As noted in earlier posts, classical era Chinese movie fans and critics were fond of referring to their favorite stars by nicknames. Chen Yanyan (陈燕燕) was the "swallow", but in reading the popular movie literature of the day, and fan letters, it seems she might well have been everybody's "girl next door", or at least the girl that boys wished was next door. Her dream from childhood was to be in movies, and while she succeeded in spending nearly all her long life in motion pictures, her off-screen romantic life was as disappointing as that of her on-screen characters.
Beginning a Movie Career
In the autumn of 1930, the middle-class Chen family of Beiping (now Beijing) had a 14-year-old daughter named Chen Jianyan (陈煎燕), a student at Sacred Heart Girls School, intelligent and a good student, but obsessed with movies. It was said that she saw practically every movie, Chinese or foreign, shown in Beiping; if she could physically get to it, she saw it, often repeatedly.
So it was quite a thrill for the teenager when a new Shanghai studio, the Lianhua Film Company (also called the United Photoplay Service), announced it would film the exteriors for its first production in Beiping. The worldwide economic depression was starting to affect China, and smaller studios were either going under or joining forces for survival, Lianhua being a merger of Li Minwei's Minxin studio and the Da Zhonghua Baihe studio. The new company's goal was to make progressive films, intended to entertain while (hopefully) getting the audience to think, and it had already attracted some like-minded talent from other studios. From Mingxing came Ruan Lingyu, limited largely to supporting roles by Mingxing director Zhang Shichuan, but recruited to be Lianhua's top actress; and Cai Chusheng, an assistant director at Mingxing but eager to move up. Holdovers from the former Minxin studio included Li Minwei himself and his actress-wife Lin Chuchu; the U.S.-trained writer-director Sun Yu; and a young martial arts actor on the verge of stardom, Jin Yan.
The film being shot in Beiping that autumn was《Spring Dream in the Old Capital》故都春梦. Every day, as soon as school let out, Chen Jianyan would rush to the site of the filming to watch one of her beloved movies actually being made. Not just any movie, but a major production produced and written by Luo Mingyou (罗明佑), the head of the new merged studio, and directed by Sun Yu. Ruan Lingyu and Lin Chuchu had the two principal female roles. The cinematographer was another Minxin holdover, Huang Shaofen, in the early stages of what would become a legendary career, and someone who would play an important role in Chen Jianyan's life in the future.
While watching the filming one day, Chen got into a conversation with a man she had noticed as also being there on a daily basis. It turned out he was director Cai Chusheng, not involved with this film but soon to helm his own for Lianhua. He had noticed Chen as well and during a break introduced her to Sun Yu and some of the cast members. All agreed the bright and pretty youngster showed promise, and Sun told her if she came back the following day, he would like to give her a screen test. Was she interested? She pointed out she had never done any acting, but the director told her that didn't matter, they should give it a try. After the next day's screen test the starstruck girl had her dream come true, at last landing a movie role, however insignificant. Dressed in a leather overcoat and wearing 4-inch heels, Chen was one of a few young women on the street flirting with passing men in the background behind Ruan Lingyu, while Ruan's character, a prostitute, was engaged in conversation with another character in the film. Unfortunately, and much to Chen's regret, her screen debut wound up on the cutting room floor: when the filmmakers processed the film they realized she looked every bit her youth, and a 14-year-old streetwalker was hardly in keeping with Lianhua's hoped-for progressive image.
But the Lianhua filmmakers were convinced of Chen's potential, and invited her to join the studio for acting training. She was of course eager, but her family was an obstacle: while Mom was easily won over, Dad was another matter. A traditional man who ruled his household very strictly, he was at first adamantly opposed, refusing to even consider the matter. But girls often have a way of getting around their fathers, and when the elder Chen showed signs of yielding, the Lianhua people brought in the deal clincher: a personal visit to the Chen home by several of their staff, notably Lin Chuchu, well-known and much respected in China for her roles as the traditional "good wife and loving mother".
