Huang Naishuang 黄耐霜 was a native of Beijing (then called Beiping), born Huang Yunyin 黄云茵 on February 18, 1912. As with so many early Chinese filmmakers, her family had Cantonese origins, but growing up in Beijing and mastering standard Mandarin gave her a career boost with the coming of sound. She entered movies in 1930 with the Jinan Film Company, at a time when the mania for martial arts fantasies was at its zenith, and soon found herself much in demand for major supporting roles. However, like several male actors we have written about earlier (Wang Xianzhai, Sun Min, Hong Jingling) she was quickly typecast as negative characters, usually in her case promiscuous young women whose main objective was to lure the heroes into debauchery. But while this typecasting was something she resented at the time, in later years she acknowledged that she had actually been better in those roles than when she portrayed more conventional and modest women. Later in her career, Huang succeeded in making the transition to character roles, playing older women, but as she notes in the interview following this article, the transition was difficult at first, due largely to her younger image as a sexy tart. After the founding of the People's Republic, she continued screen acting in supporting roles, but the last credit I could find for her was in 1959.
Practically nothing is recorded of Huang Naishuang's personal life, which is most unusual for a prolific filmmaker, especially one who worked for most of the major Shanghai studios and had prominent roles in numerous major 1930s productions. We don't know if she ever married, who her lovers were, or were there any scandals involving her (exceptional for a 1930s actress). According to an Internet posting by her nephew, she died in 1967.
But for her professional career, Huang Naishuang's own testimony is best, as related in the accompanying interview. While I have made a few comments and appended a filmography to the interview transcript, I believe Huang's story is best told by herself. It also provides us with some unique insights into the earliest Chinese filmmaking, and shows another similarity with Hollywood during its Golden Age: actors' contractual battles with studios. In fact, Huang Naishuang's troubles with the Shao (Shaw) Brothers' Tianyi studio brings to mind the problems Bette Davis and James Cagney had with Warner Brothers a few years later, although unlike those Hollywood stars, Huang's grievances never wound up in court.
When discussing her earlier typecasting, Huang uses the term dangfu 荡妇, which refers to a promiscuous and often sexually aggressive woman. The term can be translated variously into English as a slut, a tart, a loose woman, a wanton, or (more suitable for that era) a vamp. To avoid monotony, I have used a variety of these interchangeably, but dangfu was used consistently in the Chinese original.
Recollections of events many years after they occur often leads to errors in that memory. One probable instance of that here is Huang's account of her contractual battle with Shao Zuiweng: she says that the Tianyi studio suspended her for fully five years, during which time she was limited to stage work. However, she had movie credits throughout the 1930s, although her two 1932 credits in a serial were probably produced earlier for later release. She implies that Tianyi kept her off the screen entirely, but it seems more likely her banishment applied only to Tianyi productions, and she was free-lancing with a succession of lesser studios during her suspension, a pattern broken when she joined Mingxing in 1934.
[Notes in square brackets, like this sentence, are the translator's, added where it was thought some clarification was desirable.]
Memories of Screen Life
by Huang Naishuang 黄耐霜
When I was a teenager, I went to see the movie《An Orphan Saves His Grandfather》, starring Wang Hanlun, and that got me so interested in making movies that I determined from that day forward I wanted to be in pictures. When I was 15, I was able to secure an introduction to [writer-director] Zhu Shouju, who was head of the Da Zhonghua Baihe 大中华百合 studio. A few years later he hired me at the studio, and cast me in my first film in early 1930, a martial arts movie he directed called《Nine Dragon Mountain》. Looking back on that time, it seems funny now, but didn't then: I had just arrived in Shanghai from Beijing, I didn't understand anything, we had no script, and there was no one to instruct me in what to do. That was my first movie experience.
Because I didn't know anything, I very much wanted to learn. So when others had finished, I stayed to look around the studio. People asked me, "What are you still doing here? It's a hot day, you should be resting." But everything at the studio was so fresh and new to me, and I understood nothing, I wanted to learn everything.
My role in that silent film《Nine Dragons Mountain》was a strange character, clad in a black knight's costume, and causing a lot of trouble. In the end, I was trapped and burned in a bell tower. I just did what I was told to do, and had no idea whether my role was important or not.
My second movie there was《Flowers of the Silver Screen》(1930). This film was set in modern times, and I played a dancer. It was written by Zhu Shouju and directed by Zheng Jiduo [aka Chung Ki-tak].
Then I went to the Changming 昌明 movie studio, where Yang Xiaozhong was the director. We made a film called《Burning of Pingyang City》. The director cast me as a slut. My role was to lure a knight, in a very wanton way. He fled, and I flew after him, fighting others as I went along. I was barely 16 at the time, and I wondered "Why did they give me this part?" I went back and forth about whether I wanted to do it. I later decided that since flying through the sky gave me such a fresh, heady feeling that I would play the role, and I did. A flying slut.
