For the researcher on some aspect of Chinese culture, especially one using Western language resources, a recurring source of confusion is the practice of Westernizing Chinese names. To take a current example from motion pictures, the modern international star Maggie Cheung has a name familiar to many movie fans in the West, although in her native Hong Kong she would be known by her Cantonese name Cheung Man-Yuk, and by its Mandarin pronunciation Zhang Manyu on the Chinese mainland. The Taiwan Mandarin pronunciation would be the same as the mainland's, although it would be romanized as Chang Man-yu. Filmmakers in Hong Kong adopt Western forms of their names to a great extent, and those from Taiwan less so. On the mainland the practice is almost unknown today, although it had a vogue during the 1920s.
[Yang Aili aka Olive Young ... or vice-versa]
But we know the names of today's stars because we have their films, with credits we can use as a reference. If we didn't already know it, the English credits would inform us that 成龙 (Cheng Long) is Jackie Chan, that 李明 (Li Ming) is Leon Lai, or that 林岭东 (Lin Lingdong) is the director Ringo Lam. But for the historian the problem is especially troublesome: so many of the early Chinese films are lost, we have little to aid us in linking the Chinese and English names. As I mentioned earlier, the 1920s present a special headache because Anglicizing names was the fashion, and in English language books and articles which discuss Chinese cinema, the English form of a name was usually the only one mentioned in the article, while Chinese resources today ignore the English names completely. Since some of their movies exist, we know that "Butterfly Wu" was Hu Die 胡蝶, and "Raymond King" was Jin Yan 金焰. But what about those many directors, performers, etc. with no surviving films?
Although the first Chinese film was made in 1905, foreign films dominated the Chinese market until the early 1920s, a time of exploration for the fledgling Chinese film industry, as Shanghai studios tried a variety of methods to transition Chinese audiences from the imports to the less familiar domestic product. One of these methods was giving the Chinese filmmakers Western language credits in addition to the Chinese, although the films were not destined for export. Another means employed by studios was to publicize actors as "China's (add Hollywood star here)". This practice continued into the 1930s, when Ruan Lingyu's numerous tragic heroines gained her the title "China's Garbo" and actor/director Maxu Weibang's popular horror films earned him the sobriquet of "the Chinese Lon Chaney." Most big Hollywood stars had a Chinese counterpart, a practice which at times led to controversy: for a time, two rival major studios each had a child actress they billed as "China's Shirley Temple," because of musical talent combined with the ability to pout endearingly on-camera. Each studio publicly accused the other of stealing the idea, with threats of litigation, but nothing came of it.
Film historian William Drew wrote recently seeking information about a 1920s actress credited as "E.E. Dick," and publicized as "China's Pearl White." He thoughtfully sent along some mid-1920s English language newspaper articles about Chinese movies, which said this actress was noted for her daredevil movie roles, hence the Pearl White comparison. Unfortunately, my research didn't turn up much: E.E. Dick was the English screen name of an actress named Zhai Qiqi 翟绮绮 (Chai Ch'i-Ch'i in the Wade-Giles romanization still used in Taiwan). We know this from the credits in the one silent film of hers which survives, "Yichuan Zhenzhu," 一串珍珠 (A String of Pearls), based on DeMaupassant's "The Necklace." She made only three silent films for the Great Wall studio in 1925-26. In the first two, her role was that of principal supporting actress, the female lead's best friend. Neither of these was of the action/adventure genre. In the third, "Wei Junzi" (The Hypocrite) she had the female lead. This film is also lost, but written sources which provide the film's synopsis do indicate her character was often in peril, without providing any details as to specific situations, how she escaped, etc. (This lack of specifics is a recurring problem in working with written sources alone: hero confronts villain, they struggle, villain is slain. How? Gunfight? Fell off a cliff? Run through with a sword? The written sources rarely tell us.) So while this film may well have included the Pearl White-type cliffhanger situations, without the movie itself we have no way of affirming that. After this third film, Zhai Qiqi/E.E. Dick vanished from the screen, for reasons unknown, although marriage was a common reason for actresses retiring back then. Whatever the reason, she returned in 1934 with a recurring supporting role in a popular comedy series ("Mr. Wang"), as the wife of the title character's best friend.
Another Great Wall studio actress during the 20s, in fact their top performer for most of the decade, was Yang Aili 杨爱立, also credited as "Olive Young," and hyped by her studio as "China's Mary Pickford." Western media praised her as a role model for young Chinese women aspiring to Hollywood-style modernity: she was the very image of a flapper, and as an article in an American newspaper put it:
"Miss Olive Young seems to be the reigning movie star of China. Miss Young employs a secretary, who spends a good deal of her time sending away autographed photographs in response to a huge fan mail from all over the country, and even from sections of Siam, where Chinese-made films have become popular. Her picture appears almost daily in the Chinese press to whose representatives she grants frequent interviews. She rides to the studio from her home each morning in an imported sedan (automotive) which would do credit to many Hollywood stars. She wears silk hose and her hair is marcelled. She will go down to fame as the first Chinese actress to consent to participation in an actual kissing scene before the camera. In the formal Chinese dramas such a scene would have caused a riot in the conventional plays which usually began at 11 in the morning and ran on leisurely until midnight, with time out for tea and then a resumption until dawn. Once the ice was broken the Chinese scenario-writers wrote kissing scenes into all the pictures, and now no picture starring Miss Young is complete without several such scenes..."
