On Some Problems of Early Chinese Film Scholarship: News from Hong Kong

Emilie Yeh


Abstract: The essay targets concepts of yingxi, “shadowplay,” in prevailing histories of Chinese cinema. I argue that the presumed links forged between early cinema and traditional artforms in China were a result of a problematic English rendition of the original Chinese term yingxi. As a predominant term used to refer to motion pictures in the Republican period, we found little evidence supporting yingxi as a neologism linking such traditional artforms as shadowplay or opera to motion pictures. Instead, yingxi should be understood as Chinese term for “photo play.”  In addition, based on the primary sources recently recovered on early film exhibition in Hong Kong (1900-1916), we found another term—yinghua (photo pictures) was used more widely than yingxi, indicating the early reception of cinema was more fluid than what has been prescribed by the yingxi proper. Following yinghua, we traced the history of early film exhibition in Hong Kong and discovered that prior to 1924, cinema exhibition in Hong Kong was often held along with other forms of amusements, including lectures, live performances, facilities and services. In light of this manifold exhibition culture, movies were not the only attraction and audiences in the colonial Hong Kong of the 1910s and 1920s experienced a screening event of multiple stimuli.

Keywords: photoplay, yinghua, yingxi, film exhibition, Hong Kong early cinema


Introduction: Teahouse, Garden and Early Film Scholarship

The probable earliest film screenings in China, according to new evidence collected by Law and Bren (2004: 6-17), took place between April to July 1897, in a variety of venues, from the City Hall in Hong Kong to the Astor House (Pujiang Hotel) in Shanghai and foreign-owned theatres in Tianjin (Lyceum) and Beijing (Legation). The date Law and Bren identified as the “first” screenings was almost a year later than the date of August 1896 asserted by Cheng Jihua, Li Shaobai and Xing Zuwen, in their seminal volumes on Chinese cinema (Cheng et al. 1981: 8). Immediately after the debut in Hong Kong in April 1897, subsequent screenings were held at a number of tea gardens and amusement parks in Shanghai, Tianjin and Beijing. These new dates and venues proposed by Law and Bren were verified by another historian Huang Dequan in his essay on the arrival of cinema in Chinese (2007: 105-106). Based on the research by Law, Bren and Huang, it is safe to say that our knowledge of early film exhibitions in China, specifically, dates and venues of the “first” screenings is inaccurate. Instead of repeating traditional places like teahouses (Cheng at el. 1981, 8; Li and Hu 1996: 3-4; Hu 2003: 30-31, 35; Zhang 1999) or gardens (Pang 2006) as the first venues that presented film’s debuts to Chinese audiences, we found that generic “western” portals like public halls, a hotel ballroom and theatres were more likely to have housed the first film shows. A corollary arises from these findings: a need to revisit the existing scholarship of early Chinese film culture that have asserted the teahouse and the garden as the site of inception of film exhibition and germination of movie spectatorship in China. The methods that we have relied on so far in examining early Chinese film history, be it archival (Cheng at el. 1981; Li and Hu 1996; 2003: 30-31) or socio-cultural (Zhang 2005; Pang 2006) might need adjustment, or a thorough re-examination. Furthermore, the conceptualizations of a native spectatorship hovering between the vernacular (Zhang 2005) and the elite (Pang 2006) during the late Qing period (circa 1900) also require new calibration. With recent findings that alert us to gaps and flaws inherent in current early film scholarship, I intend to revisit some prevailing concepts and terms by looking into additional new evidence. With the support of primary research, we may present an alternative genealogy of cinema in China. Let me begin with two sites—a teahouse and a Chinese garden, known as the first cinema locations in Shanghai.


