A bowler hat on his head and a small cane in hand, wearing an ill-fitting, shabby tuxedo and oversized shoes ... a pinch of black mustache beneath his nose ... a duck-like waddle ... Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" on-screen image was unmistakable, as instantly recognized throughout the world as Mickey Mouse.
Chaplin was enormously popular throughout the world, with China among the many countries where audiences loved his films. Chinese historical records indicate his films were being shown there as early as 1919. His films meshed perfectly with Chinese audiences' tastes at the time, as slapstick comedy shorts were the dominant genre of China's own nascent movie industry in the early 1920s. Even after China's own filmmakers supplanted comedy with other genres later in that decade ("mandarin ducks and butterflies" romances, then martial arts fantasies), the comedies of Chaplin and other Hollywood silent comics remained popular imports throughout the silent era.
I have already written about a Chinese comedy short, a Chaplin homage, which related a fictional visit of the comedy legend to Shanghai, with a Chaplin impersonator portraying the "King of Comedy." But Chaplin himself finally visited China's movie capital in 1936, and the Shanghai movie community's welcome on that occasion was no less enthusiastic than it had been in the fictional version.
In early 1936, Charlie Chaplin had just completed filming his first sound film, "Modern Times," after which he embarked on a round-the-world cruise with his leading lady and fiancee, Paulette Goddard. This was not the first time Chaplin had sailed to, or at least approached, Shanghai: in 1931, after completing "City Lights," he and his brother Sydney went to London for the premiere, then traveled through Europe and India to Japan, a 16 month trip during which he met, successively, with Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Einstein, Gandhi and others. After Japan, they sailed back to the U.S. on a second vessel which docked in Shanghai, but Chaplin chose not to leave the ship. For his 1936 trip, Chaplin went in the opposite direction, planning to sail first to Asia and then on to Europe.
How the news of Chaplin's approach reached Shanghai is a bit of a mystery, as the actor's itinerary was a closely-guarded secret, even in the U.S. In fact, not until he arrived in Honolulu was it was learned he was accompanied by Miss Goddard. However, the news reached Shanghai on March 8 that a US ship, the President Coolidge, was approaching the city and that one of the passengers aboard was the world-famous and much-loved comic. The city's film community was abuzz with the news, and hasty preparations to greet him began immediately. But a possible flaw in this was the question of whether Chaplin would get off the ship, which would dock there for less than 24 hours, leaving early the next morning. The itinerary was secret as he had wanted a quiet, relaxing holiday, free of the mobs of reporters who besieged him whenever he traveled outside the U.S. This time would be no different, as there were already more than 40 Chinese and foreign journalists at the dock at noon, before the Coolidge had even entered the harbor. For some reason, there were no local movie celebrities at the dock, perhaps because the visit had caught the studios a bit by surprise; in any case, they made up for it that evening, especially considering they had only 24 hours to prepare. (It later turned out that Chaplin's original itinerary was: "Sail from California to Honolulu and then across to Japan. One day's stopover in Shanghai, then depart for Hong Kong on the same ship. Change ship in Hong Kong and go on to Manila, Bali and Indo-China." At last, passage "through the Suez Canal to Paris." The entire trip was to take five months.)
At 1:00 pm on March 9, the President Coolidge docked and proceeded to pick up passengers, and as one contemporary account put it, "photographers and journalists seeking interviews took the opportunity to board the ship, no fewer than 20 people."
A little after 2:00 pm, reporters and photographers boarded the ship and in keeping with convention requested the ship's passenger list. Chaplin's name was absent, but that of Paulette Goddard was at the top, with no cabin number listed. Some impatient reporters, unsure of which class was which, began searching upstairs, downstairs, no result. Some found the first class cabins, then checked the reception room, the smoking room, dining room ... searching everywhere, with no results. After a quarter of an hour, they found Chaplin and party, leaning against the railings, enjoying the sight of Shanghai's afternoon skyline. Some reporters expressed surprise that Chaplin was not in his screen persona, but instead was dressed as an English gentleman.
