Princess in the dark
Christine Zhou is a concert pianist and filmmaker. She is trying to uncover her Grandmother’s legacy from the secretive grip of China’s state run film industry.
Christine Zhou is an attractive lady, with an air of wistfulness. Though in her early thirties she is often asked for ID in liquor stores as she looks under 21. Fairly tall, with long black hair, slim and film star features she was born in Beijing, the daughter of a Chinese Manchurian doctors on her mother’s side and her father was the orphan son of the 1930s singer and movie actress Zhou Xuan
Zhou Xuan’s image and songs are the muse of many nostalgic Chinese films, books, plays, advertising and other aspects of Chinese culture, when it turns itself to reflection on what was lost in the 20th Century. For a Western centric mind Zhou Xuan could be described as a mixture of Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Edith Piaf, who existsin the consciousness of over a billion people. She was known as the Golden voice of the Republic.
After 1989 Christine’s family managed to move from Beijing to Toronto in Canada. She has been seeking her Grandmother ever since.
‘My Grandmother haunts me,’ Christine says. ‘For Americans, I would say she has aspects of four American actresses- Judy Garland, because of her sweetness and singing Over the Rainbow, Zhou Xuan was a young orphan when she was discovered and her first big film was Street Angel. Then there are parallels to Marylyn Monroe and her mysterious death. She had the sweetness and grace of Audrey Hepburn, and Billy Holliday, because Zhou Xuan sang the Chinese blues. But in the end, Zhou Xuan was her own person, you don’t really have to say those things, it just gives a superficial understanding of a part of who she was.’
Christine sees messages and signs from her Grandmother in her daily life, posters, adverts, songs, all permeate the air, especially when she is in Asia. She thinks the spirit of her Grandmother follows her, in pursuit of justice, or acclimation, for what happened to her.
‘My Mother is a traditional Chinese doctor. But she practises an ancient form, from Manchuria. My family were the doctors for the Emperor, it was a lost branch of Chinese medicine now. All my Grandfather’s ancient medical texts were burnt in the Cultural Revolution. The only person who retains any of that knowledge is my Mother, when she passes it will be gone. It is a combination of medicine and the I Ching, specialised in immunology, it works, I have seen my mother perform miracles. She was even made an honorary Jew as many of her patients are Othodox,’ Christine said.
Growing up in an environment steeped in traditional Chinese beleifs Christine does not find it strange her Grandmother’s spirit and mission should be one of her major life goals. ‘I am named after Zhou Xuan, and I look like her, rebirth or other past lives, its not an alien concept, even in Western culture. When I was in Grade 10, I remember, I was told my Grandmother was murdered, in a conspiracy. They wanted to take her money, her estate, her sons. So as a 16 year old I swore to find the truth. Life goes on, my family broke down in 2008, then I found out my father was lying about certain things, then I started questioning my identity, was I really her Granddaughter? My father was an orphan, was he really Zhou Xuan’s son? Orphans lie…to survive. There was court battle in the 1980s to prove my father was Zhou Xuan’s son. Around 2008 I realised I was living in Shanghai near where Zhou Xuan was living, so I went to look with a classmate, and there was no one there in this forgotten building with a secret garde. The elevator door opened and an old man came out, seeing him prompted me to ask if anyone knew which apartment was her. I said to myself if she is really my Grandmother, give me a sign, while simultaneously thinking that’s superstitious nonsense. Within a few moments, we went to the rooftop, found some stairs, as we were going down, we heard voices, we walked past, and saw an old lady talking to a postman. So we interrupted her, asked her if she knew Zhou Xuan’s apartment, we told her we were students of Shanghai Theatre Academy. She said her apartment was Zhou Xuan’s apartment. So I took it as a sign, and never questioned my identity as her granddaughter after that.’
The apartment building, called Brookside Apartments, on Huashan road in Shanghai, was in the heart of the heady French concession, a melting pot, the ‘Paris of the East.’ According to the lady living there, the apartment was vacant for 2 years after Zhou Xuan’s death and then they were ‘allocated’ the apartment. It was recently sold.
‘Growing up in the West, where Zhou Xuan is unknown, and in Asia where she is partly buried, and because my parents had been lying, I decided to find out for myself who Zhou Xuan was. I kind of had to find out for myself, it kind of propelled me to China. In Toronto I was all set to be a concert pianist, then circumstances sort of bowled me into China. The coincidences kept on happening….especially the first two years, 2008-2010, when I was in China. Searching for my Grandmother in a way became an outlet for my sadness.’
‘The meaningful part was, when I was 16 and I made that childish vow, I was determined to meet the woman my Father said had murdered my Grandmother. Her name was Huang Zhong Yin, who was a lesser well known actress who adopted my father and his brother. Huang was married Zao Dan, the ‘George Clooney’ of that time, and kind of a brother to my Grandmother, they co-starred in Street Angel.’
‘I wanted to meet her, so I went to SARFT (China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television), I met the director of films, he was helpful, but they didn’t want to meet me. I went back to Shanghai, and one kid I was teaching English to, was a housing agent, who came up to me out of the blue and said ‘you are Zhou Xuan’s Granddaughter,’ I was loke how did you know? I saw your picture one of the clients had a picture of you, from a performance you did, the photo was in the brother of Zao Dan’s house. Then he told me where they lived, so I went to visit, and they lived close by in Shanghai. They told me where Huang was. She was in the hospital next to the Shanghai Theatre Academy where I was studying. I paid her a visit with flowers, an attempt to make peace. She wasn’t that innocent…but she wasn’t the one who murdered my Grandmother, that was my father’s lies.’