--San Antonio Light" American Weekly section, "China's Movie Queens," October 24, 1926
"Out of a remote canton there came to Shanghai a little Chinese girl who was destined to become the greatest motion picture star of the East. Her Chinese name has long since been lost in the shuffle. She became Miss Olive Young when her name got into the lights of the motion picture theaters in Shanghai, Canton, Hongkong [sic] and Peking. She is a splendid example of the modern Chinese girl, who has won her way to fame in a profession which has been such a boon to other women from every part of the world. She employs a secretary to answer the thousands of "fan" letters she gets from all parts of the world. She rides from her home to the studio in an imported automobile, driven by an imported chauffeur. She speaks several languages. Her picture appears almost daily in the Chinese press, in some section or other of the vast country. She marcels her hair, uses a lipstick exactly as does [sic] her Caucasian sisters in Hollywood, and she is, in a word, the modern woman. And to her may go the credit for the general modernization of many other women in China. Every Chinese girl takes Miss Young as a model of what the young girl should be.
What was it that sent Miss Young from her country home in the interior of China to seek a career in the great city? She had read of the success of another young woman, Anna May Wong. Miss Wong, born in San Francisco, went to Hollywood, the capital of the film empire. Against the competition of beauties from all parts of the world she won fame and fortune. Her success inspired many girls in China to seek careers, not only in their native, but also in the Occident. ..."
--San Antonio Light, November 18, 1928, "The American Weekly" section.
The last paragraph is mostly fiction. Anna May Wong was born and raised in Los Angeles, not San Francisco, but that is irrelevant to the story of Olive Young. To begin with, while Ms. Young did leave her country home in the interior, it was not the interior of China, but that of the United States. St. Joseph, Missouri, to be precise, where she was born Olive Young on June 21, 1903 or 1907. Yes, Olive Young was her birth name. In Chinese film credits she was billed as "Yang Aili" 杨爱立, a Sinocized version of her actual name. (In China, the surname is given first, followed by the given name.) Written in Western format, as in sources such as the Internet Movie Database, the name would be Aili Yang = Olive Young. While she may well have been inspired by Anna May Wong, Olive's original trip to China came at the age of 16, when her parents sent her to Hong Kong to complete her education. The record doesn't tell us specifically how she got into acting, but two years later she was in Shanghai, where she appeared in two films for the Anglo-American Tobacco Company's Film Department in 1925. The following year, she moved to the Great Wall studio, and quickly became one of its leading stars, acting the lead or a major supporting role in seven silents made between 1926 and 1928. In 1929, Olive Young had the lead in one more Chinese film, with the Minxin Film Studio, after which she returned to the U.S. She had a brief career in Hollywood, appearing in three early sound movies, in one of which, the 1930s Western "Trailin' Trouble" starring Hoot Gibson, she had a major supporting role. During this time, she seems to have been a favorite on the Hollywood party circuit, as her name turns up in several gossip columns of the day as attending this or that party. For one example:
Wanderings around Hollywood....or perhaps I'd better say Chinatown...naturally, I couldn't miss seeing Mei Lanfang, China's greatest actor, make his bow before the critical eyes of Hollywood folk...so it was up to Paul Spier to throw me a Chinese dinner...to sorta get in the mood of the evening, you know....pretty Olive Young, "China's Mary Pickford," was in the party.
--Jimmy Starr's column in the May 14, 1930 Los Angeles Record
Her last film role was an uncredited part as a maid in 1931, after which the record of her life is blank until the end. We do not know for certain why her movie career ended at that point, but she probably ran up against the same lack of meaningful roles for Asians that drove Anna May Wong to Europe. We do know that at the end of the 1930s, Olive was a New York-based nightclub singer, and on the evening of September 29, 1940, after appearing in a floor show in Bayonne, NJ, she collapsed and was taken to the hospital. She contracted pneumonia, and died on October 4, 1940. Her age at time of death is unclear: the Internet Movie Database lists her year of birth as 1907, which would make her 33 when she died; her New York Times obituary lists her age as 37, which would mean a 1903 year of birth. Also uncertain is why she left China, when she was young and at the peak of her stardom. Of course, the answer may be as simple as homesickness. But another possible reason is that while Olive Young undoubtedly spoke Chinese, having been born and raised in the U.S. may have left her with an American accent, and with sound films on the horizon she perhaps felt inadequate. This could also explain why she did not return to China when her Hollywood career dried up. A further hint of this is found in her listing in the China Cinema Encyclopaedia (Shanghai, 1995), which states that her family's ancestral home was Guangdong, indicating her dialect was most likely Cantonese, useless in Mandarin-only Shanghai sound films. In Hong Kong, where Cantonese was dominant, the film industry was just starting to emerge from the disastrous general strike, so that was probably not an option.
[late in her China film career, Yang/Young was the hero's love interest in two swordsman films. Left, in 1928's "The Arrow of Hate," and right, in 1927's "Heroic Gan Fengchi." Click on images to enlarge.]
It is also noteworthy that the Great Wall studio, in building up her image as the model of the modern young Chinese woman was so vague, indeed evasive, in its publicity regarding such details as her hometown, her background, Chinese name, etc. For while the volume of her fan mail demonstrated how admired she was by young Chinese women, they might not have been so enthusiastic about taking an American flapper as their role model, even an ethnic Chinese one.
Closing a Rift
The Shameless Girl
Unlucky Couple (Han Xuemei)
At the End of her Rope (Liang Shucan)
The Arrow of Hate (Miss Hu)
Heroic Gan Fengchi
The Shadow of Evil (Miss Hu)
Romantic Opportunity in a Poor Village
Hot-blooded Man (aka Her Love) (female student)