So the journalists swarmed around them, amidst a seemingly endless clicking of camera shutters. Chaplin was described by one reporter as dressed in "gray tweed casual pants, a silk shirt, gray brocade tie, a beige herringbone jacket and brown shoes. His hair was gray, obviously making no attempt to disguise his age." At his side, Miss Goddard was described as being in "blooming youth, with full, tender lips," wearing "a brown coat and brown hat, carrying a spray of flowers. Standing beside Chaplin, she seemed like an innocent child, smiling brightly." In addition to the couple were Miss Goddard's mother, and the United Artists studio's Shanghai representative, a Mr. Kress. Another reporter wrote that Chaplin looked "as I expected, a man of 40-some years, with the white hair of a middle-aged gentleman," and "a small body with short ears," but he moved normally, "not at all in the quick, short steps of his little tramp character." This reporter described "Mrs. Chaplin" (i.e. Goddard) as a "vivacious, 20-something woman, very fashionably dressed."
As photographers used up a lot of film, the reporters approached Chaplin seeking interviews. He looked a bit overwhelmed, but Mr. Kress intervened, loudly announcing that "there will be a press conference this evening at 6:30 at [the hotel], save your questions for then." After this, Chaplin and Goddard boarded a waiting yacht called the "Gypsy" and sailed to shore. As they pulled away from the Coolidge, noticing the journalists' disappointed looks, the actor turned and gave a slightly apologetic wave.
TO THE HOTEL
So Charlie Chaplin's first official visit to Shanghai was under way. Considering that the organizers had fewer than 24 hours to prepare for the visit, and the guest of honor would be there fewer than that, the schedule was very tight. First, the Chaplin party arrived at the Cathay Hotel, where they would stay. Like Chaplin, the hotel manager was British, and had prepared for him a "5th floor, Class A suite, decorated in a purely English style." According to one of the hotel's service personnel, "the Chaplin ladies [Miss Goddard and her mother] made an appointment with the hotel's beauty salon," after which the party left in a hired car for a tour of the city.
After the 2-hour tour, a welcoming banquet was held at the International Hotel, hosted by the Mingxing studio's top actress Hu Die (aka "Butterfly Wu"), who had become acquainted with Chaplin when she visited Hollywood as part of Peking opera legend Mei Lanfang's 1930 USA tour. (According to Howard Hughes's longtime factotum Noah Dietrich, Hu Die stayed on in Hollywood, for romantic reasons, after the rest of the Chinese delegation left California. She and Hughes had met at a party and subsequently began an affair, during which Hughes convinced Hu Die he could make her a star in the US, and signed her to a long-term contract with his studio, RKO. But she never got any work, plus Hughes had grown tired of her, so she returned to Shanghai.) When Chaplin met her again in Shanghai on this 1936 visit, he shook her hand and said, "I still haven't seen any of your movies, but my next time in Shanghai that will be the first thing I do."
But of all the Chinese movie celebrities at the reception, it was Mei Lanfang who drew Chaplin's strongest attention. The two men were obviously happy to see each other again, and when he shook Mei's hand, Chaplin put his arm around Mei and said, jokingly, "I remember when we met six years ago in Los Angeles, we both had dark hair. As you see, my hair is half white now, but I don't see any gray in yours, is this fair?" Mei Lanfang returned the joke, saying, "That's because you work harder than I do: you write, direct and act in all your movies, and that turns one gray. I wish you'd take better care of yourself."
After an exchange of pleasantries, Chaplin's hosts escorted him to a tea reception at an international art exhibit going on at the hotel at that time. The exhibit was truly a major one, displaying hundreds of artworks from numerous countries, including contributions from such Chinese masters as Liu Haisu (1896-1994) and Pan Yuliang (1895-1977). But Chaplin had little time to appreciate the art, and even no time for tea, as he was kept so busy signing autographs for those in attendance. There was more picture-taking, and Chaplin volunteered to "have some pictures taken of me with some of these beautiful young ladies." He repeatedly praised the beauty of the women in attendance, saying "Chinese girls are very cute, I like China."
