All that glitter in Shanghai, Zhou Xuan

  • Zhou Xuan

When many in the West cast our thoughts to China, we have many preconceived images of one of the world’s largest superpowers.
Perhaps it’s visions of the Grand Emperors, rice paddies or mass industry. For a few they might conjure the glamour of 1930s Shanghai. But it is mostly something that is a mere dream, a smoky opium drenched painting of an idea.

For singer Zhou Xuan it was her reality. She was the human epitome of that smoky beautiful world. One of the biggest icons of her era in China, Xuan was nicknamed ‘Golden Voice’ as a teen for the ease in which she reached the highest octaves. Zhou didn’t have the most “golden” of starts in life. Born in 1918, she was sold at age 3 by a close relative (for drugs). Though details of that time are a little unclear, it seems thankfully, she was then adopted by the Zhou family. Where she took the name Zhou Xuan as her stage name and started her pursuit of the arts.

Her singing soon evolved into a film career, plunging her into the limelight in Yuan Muhzi’s 1937 film ‘Street Angel’. Around the same time as Xuan’s ascent to becoming a movie star, Shanghai saw the opening of the legendary Paramount Ballroom. This place was the ultimate in decadence. A monument to modern entertainment.

1930s Shanghai had a massive influx of wealth. Travellers came in search of the exotic, and with them they brought the Jazz age, money, and dancing.
Catering to this crowd was the Paramount Ballroom, which was the first Chinese Dancehall of its time. Built for 700,000 Taels of silver by a Chinese Merchant, its popularity grew fast thanks in part to its sprung floor (which made you feel lighter and more nimble while dancing) and it’s glittering glass tower lighting up the skyline.

Like the Studio 54 of its day, the Paramount Ballroom became the place to be. It attracted politicians, socialites, and celebrities who flocked to see the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Jimmy King, and of course Golden Voice herself perform.

This East meets West crowd had its own sense of fashion. The most obvious being that of the well put together “Classic Colour”. A look preferred by the upper class gentlemen to which the place catered and to whom Zhou Xuan performed.

Along with celebrities like Xaun these men with crisp shirts, opera scarfs, and highly polished shoes were entertained by the first “dancing girls”. Beautiful partners to twirl around the floor in the chicest and most contemporary looks and hairstyles. While these women were picked for looks and their prowess in movement, most were in fact cool cats and many used their new connections through places like the Paramount to elevate their own power and voices.

Yet just as the liberation of arts and women seemed to rise, China was changing politically and socially. For Golden Voice the period was a very rocky one, with multiple marriages, addictions, psychotic episodes, and suicide attempts. And as the glittering colonialism was ousted by groups like the “Anti-Rightist Movement”, Xuan’s world too seemed to quickly loose it’s shine and sadly she died at just aged 39 in an asylum.

Yet, as a constant reminder that the world never forgets places of art and joy, the Paramount Ballroom has been recently renovated after years of disrepair. Its halls still echoing with the golden time will continue to live on.

Story by:
Shanghai R&B