So Dad relented, but with four strict stipulations: one, she could not use her real name professionally; two, whenever she was at home she could not talk about her work; three, she could not inherit any family property; and four, she must never do anything that would harm the family. In addition, he would not sign a studio contract for her, so she would face an anxious three years until she came of legal age: if the studio decided to drop her during that time, she would in effect have alienated and disinherited herself from her family. She agreed, and with the new professional name of "Chen Yanyan" and chaperoned by her mother, left for Shanghai.
Why "Yanyan"? The name was suggested by Li Minwei, for two reasons: first, "Yan" (燕), which literally means "swallow", is also the first Chinese character in "Yanjing". the ancient name for her hometown of Beiping. Second, it was popular among actresses from the Li family to adopt double given names professionally: Li Minwei's first wife Yan Shanshan; his second wife Lin Chuchu; and their niece Li Juanjuan.
Years later, when the name "Chen Yanyan" was known throughout China, the actress returned in triumph to her old home town. Surprisingly, some of her relatives approached her with an appeal that the actress, now a star, retire from movies and come home. When she declined to do so, she was told "then you will forever carry the name 'Chen Yanyan'!", to which she replied, "That's my name now – Chen Yanyan – and masses of audiences recognize it!"
The Brilliant "Time of the Swallow"
When Sun Yu brought Chen Yanyan to Shanghai, Ruan Lingyu commented that "Someday, this little girl will take away most of my audience!" While she may not have fulfilled Ruan's prediction, in less than three years Chen Yanyan had become very popular. From the founding of the Lianhua studio until the Japanese shut down the Shanghai studios in 1937, Chen Yanyan made a total of 24 films, in time becoming Lianhua's "indispensable" female star. Media in the day sometimes called her the "students' actress", as more than one poll showed she was a particular favorite of college students, male and female.
Upon first joining the studio, Chen Yanyan was cast in juvenile roles in four films; as she put it, "I did four baby scenes". Her first credited screen role was in a comedy short titled "Zisha Hetong" 自杀合同 (The Suicide Pact), written and directed by Sun Yu. It was said that her acting left something to be desired, but by her fourth movie, "A Spray of Plum Blossoms", she stood out in her minor part as a naughty and none-too-bright serving girl, garnering enough favorable audience reaction to land her first leading role. This was in 1932's "Nanguo zhi Chun" 南国之春 (Springtime in the South), a tragic love story written and directed by Cai Chusheng. The story tells of two star-crossed young lovers, a student and his girl back home. We will look at this movie in more depth in a future post, but for now suffice it to say that her strong performance as a tragic heroine led to her being typecast. Her character wasted away and died from a broken heart, and that was about all her characters did during the rest of the 1930s.
In 1934, her role in "The Big Road" as Dingxiang, the starry-eyed and romantic best friend of Li Lili's older and more worldly-wise Jasmine was her breakthrough to stardom, as it was for Li Lili. Leading roles followed rapidly, in such successful films as "Three Modern Women", "The Light of Motherly Instinct", "Pear Blossom in the Storm" and "Girl in an Isolated City", all of them tragic stories.
[left, serenading Zhang Yi under the stars in 'The Big Road' (1934)]
As one would expect, Chen Yanyan was by now receiving much fan mail, thousands of letters in fact. But of her countless fans, two made such a deep impression that she could recall them in detail many years later. The first was a girl student in Chen's home town of Beiping who was so moved by the young actress's screen work that she secretly left home and traveled to Shanghai to find her idol. After searching for her beloved "swallow" for nearly two weeks, she at last found Chen, and upon doing so broke down in uncontrollable sobbing. Chen Yanyan embraced and comforted the girl, and after calming her down, escorted her on a tour of the Lianhua studio, then bought her a train ticket and sent her back home to Beiping.
The other was a movie fan in Canada [it is not recorded whether male or female] who worshipped Chen Yanyan, saw all of her movies, and from early youth collected every photo possible of the actress, in time amassing a huge collection. When this fan was later diagnosed with cancer, and realized there was not much time left, he (or she) divided the precious collection in half, sending one-half to Chen, and arranging for the other half to be buried with the fan after death. Years later, Chen Yanyan's eyes would still well up with tears whenever she thought of this person.
