American culture has influenced China in many ways over the years,and Hollywood movies played a key role in shaping the way Shanghai viewed the rest of the world in the early days. Not only did Hollywood spearhead the importation of this novel art form to China in the early 20th century, movies such as Waterloo Bridge and Stagecoach also served as a conduit for the inflow of American fashion, music and pop culture, which in turn merged with the lives of ordinary citizens and Shanghai’s cosmopolitan spirit.
The first American movie known to have been screened in China was shown in Shanghai in June, 1897. New Jersey businessman James Ricarton screened some cultural and landscape documentaries at the Tien Hua Tea Garden. That same year, Thomas Edison Company produced two documentaries in Shanghai, Shanghai Police and Shanghai Street Scene, which were both publically screened. But it was not until the 1920s and 1930s, as the movie industry boomed in the U.S., that American films entered Shanghai on a large scale.
The “Golden Age” of Hollywood from the early 1920s to the 1950s coincided with the “Golden Age” of China’s movie industry. The “Big Eight” Hollywood film studios controlled more than 80 percent of the Shanghai movie market and all of them established local offices. In 1930 alone, more than 540 American films were screened in China. The Grand Theater on West Nanjing Road, for instance, played American movies almost exclusively from 1933 to 1942 including One Night of Love, Grand Hotel, and Casablanca. Hollywood’s strong presence in Shanghai was reflected in AmCham’s 1947 corporate membership list, which included familiar names such as MGM, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, United Artists, United Pictures, and Warner Brothers.
Language barriers posed no difficulty. The Grand Theater and other famous cinemas hired professional female interpreters who provided simultaneous translations into the audience’s earphones. Shanghai citizens thus gave them the beloved name “Miss Earphone.” Movie posters and advertisements were everywhere, adding to Shanghai’s modern Western feel. American movies quickly became the talk of the town. They were the trendiest entertainment form available and going to high-end theatres like The Grand was a fashionable lifestyle statement. Famous Chinese writers such as Lu Xun, Eileen Chang, and Shi Zhecun were all movie fanatics. Eileen Chang, for example, had been a frequent movie-goer as a student and had pored over dozens of English film magazines such as Movie Star and Screen Play.
Hollywood was also a trendsetter for fashion in the 20s. Ladies emulated Hollywood actresses’ curly hairstyles and stylish makeup. The demand for beauty salons and cosmetic products surged. A batch of high-end hair salons—“Nanjing,” “Red Rose,” “Huaan,” to name a few – emerged across the city. “Max Factor” face cream, an American brand popular among Hollywood stars, was all the rage among Shanghai ladies who were eager to adopt the latest trends.
Women from wealthy families even brought their personal tailors to movies so that they could make exact copies of the clothes worn by Hollywood stars. A commercial handbook published by AmCham in 1932 noted that American films helped “sell America to China.” Indeed, Hollywood’s input into Shanghai had been so substantial and wide-ranging that it helped to shape the city’s defining character – open-minded and welcoming to new products and ideas.
Shanghai’s movie business also benefited hugely from the early exposure to American films. In 1909, American businessman Benjamin Brasky set up China’s first production company in Shanghai, the Asia Film Company. In 1913 it produced China’s first movie Die for Marriage directed by Zheng Zhengqiu and Zhang Shichuan. Over time, local photographers learned the craft by imitating American works.
One of China’s earliest screenwriters and directors, Xia Yan, recalled; “We started making films only by watching foreign ones, mostly American films,” Xia Yan said. “With no textbooks and no professional schools to train us, we just brought small flashlights with us to theaters and calculated time lapse while we were watching, inch by inch. In this way, we learned some techniques for movie making.” Moreover, some of the earliest Chinese movies, like Ten Sisters, also borrowed their plot structures from Hollywood movies.
Today, Hollywood movies are even more popular among Chinese audiences and many Hollywood studios have forged alliances with local companies and studios. China’s movie market, with an annual growth rate of around 35 percent, is now the second largest market worldwide and is expected to surpass the U.S. and Canada. Since 2009, Hollywood has taken between 43.5 percent and 51.5 percent of the box office annually. China’s local entertainment companies have also heavily invested in Hollywood in hopes of globalizing their brands. Among the many deals formed in 2014, the biggest ones include those between HBO and Tencent, Alibaba and Lionsgate, and the eye-catching $200 million investment from Fosun into Studio 8.