The Teahouse

In her “Teahouse, Shadowplay, Bricolage: Laborer’s Love and the Question of Early Chinese Cinema” (1999) and later her An Amorous History of the Silver Screen  (2005), Zhang Zhen seized on Cheng Jihua’s account on the initial film screening in Shanghai’s Xu Garden to set the stage for the application of vernacular modernism in early Republican China. According to Zhang, the teahouse screening stands for a potent visual motif to encapsulate Shanghai urbanites’ immersion of a colloquial, yet novel experience of mass entertainment. The everyday-ness of the teahouse setting and the demonstration of the astonishing attractions embody an immediate realization of the vernacular and the modern (2005: 89). The viewing of motion pictures inside a teahouse was instantly familiar, domestic as the latest invention from the West was accommodated in the context of traditional Chinese pleasures, with audiences participating actively in the event. Screenings were shown alongside familiar appeals, like music, opera, acrobats, puppets, gossip, loitering, food and drink (1999: 32). At the same time, however, the film viewing was emphatically queer and exhilarating. Lightened by electricity, viewers in China were shown various black and white events that were not just rare to see because of distance (e.g., “Street Scenes in Madrid”)[1] and novelty (e.g., “Lynching Scene in the Far West”), but also demanding to perceive because of the verisimilitude and animation of the images (e.g., “Passing of Cavalry”). And the vanishing of life on the white-cloth screen once the power turned off! All these took place in the lively teahouse setting where the patrons’ perception of the ephemeral and ghostly images might be expectedly mollified. The teahouse as a spatial conceit of the early film experience was critical in terms of accommodating the theory of vernacular modernism in the Chinese case (2005: 89). Miriam Hansen’s concept of vernacular modernism (1991) argues that cinema carries a “sensorium” of urban stimulation in the new 20th century, allegedly narrowing the gap between first world cosmopolitan sensation and regional, provincial and foreign horizons (1991). That it was “mass-mediated” by cinema (Zhang 2005: 43) and other modern apparatus meant that the new technology not only pictured faraway people and places, it also introduced Chinese viewers to novel pleasures, coeval with those of modern capitals such as New York or Paris. Cinema thus brought distant peoples into view, while also bringing them into configurations of modernity (Hanson, 2002). First screenings, or the primordial scenes of Chinese movies, were embedded in the context of traditional Chinese amusements.


The Garden

Taking cues of the teahouse as the primary locale of initiating a brand new visual experience, Pang Laikwan calls attention to a more precise account of the early film spectatorship in her “Walking into and out of Spectacle: China’s Earliest Film Scene” (2006). The basis of Pang’s revision of early film spectatorship is her query of the teahouse as the very first film scene where the earliest film spectatorship might have taken into shape. Pang argued that although the first screening was staged in the teahouse, historians have largely neglected the setting that encircled the teahouse, that is, the Xu Garden. The Chinese garden, Pang says, constitutes a distinct spatial and viewing experience for its patrons. Pang urges us to go beyond the existent theoretical assumption of the teahouse exhibition, that converges viewer’s attention to the centre stage of either a live performance or a film, the fluid, non-linear viewing inside of a garden should be taken into account in the formation of early film spectatorship. Pang delineates the spatial setup of a traditional Chinese garden and the way in which such a setup might have played an important role in shaping the viewing practice of motion pictures.

Two problems arise from Pang’s argument. According to Law and Bren, there is no “hard evidence” to indicate that Xu Garden staged the earliest film screenings in China (2004: 11). Huang Dequan who consulted new Chinese language materials also arrived at the same conclusion. And Huang went further to show that the alleged ‘first’ screenings held in Xu Garden in August, 1896 were most likely magic lantern shows, instead of motion pictures (Huang 2007: 102-104; 2009: 62-64). So it is not correct to name Another Village and the Xu Garden as the ‘earliest’ film scene, rendering the garden viewership an unreliable source. The reason for historians to confuse the slide show with the first film screening, Huang argues, was the overlapping use of the term yingxi for both magic lantern and motion pictures, between 1890 and the early 1920s. Magic lantern shows were called xiyang yingxi (western shadowplay) in Chinese and regularly programmed in public amusements since the 1870s (Huang 2007: 103). As yingxi was already a popular western show known to Chinese audiences, when film exhibition arrived, exhibitors borrowed the existing term, yingxi, and coupled it with “electric light” (dian guang), or “moving” (huodong), to label motion pictures. Without taking stock of the overlap between magic lantern and motion pictures, Cheng Jihua and his colleagues came to an arbitrary date of film’s initial entry into Shanghai, announcing the premature beginning of Chinese cinema. For more than half a century, historians believed that movies arrived in China just a few months after its Paris debut, dutifully following the trail blazed by Cheng and his co-authors. In reality, cinema’s trip to China was a slow journey, embarked from Hong Kong, at the margin of the country, instead of the film capital Shanghai. This puts the focus on the Shanghai garden into doubt, making the subsequent claim of the garden as ‘primal scene’ shaky.

