Vintage Chinese movie magazines capture a glamorous bygone era

Published 10th December 2018
Credit: Paul Fonoroff / University of California, Berkeley
Vintage Chinese movie magazines capture a glamorous bygone era
Written by Oscar Holland, CNNHong Kong
If Hollywood's golden era can be understood through magazines like Silver Screen and Photoplay, then China's early film industry can also be viewed through the most popular movie publications of their day.
For film critic and historian, Paul Fonoroff, this means studying the elaborate, colorful pages of titles like Movie Weekly, Silver Flower Monthly and the supremely popular Chin-Chin Screen.
China's film industry, like America's, flourished from the early 1920s with the arrival of new technology and the subsequent end of the silent era. This new age of glamour was epitomized by visually striking publications -- from academic journals to tabloid-style rags -- that unpicked films and obsessed over their stars.
Articles spanned news and gossip, as well as script-writing, reviews and film theory, according to Fonoroff, who has recently published a book based on his enormous personal collection of Chinese magazines, fanzines, souvenir booklets and one-off publications.
"There were some more scholarly or politically-oriented journals, but they were, for the most part, entertainment magazines," he said in a phone interview. "Despite the covers, the articles inside were actually (often) quite serious. But then there's all those fun things too -- who's sleeping with who, and the politics of it all,"
"A lot of these magazines and studios were controlled by people who were part of the underground Communist Party," he added. "So they were getting in a leftist message."
US films were popular in China, so the magazines' covers often boasted images of the Hollywood stars of the time -- figures like Elizabeth Taylor, Ingrid Bergman, Esther Williams and Fred Astaire.
Actress Lu Luming features on the cover of a 1939 issue of The Movie World. Credit: Paul Fonoroff / University of California, Berkeley
But early Chinese starlets like Ruan Lingyu, whose 1935 suicide captivated the country's media, and Hu Die, star of some of China's first sound films, also regularly featured. Mao Zedong's future wife Jiang Qing can even be found in Fonoroff's collection as she promoted her film "Fight for Freedom" under the stage name Lan Ping.
And while the magazines' beaming cover stars followed in the tradition of their Hollywood counterparts ("the calling card was a pretty girl," said Fonoroff), their designs carry a distinct aesthetic.
"I would say to a large part they're in the same mold as Hollywood magazines -- but there's a major exception," Fonoroff explained. "Hollywood magazine invariably had a photograph of a movie star on the cover -- that was the chief selling point.
"But in China throughout the '20s until the mid-30s, you had covers that are just graphically beautiful. They're drawn, they don't have a photograph on them -- and often they're not representing any movie star whatsoever."

A forgotten art

Many of these early covers instead relied on abstract patterns, silhouettes and other figurative forms. The elaborate traditional script used in China at the time (written characters would not be "simplified" until the 1950s), also allowed for graphic experimentation not seen in Hollywood.
Fonoroff's collection features a variety of striking typographies, from chunky Art Deco fonts to delicate calligraphic flourishes.
Unlike their Hollywood counterparts, many Chinese movie publications of the 1920s and '30s used graphics or drawings on their covers, not photos. Credit: Paul Fonoroff / University of California, Berkeley
"The typography is one of the most fascinating aspects of these covers," he said. "It's so creative, and you have these beautifully designed mastheads. There was even one magazine that redesigned its (graphic logo) for every new issue."
Very little is known about the artists who produced these magazines and their striking covers. Some achieved wider success, such as Ye Qianyu, who produced the popular comic strip "Mr Wang" and taught at the country's most prestigious art school, the Central Academy of Fine Arts. But most are impossible to trace, Fonoroff said.
"We often don't even know who these artists are, as they're usually unattributed," he added "And oftentimes, when they are credited, it's with a pseudonym. So these really creative forces might have become famous artists -- but there's just no way to know."
Watch a 'deconstructed' kung fu scene
The broad makeup of the magazines' audiences is slightly clearer: Cinemas were largely an urban phenomenon in Republican-era China. The country's early movie industry revolved around Shanghai, although magazines appeared in smaller cities like Kunming and Wuhan.
Movie-going was also a working-class activity, not strictly an elite one, as reflected in the variety of magazines and their sometimes sizable print runs. In the 1930s, one of the most popular movie publications, Diansheng (or "Electric Sound," although it was known in English as Movietone), produced around 10,000 copies a week, by Fonoroff's estimates.

Reflecting China's history

Fonoroff's fascination with the Chinese film industry began in 1980 when he took a fellowship at Peking University in Beijing. Frustrated by the bureaucratic difficulty of accessing official archives -- which, at the time, were often considered too sensitive for foreign eyes -- he resolved to build his own.
This started in earnest while on a shoot in Macau, where Fonoroff served as assistant director for the 1986 film "Tai-Pan." Free from restrictions faced in mainland China, he quickly amassed around 500 magazines from the city's bookstores.
More than three decades later, his collection of lobby cards, posters, scripts and movie paraphernalia had grown to fill an entire Hong Kong apartment (which he rented for this very purpose). When Fonoroff returned to the US last year, his collection was acquired by the University of California, Berkeley, which counted around 70,000 items, including more than 10,000 issues of various publications.
Pocket-sized publication Lin Loon Ladies' Magazine was targeted at China's urban women, running for almost 300 issues. Credit: Paul Fonoroff / University of California, Berkeley
While clearly focused on the movie industry, the collection tells wider historical stories. Take, for instance, the decline of paper quality found in wartime magazines during early 1940s, especially those from northern China, which had borne the brunt of Japanese occupation.
"They're not as niche as they might seem -- it's not just about Chinese movies," Fonoroff said. "People interested in design will see a lot in this. And movies are to do with everything, so by looking at the history of Chinese film, you're also looking at the history of what's going on in China at that time."
Indeed, just as the magazines' rise in the 1920s reflected technological and cultural change, their demise can be viewed through the lens of political and social upheaval. The scope of Fonoroff's book, which is broadly chronological, reaches a sudden cut-off point in 1951.
Mao Zedong features on the cover of "New Cinema" magazine two years after his communist government seized power. The industry was effectively dismantled by 1951. Credit: Paul Fonoroff / University of California, Berkeley
"The communists took over in '49, but it took about two years for the whole concept of the film industry to be more or less dismantled," he explained. "In 1951 you have the closure of the last privately-operated movie magazine, and the last privately operated film studios were being nationalized.
"Then you have the first major 'criticism' campaign (by Mao Zedong's communist government) against films, and the whole concept of movie stars pretty much passed."
"Chinese Movie Magazines: From Charlie Chaplin to Chairman Mao, 1921-1951," published by Thames & Hudson, is available now.