As mentioned in an earlier post, some Chinese movie studios in the classic era hyped their most popular stars as "China's [name of Hollywood star]," reflecting both domestic audiences' interest in movies from the West, as well as the studios' readiness to capitalize on that popularity to publicize their own emerging industry. So it was only natural that Shanghai studios would soon be seeking their own version of one of America's top matinee idols, Rudolph Valentino. Early in his career, Zhang Huichong was the first of several Chinese actors to be billed as "China's Valentino," but when he moved to action films became known as the "Oriental Fairbanks." While he didn't make many movies, the ones he did were very popular. But despite his success as a silent film actor and director, he is remembered in China today for his second, post-movie career as one of the country's most famous stage magicians, the first in that country to perform Western-style magic acts.
Zhang Huichong 张慧冲 was born in Shanghai in 1898 to a large and wealthy Cantonese family, one of four sons of a paint business owner. He acquired a love of magic in childhood and his father indulged his son's hobby. When Huichong was a teenager, his father took the family on a visit to his own hometown of Zhongshan, Guangdong, at the same time the famous Western magician Horace Goldin (later the inventor of the "sawing a woman in half" illusion), was appearing there as part of a Far Eastern tour. The young amateur illusionist was introduced to Goldin, who invited the teenager to appear on stage with him and perform some of his own tricks. The Chinese audience, already proud and enjoying the home visit of this successful native son and his family, was delighted, and the experience and applause was something Zhang Huichong never forgot.
But first there had to be education for a career, not a hobby. The elder Zhang sent his son to the Wusong Merchant Marine Academy, and following graduation, Zhang Huichong joined the staff of a steamship company. The details are sketchy regarding how it came about, but in 1922, while still employed in the shipping business Zhang Huichong joined the Commercial Press Motion Picture Division as an actor, making three films for the studio in 1923-24: "The Lotus Falls," "The Good Brother," and "Patriotic Umbrella." An interesting sidelight of this is that Zhang was an amateur volunteer, acting for the fun of it. But by the time the last of the trio was completed in 1924, he was hooked on moviemaking, and later that same year he joined with Chen Shouyin to co-direct a short, "The Puzzled Policeman."
In 1925, Zhang Huichong made four films for the short-lived Lianhe film company, in all four writing, directing and acting the lead opposite his wife Xu Sue 徐素娥. The Shanghai Shen Bao newspaper, in an article about the first of these, "Everything Comes to Light," (aka "Ripples on the Sea of Love") commented that Zhang Huichong had a "handsome appearance, an unusually vigorous image, swims well, and his kungfu is believable. In our opinion, he is an outstanding Chinese talent." In another article later that year, the same paper said that his "acrobatic fighting fully expresses our national spirit." His transition from business career to motion pictures became complete in 1925, when Mingxing studio director Ren Jinping (who also discovered and recruited Wang Hanlun) invited him to join the cast of an upcoming film, "The Newlyweds' Family" (also titled "A Couple's Suspicions"), a major production which featured among its large cast the studio's "four great dan" (Zhang Zhiyun, Yang Naimei, Wang Hanlun and Xuan Jinglin) as well its master portrayer of arch-villains Wang Xianzhai and its emerging juvenile star Zheng Xiaoqiu. Rather than being lost among this star-studded cast, Zhang stood out in his role as a ship's captain. Mingxing's chief director Zhang Shichuan was recruiting personnel for martial arts films, and he signed Zhang Huichong for obvious reasons: in addition to having good looks, a military bearing and an athletic physique, he could drive a car, ride horseback and swim, perfect for lead roles in action films.
But after completing just four movies for Mingxing, in 1927 Zhang Huichong inherited $250,000 in silver from his father, prompting the young actor and his wife to start their own studio, the Huichong Film Company. Like Dan Duyu a few years earlier, the multitalented Zhang did practically everything: in addition to studio head, Zhang was the film's sole director, screenwriter and principal star, while also functioning as film editor and writing the program notes distributed to filmgoers. Xu Sue was the female lead in each of the Huichong studio's films. They hired Xu Wenrong as cinematographer, and over the next five years, the studio made seven popular feature films, all of the martial arts/action variety.