《Burning of Pingyang City》was my first "flying" movie. It was very well received, and became a series. [Eventually in six parts] But when we were making the second part, I took a fall, broke my leg, and had to be replaced by someone else.
After I left the Changming studio, I was signed by the Yueming 月明 studio to be in [a martial arts series]《The Manchurian Hero》, and again I was a slut. Not long after that, the Jinan studio spent quite a bit of time recruiting me because they lacked a slutty swordswoman. There was a great demand at the time for actresses who could act a convincing slut, and also wield a sword. I went with Jinan because they told me I would be the main character in parts 3 and 4 of the series. But while my role was indeed the main character, she turned out to once again be a flying slut.
After those two parts of the series, I was in a film called《Black Mask》, which was made specifically for the Southeast Asian market, where martial arts movies were especially popular. After finishing that film, I wore the same costume in a similar film called《Detective Peng》, and in both of these we did our fighting on horseback. My role in《Detective Peng》was not originally written as a slut, but because I now had a reputation for that kind of screen character, it was changed to make her more coquettish. The studio heads felt this was better for the box office.
These martial arts movies had no lines written for the actors: until we began shooting, no one knew what they were playing or how to do it. The directors would adapt scenarios from novels, and then write the scripts as they were filming.
At that time, martial arts films could bring in a lot of money, and directors would recruit actresses based on how attractive they were. If the Southeast Asian audiences liked her, the more roles she would get.
Very few directors were helpful with acting. From the time the makeup was applied until arrival on the set, all a director might say was something like, "This man arrives at your home, and although he's a knight you find him very attractive, so you try to seduce him." Since this was a silent film, with no lines, we'd just say whatever we felt like. We'd often say, "Oh, you've arrived?" "Where are you going?" "Have you eaten?" Or tell a currently popular joke. What was written on the intertitles was totally different from what I might have said during the filming. Every film was like this.
In 1931, when I was 18 years old, the Da Zhongguo (Greater China) and the Jinan studios agreed to co-produce a sound movie. But neither studio had an actor who could speak the Beijing dialect, so they invited me.
Up to that point I had been acting under my birth name, Huang Yunyin 黄云茵, but this time we would be filming in Japan, and everyone said the name Yunyin had an unpleasant sound, so I changed my screen name to Huang Naishuang.
[Huang Naishuang in her earlier career]
The sound film《Blue Skies After the Rain》was shot in Japan, with borrowed Japanese equipment, but the actors were Chinese. Filming in Japan made it very expensive, plus it was also the first Chinese film to have the sound on the film, so everyone was very conscientious about it. At the time [we began shooting] we already had a shooting script. The script had originally been written by a man named Xia Chifeng 夏赤凤, but since he was an unknown who would not attract investment, he was listed instead as the director. At that time writers were of little importance, the director was most important.
As far as my own performance was concerned, I think that I did fairly well in《Blue Skies After the Rain》. I played a courtesan who breaks up someone's happy home. The male lead was Chen Qiufeng 陈秋风, who played a devoted family man who falls into decadence after he meets the courtesan, abandoning his wife and family. I remember the last scene was a long-range shot of me, alone in the rain. The meaning was: I was all alone, I had been on top for a while, but now I was gone, lost, and the family was reunited.
[right, Huang in《Blue Skies After the Rain》(1931) with Zhang Zhizhi as her brutish and controlling brother]
I loved this movie, because it was my first sound work. I also liked my role. Although I was cast as a tramp, as always, this time it was in modern dress, and while I was not familiar with the kind of life style it portrayed, my previous experience in action films was irrelevant, so it made for a real challenge.
I put a lot of effort into making《Blue Skies》. There was still very little we could study about making sound films, other than watching foreign sound movies, so I would go to see any foreign movie which had a courtesan-type character in it. I would mainly use my free time practicing my speech: finding ways to overcome my Beijing accent, speaking standard Mandarin so that everyone could understand, and articulating as clearly as possible. I noticed that some Beijing opera actresses would open their mouths as wide as possible, which was very unattractive, but having the mouth open too little wasn't attractive either. So I would always have a mirror along to practice with, learning a kind of "beauty." These combined the story with the lines.
When we gathered to make《Blue Skies》, we discussed the plot, and the roles we had been assigned. But until shooting began we still did not know our [exact] lines. Just before we were to start shooting the director told us: you go from there over to there, and sit there, and say such-and-such. The actors could interject things like "Well," and "Ah," words like that.
Filming at that time was completely up to the director, with no input from the actors. If the director was satisfied, that was it.