One of the "Famed Dan"
In her early Lianhua period, Chen Yanyan was known as one of the studio's "four famed dan" (the other three being Ruan Lingyu, Wang Renmei and Li Lili). During World War II, Chen remained in Shanghai and joined the Xinhua (New China) Film Company. Before long, she was again honored by being designated one of Xinhua's "four famed dan". This time the others were Gu Lanjun, Yuan Meiyun and Chen Yunshang.
[right, Xinhua's "four famed dan"; from top, Yuan Meiyun, Chen Yanyan, Chen Yunshang and Gu Lanjun]
During her time at Xinhua, Chen again played mostly tragic heroines. Audiences knew to bring along handkerchiefs when they went to one of her movies: the movies were usually weepers, and her characters were invariably, as prewar, ill-fated.
[below left, in 1942's 'Wedding Night' with Liu Qiong]
After the war, Chen Yanyan continued making films in Shanghai, but in 1949, on the eve of the Communist takeover, she relocated to Hong Kong with her lover and later second husband, actor Wang Hao 王豪. Sources disagree as to whose idea it was to leave, but it turned out to be a good career move for Chen Yanyan, possibly saving her life, given the eventual fate of so many filmmakers who stayed on in Shanghai.
But her personal life was not as fortunate. On screen, Chen Yanyan had convincingly portrayed one tragic figure after another, but sadly her private romantic life was no more successful than that of her characters, as neither of her two marriages worked out.
Not long after she joined the Lianhua studio, Chen Yanyan fell in love with the company's top cinematographer, Huang Shaofen. But because of her youth she concentrated on her career, and it was not until the outbreak of war with Japan that they married, after repeated delays. After marriage, they had a daughter, but problems soon began to crop up in the relationship, and after a trial separation the couple agreed to divorce. When Chen Yanyan visited Shanghai in 1991, Huang was living in a rest home there, and invited her to visit. But when they got together the couple found they had little to talk about. They were parted forever when Huang Shaofen died in Shanghai in 1997.
[left, with first husband Huang Shaofen. Photo undated, but probably about 1940]
When the war ended, Chen Yanyan went to Beijing to make a film for the Beijing Film Studio, "Shenchuguimo" 神出鬼没 (He is Like a Shadow), and during the filming romance again entered her life. She and her leading man Wang Hao 王豪 fell in love and moved in together. In 1949, with the Communists about to take power, the couple married and moved to Hong Kong to continue their acting careers. In 1952 they started their own studio, the Haiyan ("Petrel") Film Company, but after two movies the studio fell apart when the marriage did: Wang Hao was indiscreet about an affair he was having, and Chen Yanyan could not put up with it. They divorced and Chen vowed to live the rest of her life as a single. (Wang Hao died in Taipei in 1991). As Chen Yanyan expressed it years later, she never had the time to brood and despair of being alone, as she was always busy acting.
In the 1950s Chen moved comfortably into roles as middle-aged and elderly women and was much in demand by both Hong Kong and Taiwan movie studios. She was four times nominated for the Asia Film Festival Best Supporting Actress award, winning twice: in 1954 for "The Golden Lotus", a Hong Kong production, and again for the 1961 Taiwan movie "Death Mask". In 1963 she joined the Shaw Brothers studio, after which she garnered two more Best Supporting Actress nominations: in 1963 for "Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai" and in 1964 for "Lady General Hua Mulan", in each instance playing the mother of Ivy Ling Po's character.
Chen retired from motion pictures in 1972, but continued working in television movies and miniseries. Her last acting role was in a 1981 TV movie "Strong Man" for China Central TV of Taiwan, after which she retired for good and lived with her daughter, Hong Kong actress and TV personality Wong Tin-lai (王天丽). She made one more appearance on the big screen in 1992 as herself, when she was interviewed on-camera for Stanley Kwan's award-winning biopic of legendary silent diva 《Ruan Lingyu》(aka Center Stage). In 1993 she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 30th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan.
Chen Yanyan died on May 7, 1999, age 83.
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