to its flourishing movie and recording industries, was fertile ground for cross cultural exchanges, and not surprisingly there is a strong Western influence in the Chinese popular songs of this era. The trends prevalent in America, particularly swing and Latin, are picked up in the city’s music, and while there are still some echoes of traditional folk melodies, the interpretation of these tunes more often than not eschews Chinese instruments for jazzy orchestrations. After all, it was Hollywood imports which dominated the Shanghai box office, with musicals a definite favourite with Chinese audiences. Chinese studios also produced their share of musicals – virtually every film, whether drama, comedy or tragedy, had at least one song, and most hit records of the decade were introduced in the movies.

In December 1941, the Japanese entered the foreign concessions and new American records and movies ceased to be imported to Shanghai. Despite the hardships of war, this proved a unique opportunity to Chinese musicians and filmmakers who were no longer saddled with American competition. After the Japanese were defeated in August 1945, the Shanghai film industry was in a shambles and it was over a year before movies were produced there again. In the meantime, a large contingent of Shanghai directors and stars went to Hong Kong where Mandarin-dialogue movies resumed production at the end of 1945. Once again, virtually every movie had at least one song, but the music was still recorded in Shanghai where musicians and technical facilities remained superior to Hong Kong.

The taking over of Shanghai by the communists in May 1949, and the new regime’s antipathy towards Western-influenced popular songs, was soon to put an end to the musical trends prevalent in movie music of the 1940s and to start a new chapter in Chinese movie themes.


Hypocrite from Spy Net 626 (1948). Movie and recording superstar Bai Guang was the “bad girl” of Chinese cinema. Hypocrite was one of her raciest songs, and Spy Net 626 was one of the first local movies to be banned by the communist authorities in 1949.

Song of the Songstress

Song of the Songstress from Song of the Songstress (1947). Zhou Xuan was the Judy Garland of Chinese movies, an actress-singer whose pure on-screen image belied a tragic off-screen life. Adept at interpreting both traditional Chinese melodies and the hottest swing that America had to offer, Song of the Songstress was one of her most popular Latin numbers.

Heaven on Earth

Heaven on Earth from The New Camille (1941). This movie’s plot has little to do with Camille, though it takes a tragic turn. A medical student leaves Shanghai for the countryside and meets a beautiful maiden singing a beautiful song Heaven o Earth. They fall in love, but he returns to the big city and marries another woman who looks just like the girl back home (Lihua in a dual role). Unknown to him, the first love is pregnant, has his baby, and eventually dies.

Spring Rivals

Spring Rivals from Spring Rivals (1943). This title actually means “The peach and the plum vie to be the top attraction of spring”, the “peach” and “plum” being euphemisms for beautiful women, and “spring” having plenty of connotations relating to sex. This was Bai Guang’s first Shanghai movie, and this song was a gigantic hit. For years, it was labelled by the communists as “pornographic” and banned.

Listen to Me!

Listen to Me! from Orioles in the Willows (1948). In this musical melodrama, Bai Guang and Gong Qiuxia (see I’m Calling You) star as two classmates, both of whom love to sing, though the former prefers jazz while the latter has more classical tastes. Eventually, the two end up in Shanghai where Gong becomes the music academy’s ace student while Bai, not unpredictably, treads the path of ruin as a nightclub singer.

Orioles in the Flowers

Orioles in the Flowers from Orioles in the Flowers (1947). Zhou Xuan warbles the title tune, whose lyrics extol “flowers blossom everywhere”, while she and her boyfriend are pushed in a wheelbarrow along a country lane by a hapless peasant. Though filmed in Hong Kong, this musical comedy takes place in Shanghai and environs.

The Candy Seller

The Candy Seller from Honoured Throughout the Ages (1942). Produced during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, this anti-British drama tells of the opium trade in the 1840s. In The Candy Seller, Chinese-born Japanese recording and movie star Li Xianglan exhorts the masses to put down their opium pipes and try candy instead.

I’m Calling You

I’m Calling You from Four Beauties (1947). Musical star Gong Qiuxia’s career dates back to the 1930s and while she no longer sings, she still makes infrequent screen appearances, most recently as the grandmother in Gangs (1988). In Four Beauties, she performs this plaintive melody on stage with arms outstretched to a double-exposed image … of herself.

If I Don’t Have You

If I Don’t Have You from Orioles in the Willows (1948). This is one of Bai Guang’s biggest song hits. The lyrics have a lovesick Bai wailing, “If I don’t have you how will I pass the days? My heart is broken and I can’t do a thing.”

Shanghai Nights

Shanghai Nights from Longing (1947). Perhaps more than any other song, this Zhou Xuan standard captures the spirit of Shanghai, the city that never sleeps. Surprisingly, Longing was shot not in Shanghai but in Hong Kong!

A Night of Red Lamps and Green Wine

A Night of Red Lamps and Green Wine from The Pink Bombshell (1947). The bombshell refers to the movie’s star, Gu Lanjun, another screen “bad girl’. This romantic ballad tells of “wafting music, floating dance, being happier than the gods … but when the cock crows in the morning, it will have all become cloud and mist.”

The Little Nuptial Chamber

The Little Muptial Chamber from Waste Not Our Youth (1947). This Zhou Xuan film is an updating of a classic Chinese ghost comedy about a young woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to the statue of a goddess, and what happens when the statue comes to life. This song is sung on the girl’s wedding night, the groom little realising that a goddess resembling his wife is about to wreak havoc with his marriage.

Flames of Love

Flames of Love from Flames of Love (1945). This passionate song was sung by Bai Guang in one of the last movies produced in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. Perhaps there is a slight hint of the changing situation in the lyric’s final line: “Water and clouds drift away and do not stay for long”.

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