Pang concludes that the Chinese viewers could literally walk the garden and move in and outside of the cinematic spectacle as the garden path provides them immunity to screen illusions, unlikely to be hoodwinked by the reality effects of motion pictures (2006: 76). This presumes that film exhibition is integral to the garden landscape and ignores the mechanism of projection as an attraction in itself. Early film shows indeed shared the space with other types of entertainments–acrobats, fireworks, live shows, lectures, and so on. But venue-sharing does not necessarily lead to a transferrable spectatorship or crossover from garden viewing to cinematic viewing. A film spectatorship rooted in the garden tends toward a romantic depiction of Chinese spectators. It projects a sophisticated ethnic spectatorship, distinct from their western counterparts. By suggesting an alternative to the cinema of attractions and vernacular modernism, Pang presents another fantasy of cinema origins in China.

 Called electric-light photoplay (dianguan yingxi) at the time by the exhibitors, film signified an electrifying visual experience as it departed significantly from the magic lantern, a relatively static sequence of images. Those films shows held in a hotel lobby, the hall of an amusement park, and their subsequent re-runs in the teahouses were not to be confused with standard entertainments available in the public garden. Advertisements of these events used sensational copy like “DON’T MAKE ANY MISTAKE!!! SEE THE CINEMATOGRAPH!!!” (June 26, 1897, ad for Lyceum Theatre, printed in Peking& Tientsin Times) and “Special engagement” (June 8-13, 1897, ad for Zhang Garden; Oct. 3, 1897, ad for Tong Qing Tea Garden, printed in Xinwen bao) to promote motion pictures as powerful new attractions. This is quite different from the advertisements for the magic lantern shows that by the advent of the 20th century, had run out of novelty value. By the late 1890s slide shows had became routine in program schedules, along with other popular amusements like fireworks and opera performance. Some shows would post some detailed contents (e.g., floods in San Francisco) but most would not. When motion pictures arrived, slide shows would disappear gradually. [Illustration 1.]

From the teahouse to the garden, historians have been writing early history based on incomplete historical records. Subsequent postulations were made about the genealogy of Chinese cinema, including the various ‘origins’ concerning exhibition, audience, reception and production. Next, I will focus on the yingxi concept, a commonly accepted provenance of Chinese film genealogy and its English translation “shadowplay,” ubiquitous in the current literature. My purpose of revisiting the yingxi concept and its English translation is to call attention to the gap between empirical study and dominant theoretical models on early Chinese cinema. The discovery made by Law and Bren opens a new page in the study of Chinese film history, but they have not moved toward a new conceptual framework. Meanwhile, theory-driven historiography without the basis of primary research runs the risk of making erroneous claims and inferences. In re-visiting yingxi, I am also concerned with the operative modes and politics in our cross-lingual practice. What discourse has been driving our habitual use of “shadowplay” in our practice as bilingual film scholars? Which context did we lean on in choosing the best term to unveil history? Do we need to pay more attention to the interstices between tradition and invention, between indigenous and the foreign in our historical excavation? This is where my story begins.

Yingxi, shadowplay: Chinese film genealogy and translation

As we know, before the term dianying became the definitive name for movies, yingxi was circulating in the teens and twenties in Shanghai newspapers and film magazines. For a long period of time, the term yingxi was in dormancy until the 1980s when historians in China revived it to build the genealogy of Chinese cinema. Zhong Dafeng and Chen Xihe proposed the concept of yingxi to reconstruct a film theory with a distinct Chinese character, and ownership. Their yingxi proposition soon led many scholars to connect the “origin” with traditional performing arts like puppet shadowplay (piying xi) and Peking opera (jingju).