As promised, there was a press conference at 6:30, at a large meeting room on the hotel's 5th floor. The major topic among the journalists present was his relationship with Paulette Goddard: had they married? Were they on their honeymoon? If not married yet, when and where will you be married? Can we come to the wedding?
Chaplin dodged these questions cleverly, taking advantage of the fact Miss Goddard wasn't there, saying repeatedly, "Interesting question, but you'd have to ask [Paulette] about that. Sorry, I wish she was here, but ... "
At this point Mr. Kress repeated an earlier warning about asking personal questions. The reporters gave up on the idea that Chaplin would give any replies in that direction, and changed to other topics:
Q: You are so popular in Europe and America right now. How do you view that?
A: I think I'm still holding out against sound movies. I have a lot of opinions about other, related things, but it would take too long to answer, so I'll let it go for now.
Q: Why has "Modern Times" been banned in Germany? Is it because of their current social system, or because you are Jewish? [Note; Chaplin was not Jewish, although Hitler had erroneously been told that.]
A: I really don't know. I think they will always find reasons for banning anything.
Q: That walk of yours ... where did you get it from?
A: It's a universally recognized walk, it's also common in China.
Q: It's been said that your tramp's costume has been insured for millions in the US, is that true?
A: That's a rumor. Look, who would want my clothes and those broken shoes? If you threw them into the street, who would want them?
Finally, inevitably, Chaplin was pressed by reporters to offer his opinions regarding Chinese films. Chaplin hemmed and hawed for a bit, and finally replied "I saw a Chinese silent film that was very tragic, but that was long ago. As for Chinese movies today, I couldn't make an adequate comment."
When asked for his impressions of Shanghai, he glossed over that topic, repeatedly saying only that the city was "very exciting."
Mei Lanfang asked Chaplin what he wanted to see in Shanghai, and the guest of honor said he wanted to see a Peking opea. Mei wasn't performing that night, but he escorted the Chaplin party to see another star, Ma Lianliang, performing "Famen Temple" at the New Everbright Theater. Mei had booked seats for the Chaplins earlier, in the hope they would be interested. Apparently there had been a leak about the visiting star's attendance, because a crowd had gathered by the theater entrance to witness the arrival, like onlookers at a premiere. There were also extra police on duty to provide security. When the Chaplin party entered the theater, the audience instantly recognized Chaplin and applauded. Seated next to Chaplin was a man named Qu Guanliang (瞿关亮) an employee of a travel agency, who throughout the performance explained the plot and some of the finer points to Chaplin. Qu afterwards expressed surprise that "Chaplin's appreciation for the Peking Opera was not like that of a layman, but more that of a knowledgeable fan." Hosting and interpreting opera performances was a Qu specialty, and he had done this for well over a hundred foreign visitors.
The schedule originally had them staying at the theater for only 15 minutes. But Chaplin became so interested in the opera that the 15 minutes became 20, then 30, then 40 minutes had passed. Although Mr. Kress urged him several times to leave, he just shrugged his shoulders and replied with the single word "No." He had decided to depart from the schedule and stay for the whole play. More than that, when the play was over, Chaplin immediately left his seat and asked Qu Guanliang to escort them backstage to meet the performers. After shaking hands with Ma Lianliang and complimenting him on the performance, Chaplin signed autographs and posed for photos with cast members. Mr. Kress by now had abandoned any hope of keeping to the original schedule, for in addition to Chaplin's reluctance to leave, Miss Goddard had become engrossed in examining the elaborate costumes and makeup of the opera performers.
