Freshly reupped, by reader request, here.
In the 1920-30s, American jazz musicians began to visit and, in some cases, make extended stays in Shanghai, where a songwriter and composer originally from Hunan, Li Jinhui, was taking in everything he heard and integrating it into the popular Chinese music of the time. He composed hundreds of songs from the 20s to 40s, helping to launch the careers of China's most famous singers of the time, and single-handedly inventing shidaiqu, the precursor of contemporary Mandopop. Denounced for his "yellow" (meaning "pornographic") music, Li would eventually fall victim to Mao's Cultural Revolution in 1967.
Li's contribution is covered in depth by Andrew F. Jones in Yellow Music: Media Culture and Colonial Modernity in the Chinese Jazz Age, a well-written academic history of this period that, despite how the subtitle sounds, steers clear of academic language to tell an engaging and fascinating story of one of the most culturally rich periods of modern Asian history.
What Jones' book does not do is to breathe life into the specific histories of any of the singers of the time (though there is a passage near the end of the book detailing a bit of Zhou Xuan's performance in Street Angel). For that, we must piece together what little we can from Wikipedia entries on shidaiqu and the so-called Seven Great Singing Stars, and then hunt and peck our way through mostly other blogs for whatever scraps are out there.
Despite the richness of Chinese pop music of the 20s-40s, it's effectively unavailable anywhere in the United States outside of media stores run by Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwanese immigrants. Which is where your friendly bodega proprietor comes in.
As you've probably guessed, I'm on a constant lookout for recordings of shidaiqu, the Mandarin-language pop music that migrated from Shanghai to Hong Kong in the 40s, where it slowly morphed into the Twin Towers of Mandopop and Cantopop. Most of the nearly 50 CDs I have of this music is later stuff, recorded in Hong Kong, but I do have a dozen or so very coveted collections recorded in Shanghai that I've managed to pluck from mostly two stores (one no longer extant) on Bowery, just above Canal, in Manhattan's Chinatown.
For this mix, I included six of the Seven Greats: Zhou Xuan (Golden Voice), Yao Lee (Silver Voice), Bai Guong (White Light), Bai Hong (White Rainbow), Wu Yingyin (Queen of the Nasal Voice) and Lee Hsiang Lan, who was born Yoshiko Yamaguchi to a family of Japanese settlers in Manchuria, and thus apparently does not deserve a nickname. I have only a few songs by Gong Qiu Xia (Big Sister), but nothing that thrilled me as much as the songs that made the cut here.
Two other singers of the period are also repped: Chang Loo and Yun Yun. I limited myself to my two favorite songs by each of the eight, bringing the mix to a tight but hopefully fulfilling 16 songs.
A final note: Just as easily as an enterprising scholar of popular and/or Chinese culture could make a career telling the life stories of these singers and placing their significance into the cultural context of their time, she or he could write a really interesting paper on the preservation of this music. A number of people, including a handful of non-Chinese, have been exploring a variety of methods for noise reduction and arguing about whether or not one should digitize the music directly from the original 78s or later LPs. And, as you'll hear on the first track: Someone is doing something ever-so-slightly obtrusive, but nonetheless kind of cool, using some form of digital overlay and delay.