Little is recorded about the origin and early years of Chen Yumei (陈玉梅), other than that she was born in 1910 in Menghe (孟河), Jiangsu province. That there is so little early information available about a major, popular star is unusual. The first recorded information I could find was that Chen entered films in 1926, with the Tianyi company, the Shanghai forerunner to the Shaw Brothers studio. Her debut was an uncredited role in "The Tragedy of Liang and Zhu," the first film in which Hu Die had the lead. After several more supporting roles, in 1928 Chen Yumei became Tianyi's principal lead actress, appearing in more than 30 movies in her career.
In 1933, the entertainment-oriented Shanghai newspaper "Daily Star"《明星日报》assigned a young journalist named Chen Dieyi 陈蝶衣 (1907-2007) to expand the paper's influence and circulation. Chen, who went on to become a legendary figure in the history of Chinese journalism, came up with the idea of conducting a reader vote for their favorite actress, the first such ballot in China's newly-launched sound era. (There had been an earlier, silent era poll in 1926.) By the early 1930s there were three film studios (Mingxing, Lianhua and Tianyi) dominant in the domestic market, and each nominated its principal actress: Hu Die, Ruan Lingyu and Chen Yumei, respectively. Tianyi studio head Shao Zuiweng (邵醉翁) [the brothers later changed their surname's spelling to the more Western-sounding Shaw] used some tabloids to drum up publicity for his candidate as "well deserving of being China's movie queen."
But When the results were announced, Hu Die was the runaway winner, with Ruan second and Chen coming in third, getting about half the votes of Hu Die.
Later that same year, another Shanghai entertainment paper, the "Electro-Acoustic Daily"《电声日报》organized another election, but this time the competition was intended to determine the "Emperor" and "Empress" of film, with a slate of 10 nominees eligible to receive votes. Again, the Big Three of Shanghai studios dominated the ballot. Hu Die was the only Mingxing star nominated, and Chen Yumei the only candidate from Tianyi. The rest of the list were all from Lianhua: actors Jin Yan, Gao Zhanfei and Zheng Junli; and actresses Ruan Lingyu, Chen Yanyan, Wang Renmei, Li Zhuozhuo and Li Lili.
[right, Chen Yumei on a film magazine cover]
On February 26, as the campaign was nearing completion, the Daily Star supplemented its own advertisments by running ads in two other major Shanghai papers announcing that ballots would be counted on February 28, so had to be received in the mail by the 27th, with absolutely no extension. However, would-be voters could still vote in person on the last day at a popular tea house in the main Shanghai business district. This last-minute push for further voter participation resulted in a dramatic change in the situation and its outcome. [left, a clever caricature of Chen Yumei]
Votes came flooding in the last day, both by mail and on site. The committee responsible for monitoring the election reported that more votes were received in the last two days of the campaign than had come in during the previous two months. In order to assure public confidence in the process, the Daily Star invited several celebrities to participate in the ceremony of opening the ballot box and monitor the counting of votes.
The election resulted in Mingxing's Hu Die winning a landslide designation as the "First Movie Empress of the 23rd Year of the Republic of China" [i.e. 1934]. She drew a total of 21,334 votes (with 15,786 of them received on the last day). Chen Yumei placed second among the women with a total of 13,028 votes (6,080 on the last day). There was understandable skepticism about the outcome, particularly from supporters of Ruan Lingyu, who came in third among the actresses.
[left, a clever caricature of Chen Yumei]Chen Yumei's respectable finish, demonstrating she was considerably more popular than previously thought, so enhanced her prestige that Tianyi head Shao Zuiweng grew worried, anxious that his lead actress might jump to another studio. So he married her. There was much doubt in the mind of press and public about the marriage. The common belief was that the conservative Shao (who already had two wives) was taking this hot young actress as his third lady out of purely commercial reasons, and when she was middle-aged, and no longer a box office attraction, he would dump her, consigning her to showbiz limbo. But there were a few problems with this scenario. First, although publications of the time point up the couple's age difference, Shao (born in 1898) was only 12 years older than Chen; while this may have been considered significant in 1930s China, in modern terms that is not exactly a "May-December" relationship. Second, after the couple married in 1934, rather than continuing as a loyal Tianyi performer, making more money for the company, Chen Yumei retired from the screen to pursue her new career as full-time wife and mother. Finally, in the 1970s, a Hong Kong newspaper published a photo of Shao Zuiweng and Chen Yumei together, in which they looked like any elderly, happily married couple who had been together for several decades. Shao Zuiweng died in 1979, and Chen Yumei in 1985, age 75.
For further reading:
Guo, Suo 郭索. "Chen Yumei de zhongzhong" 陈玉梅的种种 ("The Varieties of Chen Yumei"). Dianying 《电影》(Movies), No.26, October 11, 1933.
Jia, Zhen 嘉震. "Ji Chen Yumei" 记陈玉梅 ("Recalling Chen Yumei") Jin Cheng Yue Kan 《金城月刊》 (Gold City Monthly), vol.1, no.1, January 1, 1939.
[left, as it did for many actresses, movie stardom for Chen led to recording opportunities. This ad is for an album of what in the West would be called "standards" or "evergreens." ]