[right, Chaplin congratulates Ma Lianliang]
After about a half hour backstage, the Chaplin party was now ready to go. When Qu, their guide and interpreter, asked where they wanted to go next, Miss Goddard at first hesitated, saying "I don't know," but then added as an afterthought that when she was preparing to come to the Far East she remembered Douglas Fairbanks had visited here and asked him what was fun to do in Shanghai. He told her the city was great for dancing, and recommended a couple of places to her.
So after leaving the New Everbright Theater, they went directly to the Paramount Dance Hall, and danced the rest of the night away, right up until it was time to return to the President Coolidge and prepare for the next morning's departure. Thus ended Charlie Chaplin's first (and as it turned out, only) visit to Shanghai.
At 9:00 am the next day, the President Coolidge set a course for Hong Kong, arriving at midnight. In Hong Kong Chaplin was again welcomed by a huge number of fans, several hundred having gathered at the dock as the ship pulled in. But again, as he had in Shanghai, Chaplin remained on ship for several hours, finally disembarking in the same way, then signing many autographs and answering a great many movie-related questions, most of his responses being largely the same as in Shanghai.
After touring Hong Kong for one day, Chaplin went on to Southeast Asia, visiting Singapore, Java, the island of Bali and other places, before returning to Hong Kong for another day's stay. By that time, "Modern Times" had been released in Shanghai, setting box office records there, and that news pleased him. But he was unable to carry through on a promise he made during the welcoming banquet in Shanghai, that he would soon return and "stay for a few weeks." When it came time to leave Hong Kong, Chaplin was so tired that he cancelled the rest of the trip and boarded a ship bound for Kobe, Japan, where he transferred back to the President Coolidge for the return to America.
Although his visit there was short, and he was never again to return, Shanghai left an indelible impression on Chaplin. The city's urban style, its customs, its culture and art -- these were things he often recalled throughout the rest of his life. And the people of Shanghai never forgot him: virtually every one of his movies had their China premieres in Shanghai, the sole exception being his 1940 satire on Hitler, "The Great Dictator." A copy was sent to Shanghai, now in its "Orphan Island" period, and while the foreign concessions were in theory free to show anything they wished, the Japanese authorities sent word to theater operators that it was important Japan's German allies not be offended, and should a theater dare to exhibit the movie, accidents could happen, for example, the theater could burn down. So the movie had its Asian premiere in Hong Kong, where audiences loved it. In 1942, a copy of the film was shown at the Cathay Theater in China's wartime capital Chungking (now Chongqing), and was so well-received another copy was found and exhibited in Chengdu. But Shanghai audiences had to wait until after the war, when "The Great Dictator" was finally shown there.
When Chinese movie star Li Lili visited Hollywood in 1946, Chaplin upon meeting her recounted in considerable detail his Shanghai visit of a decade earlier. He spoke of the Peking Opera, the enthusiastic audience (he had noted opera fans' practice of yelling "GOOOOD" in the midst of a song being done especially well), and likened it in many ways to silent film, something audiences can understand without a word being spoken.
By 1954, Chaplin was living in self-imposed exile in Switzerland, and hosted a banquet at his home honoring Premier Zhou Enlai and the rest of the Chinese delegation to the Geneva Conference that year. During the evening, Chaplin often recalled highlights of that brief stay, mentioning in particular his admiration for Mei Lanfang, and how thrilled he had been at the opera performance, and how honored he was to have met Ma Lianliang backstage.
On this occasion, Chaplin offered a toast to the New China, and again expressed his desire to see it firsthand. But it never came about. Chaplin died at his home in Switzerland in 1977, a year after the end of the Cultural Revolution, an era of insanity which saw the destruction of so many in China's artistic, motion picture and theater communities, including Ma Lianliang, whose performance Chaplin had so enjoyed that evening in 1936.
[Correction: in its original posting this article stated that the English name of the hotel where the Chaplin party stayed was the Palace, but news coverage of the hotel's recent reopening after a US$73 million renovation state that the facility (now the Peace Hotel) was known in 1936 as the Cathay. This article has been amended to reflect this information]
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