Zhong and Chen identified yingxi as root to indigenous Chinese film theory. In the first essay on yingxi, Zhong Dafeng wrote the following:

As a film concept, “yingxi” reflected the basic view toward cinema among filmmakers at the time. “What is cinema?” This has been a major issue concerning filmmakers and theorists and has an effect on the aspects of film production. To early [Chinese] filmmakers, cinema was not a simple depiction of nature, nor was it a pure play irrespective of contents. To them, cinema is a kind of drama (Zhong 1985: 78).

By evoking yingxi as China’s take on motion pictures, Zhong suggested that cinema in China from its very beginning had a specific quality and mission. By defining yingxi as drama, rather than as moving images, Zhong called attention to Chinese cinema’s dramatic structure and argued storytelling is core to Chinese film practice and criticism.

Following Zhong’s introduction of the yingxi as drama, Chen Xihe went on to elaborate on yingxi as a Chinese response to cinema: “Just as montage and long take are core to westerners’ understanding of cinema, I want to establish “yingxi,” a concept emerged in early Chinese cinema, as central to the Chinese understanding of cinema” (1986: 82). To Zhong and Chen, Chinese cinema does not organize itself around the profilmic, an objective presence, open to perception. Instead of privileging ying (the photographic image), Chinese filmmakers focused on xi–fabrication, performance, narrative–and concerned with cinema’s dramatic effects and their attending ethos (Zhong 1986: 76-77; Chen 1986: 85-87). Emphasis on xi positions Chinese cinema as a plot-driven medium, mindful of its socio-political potential. This quality, according to Zhong and Chen, is the bedrock of Chinese film practice and criticism (Zhong 1985:63-70; Chen 1986: 83).

With the compelling lobby made by Zhong and Chen, yingxi became a leitmotif and guiding light in Chinese film historiography. One possible earliest record on yingxi, referring to piyingxi (Chinese shadow puppetry) appeared on《事物記原》 (On the origin of things) published circa 11th century (Zhang 2013: 110). Note that Zhong and Chen never identified Peking opera and/or puppet shadowplay as sources of the concept xi, the dramatic propensity of Chinese cinema. So without naming yingxi as puppetry, we should be cautious about linking yingxi to any given traditional performing arts. Nonetheless, scholars habitually associated the native term yingxi (for cinema) with opera and puppet shadowplay, without consideration of their historical connections. For instance, Hu Jubin repeats the inaccuracy in Cheng et al’s statement on film’s arrival in China: “The term ‘shadow play’ appeared in the first advertisement for a film screening and the earliest film review traceable today. This usage clearly indicates that film was to a certain degree conceptually connected with the traditional Chinese art form of shadow play” (2003: 30). In a different passage, Hu reiterates the affinity between “shadowplay” and opera, again, based on inaccurate documentation of teahouse as the site of the initial screenings:

In Beijing and Hong Kong, films were also first screened in teahouses. I believe that a single factor accounts for this phenomenon. Because film was called “shadow play,” it was situated in a location appropriate for “play,” that is, in teahouses, one of the most important places of recreation in Chinese society, and the site where traditional Chinese operas were performed (2003: 35).

However, with new knowledge of yingxi’s multiple reference, ranging from puppetry to magic lantern and cinema, we need to move beyond the presumed genealogical linkage between cinema and traditional art forms and look at yingxi as motion pictures within a more distinct context, instead of remnants of ancient puppetry or a continuation of Chinese opera.