But I was dissatisfied with《Blue Skies》in one respect: because it was filmed in Japan, we used some Japanese extras, filming them as background from long range, but if they were too noisy we couldn't retake the scenes later.
After its release,《Blue Skies After the Rain》was very popular. The critics thought it was very good, but there was a good deal of [public] criticism about its being filmed in Japan. It was released just at the high tide of a boycott of Japanese goods, and there were people who called me a "business woman who puts profits above our nation's hatred." I remember taking this movie to Harbin for exhibition, and in inviting guests to the screening I forgot about one reporter who had been very good to me, and he reacted by writing an article lashing out at me.
After the release of《Blue Skies After the Rain》, the Jinan studio wanted to make another sound film, and because that first sound movie had drawn so much criticism I wanted to make a patriotic film to make up for it. The movie they had in mind was called《Glories for the Motherland》 , but I told them I didn't want to play the villainess again, so the studio let me play a normal role.
The content of the sound movie《Glories for the Motherland》was anti-Japanese propaganda, and again Xia Chifeng directed. After it was filmed, one of the publicity press releases declared "This is Huang Naishuang's second sound film, made entirely with Chinese equipment, and an all-Chinese cast!" The studio invested a lot of money in publicity for the movie. My performance received a lot of praise in the newspapers. By this time, the major studios like Tianyi and Mingxing were making sound films, and Tianyi spent a lot of money [through an agent] on landing me. So I signed a five-year contract with Tianyi, but later wanted out of it when I found out that Chen Yumei was the studio head's girlfriend and would get all the plum lead roles. But the studio head [Shao Zuiweng] wouldn't let me out of the contract, so for that five-year period all of my work was on stage.
When the five years had passed, I joined the Yihua 艺华 studio to participate in making《Women》女人. This film was directed by Shi Dongshan 史东山, and had Li Minghui, Hu Ping 胡萍 and I in the principal female roles. Once again, I was cast as a bad woman. It was an all-sound movie, and we had a script, but there were still no meetings to discuss or analyze it.
After finishing《Women》I joined the Mingxing studio to make《A Bible for Daughters》, which was directed by Zhang Shichuan, and all the studio's actors were in the cast. My role in this was as a dissolute socialite.
I once heard someone say that fame comes faster in villainous roles, so I had liked playing unsympathetic characters. But by this time I had reached an age where I felt it was inappropriate for me to play coquettes, and I worked hard to get roles as more proper characters. So in《Four Daughters》they let me play the eldest [daughter], with Shu Xiuwen as the second, Bai Yang as the third, and Gong Qiuxia as the fourth, the youngest. The eldest was a virtuous woman who had returned home because her husband was a bad man, an opium addict. My performance in this film wasn't too successful: sometimes, if the role called for expressing 100 percent, I could only do 70 or 80 percent. I also looked very stiff, where before I had always looked very relaxed in my roles.
[Huang Naishuang, left, with Shu Xiuwen in 1937's 《Dream Universe》]
During this time, I was also in《Dream Universe》, and there was a scene in it which called for me to cry, but I couldn't. Most of my previous roles had been as carefree coquettes, and I just didn't know how to cry on demand. There were also a lot of visitors to the studio that day, and I just couldn't do it. So the director said, all right, we'll do this scene another day. But when that day arrived I still couldn't shed any tears; I could barely cry out. Finally, the director found someone to play a sad song on a violin, and that coaxed some tears out of me.
As for my movie acting, I think I did my best work in《Night Club》. It wasn't a mess, and it exposed a darker side of society. Before we started filming, the writer told me I should give a lot of careful thought to my role, because it was unlike any I had played before. In《Night Club》I played a good woman whose husband goes blind, which plunges the family into financial difficulty. So without telling her husband, she finds work as a nightclub hostess, and when he asks what kind of work she is doing, she tells him she is a minor clerk in a business. But later, her sister-in-law discovers what she does and mentions it to a shady character who tells her husband. The scene where her husband confronts her with the truth was very sad, and I put a lot of effort into preparing for this role.
There was another reason why I liked my character in《Night Club》. It changed the significance of the name Huang Naishuang: it now meant someone unafraid of hardships and not easily cowed by the outside world; so I was now playing characters who were more like myself.
After completing《Night Club》I was invited by the Xinhua Film Company to make《Wang Xifeng Disrupts the Ning Court》, which was written by Chen Dabei [陈大悲 stage actor and playwright 1887-1944]. My character was named "Second Sister You" (尤二姐). It may have been age-related, but my portrayal was unsuccessful, because I was never able to fully grasp Second Sister's intrinsic character.
One question I have never figured out is this: why, when I was young and naive about the ways of the world, I did so well playing villains, but when I was older and more worldly-wise, playing more mature roles, I did so badly?
