There is an old Chinese folk saying which says, contemptuously, that "actresses are false, prostitutes untrue." What is expressed between the lines is the scorn people in olden times had for these two major service professions, and even more so indicates the principal targets of that disdain were women. So when this new cultural form of motion pictures unexpectedly became a popular form of entertainment, it is not surprising the image of this new profession of movie actress appeared in the eyes of much of the public as ranking similarly low with that of brothel inmates, if not merged. And while actresses naturally had many admirers, traditional attitudes barred them from moving up to a higher social status.
By the mid-1920s, Chinese movie stars of both sexes were becoming celebrities. Their names began showing up frequently in newspapers, especially those of actresses, for whom the public had a particular fascination. As mentioned in an earlier post, in 1926 a popular Shanghai magazine conducted a fan poll to choose the top female stars, the Mingxing studio's "four great dan." The small quantity of film that survives from that era provides only a faint glimpse of their beauty and acting ability, which as representatives of their generation of film actresses, makes their life stories even more sad.
We have already discussed three of the four: Wang Hanlun, Xuan Jinglin and Zhang Zhiyun. Today we discuss the last of the four, the survey's first runner-up, Yang Naimei.
Yang Naimei 杨耐梅 was born Yang Lizhu 杨丽珠 in Shanghai in 1904, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Her father's spoiled favorite, she grew up a willful and headstrong girl. She became interested in the theater while in school, and at one of her frequent visits to the theater she became acquainted with Zheng Zhengqiu. He recommended her to the Mingxing studio, and in 1923, she was cast in supporting roles in two of the studio's films released early the next year, in each of them playing to a type, a frivolous and modern young woman. Late in 1923, when the Mingxing studio was preparing to film "The Soul of Yuli," the filmmakers were having a problem casting the principal female supporting role, that of the sexy playgirl Cai Yunqian. They wanted someone whose image would present a strong contrast to that of Wang Hanlun's Yuli, the film's virtuous but tragic heroine, and Zheng Zhengqiu recommended Yang Naimei, someone who at least physically presented the playgirl image they sought. "The Soul of Yuli" premiered on September 11, 1924, and was very successful, and the large audiences who saw it were uniform in their praise for Yang's performance as the dissolute playgirl who wouldn't settle down after marriage. The consensus of opinion was she was very natural and believable in the role (perhaps, as it turned out, because she wasn't really acting.)
This was Yang Naimei's breakthrough role, and moved her to leads in Mingxing's "The Poor Children" and "Lured into Marriage." Again, as in "Soul of Yuli," her character was a playgirl of loose morals. But seeing his daughter in this emerging pattern of typecasting humiliated her father. While he realized there were women like the ones she portrayed, he could not face his relatives and friends. He repeatedly urged, pleaded with, begged his daughter to quit, but she was determined to continue on her own road, leading to a break in what had been a close father-daughter relationship.
Between 1926-28 she was cast in the lead in a series of films which put her among the top ranks of 1920s Chinese film stars, and in some of these she was able to break somewhat free of the typecasting and portray more positive characters: in "A Lakeside Dream" Yang was a gentle and refined young lady (although in a lengthy dream sequence she becomes a sadistic adulteress); and in "Conscience Revived" she played a Russian girl involved in anti-Czarist resistance. Her huge success not only brought Yang Naimei a great deal of celebrity, it also made her a lot of money. It was widely reported she commanded a salary of 500 silver dollars a month, which, from the publicity it received, I assume was a considerable sum for the time. She bought a luxurious, two-story home on Shanghai's Avenue Edward VII (now Yan'an Road), and dressed well but unconventionally. Married and single women all over Shanghai modeled their appearance on hers, so much so that women's clothing shops had to maintain large stocks of dresses patterned after Yang's.
Yang Naimei was a very sociable person who loved to entertain, and her living room was often filled with distinguished guests from all segments of Shanghai society. Dancing to a live orchestra was a focus of the entertainment, and her home became the place to be and be seen. She also loved to gamble, and on her rounds of the city's nightlife often dropped large sums at its casinos.
But as the money reserves ran down, Yang in 1928 came up with the same idea Wang Hanlun would have a year later, that of forming her own movie company to make a film, starring herself, that would replenish her bank account. She raised a sizable amount of funding, then hired some of Shanghai's A-list talent to work with her, including top director Shi Dongshan, and future top director Cai Chusheng to assist him. Popular leading man Zhu Fei was her male lead, and several of the best available supporting actors were added to the cast.
The movie, "Strange Woman," was a critical and box office success, but unlike Wang Hanlun, Yang did not use her profits to start a business to which she could retire; instead, she headed back to Shanghai's clubs and casinos. In addition, at some point she had acquired a drug habit which further drained her resources and talent, and before long, her entire fortune had been squandered. Yang had a falling out with the Mingxing studio, and resigned to join a theatrical company in Nanjing, starting out in a plum role, the lead in "Ti Xiao Yiyuan" 啼笑姻缘 (Between Tears and Laughter), a hugely successful stage play based on a best-selling novel. A few years later, thinking she had turned her career around, Yang left the stage to return to the screen, but her comeback was unsuccessful in the sound era: although she had been born and raised in Shanghai, her native dialect was Cantonese, unsuitable for Mandarin films. Her greatest disappointment was not getting the lead in Mingxing's 1932 film version of "Between Tears and Laughter." Instead, Hu Die got the female lead in the role that Yang Naimei had originated and defined onstage.
After 1933, the record on Yang Naimei is blank for two decades, but apparently, like her sister "great dan" Zhang Zhiyun, she relocated to Hong Kong in hopes of entering Cantonese movies. In the early 1950s, a Hong Kong reporter doing a "Where are they now" series about one-time celebrities got a tip about a street person who may at one time have been somebody in the movies. The reporter checked it out, and found the street person was the woman who had been one of Shanghai cinema's most glamorous romantic stars of her generation – Yang Naimei. After the article about her appeared, contributions for her help began coming in, which enabled her to get her life together. She also had a credited cameo role in a 1954 movie. In 1957, Yang Naimei retired to Taipei, Taiwan, where she died on December 27, 1960.
Gong, Jianong. “The beauty in 《A Lakeside Dream》in: Gong Jianong Cong Ying Huiyilu《龚稼农从影回忆录》(Gong Jianong's Movie Memoirs). Taipei, 1967.
[memories of working with Yang Naimei on the 1927 movie]
"Yang Naimei juan shi chonglai" 杨耐梅卷士重来 (Yang Naimei's repeated disabilities). Dazhong Yingxun 大众影讯 (People's Movie News) v.2, no.49 (June 27, 1942).
"Yang Naimei zai Xianggang" (Yang Naimei in Hong Kong). Dazhong Yingxun 大众影讯 (People's Movie News) v.1, no.34 (March 1, 1941).
Filmography (as actress, unless otherwise noted):
Tea Picking Girl
The Poor Children
Lured into Marriage (aka: Love and Vanity)
The Soul of Yuli
Repentance (aka Conscience Revived)
Three Shanghai Girls
Lonely Orchid pts.I,II (aka Orchid in an Empty Valley)
Suspicious Couple (aka The Newlyweds' Family)
Imperial Concubine Yang of Beijing
Reciprocity (aka: Strange Destiny of Feng the Hero)
A Lakeside Dream
Strange Woman (also producer)
Romantic Elder Brother
The Young Mistress's Fan
Ashes of the Lotus
The Date of Nazha's Birth
She Wants to be a Free Woman
Pleasures of the Dance Hall
Han Xiuwen, the Shanghai Beauty