When the Japanese bombed Shanghai in January, 1932, touching off a two-month conflict that became known as the Songhu War, the couple refocused the studio by traveling to the then-province of Rehe (spelled Jehol on old maps) in northeast China to film the fighting at the frontlines. This newsreel footage was later edited into two feature-length documentaries, "The Sad and Bloody History of the Shanghai Resistance" (aka "China's Glory") and "The Sad and Bloody History of Rehe." Tragically, this act of patriotism took Xu Sue's life, when she was killed during a Japanese aerial attack. The venture also bankrupted the company.
With Shanghai studios adopting Mandarin as their standard, and the Hong Kong movie industry still moribund from the 1926 general strike, Cantonese speakers faced bleak movie prospects with the coming of sound. So Zhang Huichong decided it was time for a career change, and reverting to his first love – magic – he formed a performance troupe to tour South China staging magic shows. After a successful run in several Chinese cities, Zhang decided to chance taking the show to Jakarta, where there was a sizable Chinese populace. When the company opened in Jakarta, the demand for tickets overwhelmed the box office, and it was reported the crowd outside the theater was so thick it blocked all traffic on the street. With this encouragement, Zhang took the company, more than 20 people, on a tour of Southeast Asia, drawing packed houses in Singapore and other cities.
Although magic acts had been a staple of Chinese entertainment for centuries, the major source of their popularity was his creation of a hybrid form of the art by infusing traditional Chinese magic with imported Western-style illusions. In addition, he exploited his athletic ability by incorporating into his act some Houdini-type stunts that carried with them an element of danger.
[publicity still for Zhang's magic show]
All was going well until politics and ethnic suspicions intervened. Ever fearful of the influence of the Chinese minority in Southeast Asia, the colonial authorities in each country had enacted "Opium Prohibition" laws as a weapon to control the Chinese. Zhang Huichong had become so popular by 1940 that the colonial authorities in one locality used this to arrest him on trumped-up charges, then detained him for several months without trial. Bereft of its leader and stellar performer, the company disbanded, stranding its members in a foreign land, destitute. They were at last rescued by a wealthy Overseas Chinese who gave them the money to return home to China. After his release in 1941, Zhang returned to Shanghai, where he was able to replenish his own funds by making two movies there with star actress Gong Qiuxia. He reformed his magic troupe, but once again fate was unkind: while on tour, the Japanese occupying the city of Tangshan in northeast China forced Zhang to shut down the company, and once again he was imprisoned. After the war ended, Zhang was stranded for a time in Tangshan, where he was ill-treated by the warlord troops controlling the area, subjecting the magician to ridicule and beatings. He sank once more into poverty, but finally was able to return to Shanghai.
Zhang began a new life after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, entertaining and passing along his knowledge of magic to later generations. He wrote three books on the subject which became required reading among Chinese magic buffs, but made little money from them because he presented so many as gifts to young people who showed an interest in the art, in the hope some of them would be encouraged to pursue it as a career, just as he had been encouraged as a teenager by Horace Goldin many years earlier.
[left, cover of one of Zhang Huichong's classic magic texts]
Zhang Huichong died in Shanghai on April 19, 1962. He had been married twice. As mentioned above, his first wife and business partner Xu Sue was killed in 1932. He later remarried, to noted artist Jin Xiuying 金秀英. Also notable among his relations were his three brothers, all of whom had motion picture connections, direct and indirect. As mentioned, the Zhang family was very wealthy, and when brothers number two and three gained their inheritance, they also started a film company, the Huaju studio (brother number two, Zhang Huimin 张惠民, was a noted cinematographer), and like their eldest brother's Huichong studio, they specialized in martial arts movies, and were also put out of business by the same brief war. But the most long-lasting influence on Chinese motion pictures (not a positive one) was youngest brother Zhang Damin 张大民, for decades a true-life villain in several Chinese motion pictures and TV miniseries. At just about the time that Zhang Huichong was leaving for maritime school, his family hired a housekeeper, a widow with a little girl named Ruan Ah-gen. She and the youngest son grew up together, became lovers and then cohabitants. But when Zhang Damin squandered his inheritance, he became a financial drain on his former lover, and a major contributing factor in her unhappy life, persecution and eventual destruction – China's greatest actress of the silent era – Ruan Lingyu.
[A recent article in Kung Fu Cinema provides an interesting profile of another Chinese magician from the same era, Long Tack Sam, who apparently never performed on-screen, but whose stage career was more global.]
[below right: in 1998, a national conference on magic was held in Zhang Huichong's ancestral province of Guangdong, and a memorial plaque was dedicated to his memory]