Now that I think of it, in my earlier, martial arts films I performed a lot of action scenes, but my later characters were weaklings, someone's boudoir plaything, and I didn't do these well. Another reason: the actress playing Xifeng was Gu Lanjun (顾兰君), who was actually younger than I, but in the film called me "little sister." It didn't feel right, and in my mind it was a bit awkward. So why did I do so well in《Night Club》? Because in that movie I played her sister-in-law, and it seemed more appropriate.
When I was at the Xinhua studio, there was one time when they cast me as a "Korean lady" (a role in the film《Empress Wu》). Gu Lanjun had the title role of Wu Zetian [the Empress Wu] and in the film the Emperor takes a fancy to her elder sister. I was originally cast as that sister, again a wanton woman. But I felt that my age was not appropriate for the part, and if I had another bad performance my reputation as an actress might be totally ruined. So I balked at playing it, and also worried that people would say I was "afraid to act," so I was reluctant to take the [elder sister] role. In the end it turned out all right.
After that, I no longer played that sort of part.
In 1935 (before going to the Xinhua studio), I made three comedies for the Xin Shidai [New Era] studio, the first of which was《Mr. Wang's Secret》in which I played Mr. Wang's daughter. After I had moved over to Xinhua, I was invited back to make another sequel in the series, but I felt I was too old and couldn't play young women any longer, so I declined.
[left, Huang Naishuang in character as Miss Wang in《Mr. Wang Goes to the Countryside》(1935)]
I intended from then on to just play older women. I once told [writer/director] Maxu Weibang that "I don't want to play young girls, that's not the road to go." He replied, "How can you play old women? You don't have an old woman's eyes!" But I kept persisting until in his sequel to《Song at Midnight》, he let me play an old nanny.
Later, after I had done well at playing an old lady in《The Pearl Pagoda》, I wanted to specialize in playing old women, because I believed that if I did well at that it could mean a permanent stay in the movie industry for me. But because at that time I didn't look old [without makeup], producers still thought I was too young for those roles. They just wouldn't take me seriously.
After Liberation I felt that if I didn't study [acting] I would be left behind, so I pushed hard for admission to the Shanghai Drama Institute, and was admitted in 1954. After that I returned to what I am doing now -- a member of the Shanghai Film Actors Troupe.
(Recorded and edited by Ma Debo 马德波)
Source: Huang, Naishuang "Yingmu shenghuo yi yu" 银幕生活忆语 (Memories of Screen Life). in: Gankai hua dangnian 感慨话当年 (Recalling those years with a sigh). Beijing: China Film Press, 1988, pp. 87-93. [Originally published in: Zhongguo Dianying 中国电影 (Chinese Film), March, 1957.]
Filmography (all as actress):
Nine Dragon Mountain, pt.1: Capturing the Mountain (as Huang Yunyin)
Flowers of the Silver Screen (as Huang Yunyin)
Burning of Pingyang City, pt.1 [aka Strange Flying Swordsman] (as Huang Yunyin)
Black Mask (as Huang Yunyin)
24 Heroes, pts.1,2 [aka Burning of White Lotus Temple] (as Huang Yunyin)
24 Heroes, pt.3 (as Huang Yunyin)
A Strange Monk in the Wild Mountains [aka Eight Beautiful Pictures] (as Huang Yunyin)
Blue Skies After the Rain ... Li Na
24 Heroes, pts.4,5
Fork in the Road
Glory for the Motherland
Women ... Wang Yifang
Mr. Nice Guy
A Bible for Daughters (aka Women's Destinies) ... the playgirl
Mr. Wang's Secret ... Liuru (Miss Wang)
Mr. Wang Goes to the Countryside ... Liuru (Miss Wang)
Mr. Wang's New Year ... Liuru (Miss Wang)
Spring Flower ... Xiao Ping
New and Old Shanghai ... Teacher Fan's wife
Diamonds ... Mrs. Gao
Red Begonia (aka Blood Will Tell) ... Miss Xu
Night Club ... Huang Xiu
Dream Universe ... Yuehua
Four Daughters ... Zhu Xuefang
New Year's Money ... woman shopkeeper
Mulan Joins the Army (aka Maiden in Armor) ... Liu Ying's wife
Empress Wu ... Korean lady
The Leper Girl ... the leper girl
Imperial Maid Fei Zhen'e
The Flower Girl (aka A Prostitute's Story)
Wife and Concubine
The Bride Hunter ... Zhou's sister-in-law
A Little Lady
The Pearl Pagoda ... Mother Fang
A Daughter's Resentments
Losers (aka Brothers in Trouble)
Winds of Praise
Life of Wu Xun ... Cuilan
38 Rivers ... Shuzhen's mother
Old Qiao Boards the Sedan Chair ... Mother Huang