I recently watched the movie called "The White Countess" with one of my preferate actors, Ralph Fienes (Voldemort in Harry Potter, The English Patient, The Constant Gardener, Schindler List...). This movie is about White Russians in Shanghai 1930s, telling the story of a former Russian noble lady obliged to work as a bar hostess. Although the story itself is of little interest, it is probably the first time I watch such a precisely and well documented movie about Shanghai 1930s. The background is the White Russian immigration that followed the Russian revolution which led some 20000 destitute czarist Russians, most of them coming from Harbin to find refuge in Shanghai. Their condition was often quite miserable, former military men working as hotel doorkeepers, bodyguards or police assistants. Women sometimes became prostitutes to survive, which somehow damaged the status of the ruling white race.
At that time Huaihai Road, former Avenue Joffre in the heart of the French Concession, was called "Little Russia" as most of the shops, bars and restaurants were named after Russian names (nearby photo credit Katya Knyazeva). Today still we can find traces of this heritage through former Russian orthodox churches (St Nicolas in Gaolan Road or the cathedral on Xinle Road) or restaurants like Deda Cafe still serving borscht. Maoming Road has also kept the tradition of Russian taylors from the 1930s who used to maintain dresses from Saint Petersburg up to the fashion of the day. Today the street however mainly sells Chinese dresses or suits. Seldom shown character is singer Alexander Vertinsky represented in the famous role of "Black Pierrot" (photo bellow) singing traditional romantic Russian songs, although this costume was probably an earlier one.
The effort of the director James Ivory to quote night life existing cabarets is remarkable. Evocation of the Jazz dancing scene with the first Chinese or black American orchestras is also admirable. The famous Chinese singer Yaoli even sings "Rose rose I love", an hymn to Shanghai nightlife in the 1930s during one of the bar scenes! At some point, Shanghai race course (today People Square) is shown. The French, although caricatured like in most American movies are also represented. Jewish families mixing up with Chinese locals, the Bund British companies civil servants, etc...Movie decoration fits the Art Deco style of those years and many scenes have been shot in real places like the ballroom of former Cathay (now Peace Hotel), the French College Municipal existing lilong alleys. Rest of the action was set at Shanghai Film Park.
The movie depicts the night life of Shanghai with focus on the political struggle involving Japanese, communist Chinese and the Kuomintang. Japanese spies running in the city add spice to the plot and we can definitely feel the tension of coming war during the whole movie. So if you like Ralph Fienes like I do and want to have a flavor of Shanghai actual life in those years, I recommend you find yourself a copy of this movie. Forget about the poor scenario and indulge yourselves into the fascinating atmosphere of multiethnic Shanghai 1930s!