‘I visited her 3 times, she didn’t say much. On the third visit as I walked in she saw me as a reflection in the mirror and had a look on her face like she’d seen a ghost. She would just stare at me. Her big secret, as it turned out, was the money she got to take care of my Father, she hid from everyone. There was a big conspiracy of rumour and counter rumour, that she erased my Father’s name as Zhou Xuan’s child to get a part of the estate. Its all very unclear.’
Zhou Xuan, herself, was a legend in her own time. Sold, at the age of 3 by her opium addict father, then given up yet again, for adoption, she spent her life looking for her birth family. Known as the ‘golden voice’ of China, she recorded multiple hit songs, was the star of many major films released by the then vibrant Shanghai movie industry, and her love life was the headline news of contemporary tabloid news. Though she could have escaped to Hong Kong, she was caught up in the chaos of the Chinese civil war, and remained in Shanghai after the Communist takeover. Suffering numerous breakdowns during her life, she spent her later years locked in a mental institution, where the administration of inappropriate drugs likely was the cause of her death. Also, following the revolution actors and actresses were often the subject of Communist ire, culminating in the Cultural Revolution, when most of China’s former celebreties were killed. The former cultural elite, especially those in the film industry, were the most persecuted, blamed on personal grudges held by Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was a failed actress in Shanghai’s 1930s film scene. Zhou Xuan’s legacy, film and musical as well as image rights were used by production companies in Hong Kong and mainland China, with no credit or compensation being given to her heirs. The murky struggle for her heritage is also further muddied by Zhou Xuan’s two orphan boys having a fratricidal campaign to claim her legacy. Both have published competing biographies of their Mother. Christine’s father Zhou Wei, and Uncle, Zhou Ming have fought court battles over her name, to no real benefit to either. Christine has been trying to piece together a truth, within the web of lies and counter lies. But along the way she also found herself abused and manipulated, and for her, she believes her personal struggled in some part reflect the struggles of her Grandmother.
After China’s civil war the Chinese movie industry decamped to Hong Kong.
‘Based on letters to her handlers in Hong Kong, she never received any royalties from the Shau family after the revolution, the Shau brothers own the whole industry there. Most Hong Kong films are made under them, they are like Godfathers. Before the revolution they would pay her in gold bars. They would check me out, but never really say anything. Zhou Xuan made several blockbusters in Hong Kong. Her musical recordings belonged to Pathe, now owned by Sony. Somebody is getting that money, but not my family. The Shanghai Film Group were playing the good guys, saying they were taking care of her managing her estate. Basically her money was used to buy their equipment, or whatever they decided. So they put her in mental hospital and took over all her heritage. It’s a dark secret what they have hidden, they are corrupt and afraid. That is why I found it so hard to tell my grandmother’s story. They have all done wrong and they don’t want the dirty secret to come out. I proposed to make a film with them, which they were interested in, but as soon as my Grandmother’s name was mentioned all doors immediately shut. She was a victim of the state- they killed her and took everything she had. Now they want to bury what they did. Those within the Shanghai Film Group who are sympathetic say it is too dangerous.’
‘To be clear, I’m not interested in her money, it would anyway, go to my Father who I am estranged from. What I want is for her to get the recognition she deserves, like Judy Garland or Audrey Hepburn, which is being hidden because of all this dodgy dealing about her money. I make my own money, if I want her money, the truth would never be revealed its about getting her the respect she deserves. If it was about money I guess I’d hire a lawyer. That’s not going to happen- look what it did to my Father and my Uncle.’
The key to the family mythology Christine has researched is the medication that was being administered to Zhou Xuan. She was undoubtedly dealing with mental illness, understandable given her stresses and circumstances. Locked away for political convenience, was it also convenient for the Communists to kill her? She was immensely popular figure, so the usual denounciation would have been hard.
Chlorpromazine, a drug used for schizophrenia, was used in her treatment in the mental asylum. In her diaries Zhou Xuan wrote she was given this drug for 6 years. The FDA does not approve use of this drug for mental disorders, as it may lead to death during treatment. The drug is light sensitive and comes in a black box. Serious side effects include movement problems, weight gain, and many other issues, including risk of death. Zhou Xuan’s last words in her diary were ‘there will come a day when the water will recede and the stone will appear. Just you wait.’
It has been common practise in Communist regimes to pu problematic citizens into mental hospitals. For instance, until recent times, homosexuality was officially a mental disease in China.
Following her inclinations, Christine helped set up an independent Beijing Film Festival and then worked as a produce and presenter for Shanghai Telivision. Her entire department was axed following the change in China’s regime, with the new incumbent President Xi Jinping. She also continuously tried to make a documentary about her Grandmother’s life.
‘When I arrived in Shanghai, and after the incident in her old apartment, I had this vision to make a documentary. I started doing research, meeting people, and followed coincinces, such as there was this painting, which I saw in this old art deco library. I thought if I could somehow enter that old painting and expose the story, it could only be significant on film. I met surviving old actors, and did benefit events, for orphans.’
Then Christine’s personal life became enmeshed in her goals.
‘Landing in Shanghai was like all of a sudden arriving in another world, another way of finding my roots. It is personal, no one else cares about it, its is who I am.’
Despite liaisons with people in the film industry, Christine found people she thought were helping her, but weren’t. She felt the emotional betrayal similar to that experienced by her Grandmother.
‘People still use her, she was the muse for ‘In the mood for Love’ by Wong Kar Wai. But nobody wants to tell the true story, there have been loads of overdone work, but its all the TV drama version of her life.’
Christine has written a treatment for her documentary, but has yet to find the right people to make the film.
‘The story hits so many taboos, big business, culture, mental illness, media, corruption, I don’t know when Zhou Xuan will be found,’ Christine said.