'Shanghai Express'

'Shanghai Express'
Cornell Cinema
Cornell Cinema

Two bad girls, Anna May Wong (as Hui Fei) and Marlene Dietrich (as Magdalen, aka Shanghai Lil) in Shanghai Express (1932). The film came at a particularly sensitive time for China and initially it was banned there. It was the courtesans and racist lines like "Time and life have no value in China," and perhaps the smoldering scenes between Wong and Dietrich drew attention? The ban was lifted when Paramount pledged not to make another film involving Chinese politics. Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) was also banned.

Anger and fear were intense after the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and the 1932 attack on Shanghai, something Anna May Wong was sensitive to and angrily wrote about in America. She visited China in 1936 and the full-scale Japanese invasion came the following year...The photo below shows Japanese soldiers occupying Shanghai in 1937.


Interestingly, the 1932 film of Shanghai Express inspired a bestselling Chinese serialized novel of the same name in 1935. The novel was by Zhang Henshui (1895-1967), easily the most popular novelist of China in the Republican era before the 1948 Revolution. A career journalist, he is said to have written over 100 novels, most of them serialized for newspapers and perhaps the literary device of Shanghai Express was irresistable to him. Of course the courtesans and racist lines are gone. Instead, a wealthy Beijing banker falls for a beautiful young southern woman, on the train of course. An English translation is now available at Amazon.

Also of interest: Hergé's Tintin story The Blue Lotus (1934-36), in which Tintin is involved in resistance against the Japanese and disgusted at European racism toward the Chinese. It's terrific story-telling and a remarkable leap from his previous work.


Of course it also stimulated a hilarious article by Matthew Parris, "Of course Tintin's gay. Ask Snowy," which ran in The Times in January 09. It is not available on the web anymore but it is one of the funniest articles I've ever read and it all rings true. At the end of the day I think Tintin and Haddock, etc., were straight - it was a different era - but it's fun to think about. A quote:

A callow, androgynous blonde-quiffed youth in funny trousers and a scarf moving into the country mansion of his best friend, a middle-aged sailor? A sweet-faced lad devoted to a fluffy white toy terrier, whose other closest pals are an inseparable couple of detectives in bowler hats, and whose only serious female friend is an opera diva...

...And you're telling me Tintin isn't gay?