With her bobbed hair, makeup, short skirt and rolled-down hose (and her obvious sexuality), the flapper image became the ideal for many young urban women in the 1920s, with Hollywood providing the template. Through their roles in such movies as "Flaming Youth," "Rolled Stockings" and "Our Dancing Daughters," actresses like Louise Brooks, Colleen Moore, Joan Crawford and Clara Bow came to personify the flapper for the American public. The flapper was a popular figure in 1920s Chinese film as well. We have already met one of the Shanghai flappers, Great Wall studio's Yang Aili. Another was Yin Mingzhu, who made her film debut in 1921 in "The Sea Oath," directed by her eventual husband, Dan Duyu.
Yin Mingzhu 殷明珠, also known as Pearl Ing, was born Yin Shangxian in Wujiang, Jiangsu province in 1904. Her professional name Mingzhu ("Jewel") was a term of endearment given to her by her parents. She later altered this to "Pearl," out of admiration for American star Pearl White. As a young girl, her mother moved to Shanghai so her daughter could attend a good private school, the Shanghai Sino-Western School for Girls, where young Mingzhu became an avid student of Western culture. Modern innovations and pastimes from the West were becoming quite trendy in China, and Yin Mingzhu enthusiastically tried everything. Where foreign things were concerned, she was what today would be termed an "early adopter," so much so that her schoolmates dubbed her with the nickname "Foreign Fashion," [F.F. or Miss F.F. for short], a label that continued into her movie career. In addition to mastering English, the future film star was very fond of foreign dress, and took up Western dance, singing and riding. She is thought to be one of the first women in China to learn to drive a car. In 1921, she met young artist Dan Duyu [aka Darwin Dann], who had just formed his Shanghai Photoplay Company and was assembling a cast for its first motion picture, "The Sea Oath." He cast her as the female lead for the 1922 release. Although not completely a critical success, it was commercially successful, and Yin Mingzhu became an overnight star. In doing so, Yin Mingzhu became China's first female star of a motion picture, breaking through a pattern in which all the principle roles had been males, while the women were largely eye candy, little more than attractive parts of the scenery. But this breakthrough role almost turned out to be her last: her mother objected to Pearl becoming an actress, and insisted her daughter find some other, more respectable line of work. So the 18-year-old took a job in a medical clinic, but three years later returned to movies, starring in another Dan Duyu production, "Home Again." On February 1, 1926, "Pearl and Darwin" were married in Hangzhou, making them China’s first filmmaking couple. Of the more than 30 movies Dan Danyu directed in his career, Yin Mingzhu had the lead in nearly half of them. Their most successful collaboration was 1927's "The Spider Cave" (Pan Si Dong 盘丝洞), based on a part of the classic novel Journey to the West (Xi You Ji 西游记), in which she played the Spider Queen 蜘蛛精. No copies are known to exist of this or any of the couple's films today.*
The worldwide depression hit China in 1930-31, touching off a wave of mergers or dissolutions among Shanghai's film studios. Dan Duyu's Shanghai Photoplay Company merged with two other studios, and the couple continued working for the new, joint operation. But by 1935, their family was growing, so Yin Mingzhu retired from the screen. When the Japanese invaded in 1937, the Dan family left Shanghai for Hong Kong, but when Dan Duyu was unable to find regular film work there, they returned to China, moving among such unoccupied areas as Guilin and Guiyang in the far south, and Chongqing and Chengdu in far west China, with Dan falling back on his artistic talents, supporting the family by selling his drawings. When the war ended, they returned to Hong Kong, where Dan Duyu directed several films for various studios.
In 1952, the couple's daughter Judy Dan was named Miss Hong Kong, an achievement that usually guarantees a movie career there, but in that same year Miss Dan went to the U.S. to participate in the Miss Universe contest, placing 4th, then stayed on to work in American television throughout the 1950s and 60s. Back in Hong Kong, the one-time celebrity couple of Chinese movies became more known as celebrity parents. Dan Duyu made his last motion picture in 1953, then quit the industry to return once again to art, becoming a frequent contributor of satirical drawings to Hong Kong newspapers, mainly the Hsing Tao Daily. He died in Hong Kong in 1972. Yin Mingzhu lived out her days in Hong Kong, dying in 1989.
*Unfortunate, because while I can't locate the citation, I once came across a scholarly reference to "The Spider Cave" which belittled the movie as an early example of "soft-core pornography disguised as art." It would be interesting to see if that was a valid assessment or critical prudishness.
Yin Mingzhu Filmography (all as actress)
The Sea Oath
Back Home From the City
Cave of the Silken Web
A Dream of Red Mansions
The Diamond Case
Sister, I Love You
The Spider Cave II
The Leering Swordsman
The Case in the Studio
Stranger in the Old House
South Seas Beauty
An Innocent Girl