The next problem is the constant use of yingxi as a pedigree of Chinese cinema. Zhong cautioned about the use of the term “yingxi.” By yingxi he meant a “specific art field” in early Chinese film, rather than a synonym of cinema (1985: 75). Despite the disclaimer, scholars have broadly taken yingxi to be a synonym of early Chinese cinema, as shown in recent publications (Bao 2012: 377-378; McGrath 2013: 401-402). Moreover, because of an affiliation presumed between cinema and China’s standing traditional arts, the scholarly community translated yingxi (literally shadow and play) as “shadowplay” without taking stock of cinematic specificity, and the incongruity between puppet shadowplay and motion pictures. First there was Jay Leyda’s 1972 book entitled Dianying, Electric Shadows: An Account of Films and the Film Audience in China. Leyda wanted to emphasize cinema’s reception in China and used the Chinese term dianying and its literal translation, “electric shadows” to title the first English volume on Chinese film. Thus begins the interpretation of ying as “shadows,” as if China’s cinematic past was filtered through a shadowy lens—charming, mysterious, exotic. This “shadowy” trope remains, into the new century, as seen in many works (Hu 2003; Zhang 2005; Berry and Farquhar 2001, 2005; Pang 2006; McGrath 2013). These renditions build bridges between cinema and shadow puppetry and opera; yet this assumed connection is viewed as a given, not a hypothesis, an inquiry begging for elucidation. Accordingly there is little discussion of cinema’s synchronic exhibition with shadow puppets, in accounts of early film exhibition. Film in the teahouse seems like a picture painted from secondary sources; to have a better understanding we must seek additional evidence.

Farquhar and Berry applied the “cinema of attractions” to yingxi and proposed a new translation of yingxi as “shadow opera” (2001). Translating yingxi as “shadow opera” in English, according to Farquhar and Berry, is to pinpoint the exact locus of the xi as a form of theatrical attraction: “Xi and its synonym, ju, more commonly mean opera or performance to ordinary Chinese rather than the Western-style realistic theatre familiar to educated, urban elites. Hence, one valid translation of yingxi is shadow opera” (2001: 27). Shadow opera, they argued, is an entry point to “a new archaeology of Chinese cinema” as it is key to the development of Chinese film production in the first half of the 20th century. Grounds for this idea of “shadow opera” comes from the source materials of two “first” native productions made in China proper, including Dingjun Mountain (1905) in Beijing, and Zhuang Zi tests his wife (1914), and so on.

Dingjun Mountain is especially significant because it was a screen reproduction of an opera performance shot in Beijing. But, based on the finding of Huang Dequan (2008), this legendary picture was not a film production at all. Instead, it was probably a photographic portrait of leading opera actor Tan Xinpei dressed in the Dingjun Mountain costume, taken at the photo studio Fengtai. This discovery not only compels us to reconsider the yingxi concept; it also reveals a problem in our study of Chinese film history–that there has not been enough primary research to corroborate claims made by generations of historians, including myself. In my essay on the discourse of music in films of the 1930s, I indicated that the Chinese early filmmakers were anxious to sinify cinema and one way of rendering cinema Chinese was to adapt popular opera repertories to the screen. I too followed the alleged “first” Chinese picture Dingjun Mountain to make my case (Yeh 2002: 82-83). But I was wrong. In retrospect, we do not have enough material to show early film reception was shaped by puppetry, opera or other indigenous art forms. More importantly, we need to re-examine the prevailing discourse of Chinese film historiography by finding additional and reliable primary data. Translating yingxi as shadowplay or other derivative from traditional performing arts is risky, exposing our lack of rigorous research and our tendency toward conformity. The persistent literal translation of yingxi as shadowplay reveals our unconscious anxiety, to salvage ethnic heritage in forging genealogy. Here we may refer to Foucaultian sense of history to unpack our preoccupation with yingxi:

“Genealogy must seek them in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history-in sentiments, love, conscience, instincts; it must be sensitive to their recurrence, not in order to trace the gradual curve of their evolution, but to isolate the different scenes where they engaged in different roles. Finally, genealogy must define even those instances when they are absent, the moment when they remained unrealized (1977: 76).

Just how motion pictures, as yingxi, interacted or commingled with Chinese puppetry or opera remains unknown, “unrealized,” only conjecture. While yingxi might explain the proclivity of film practice in China, as an “aphorism” it has not been useful in telling us how films were screened, used and received in the first few years after those initial screening events operated by foreign showmen. Yingxi leaves us many shadowy, unrealized spots where we need to attend to. To know how early film was viewed we need to walk out of our comfort zone and read the historical documents. Only by a wider, deeper excavation of history can we arrive at a better definition and translation of yingxi as a cogent genealogical term.

News from Hong Kong

We may refer to the standing literature on early film history to advance our query on the yingxi concept. For instance, Tom Gunning’s “cinema of attractions” includes a variety of moving pictures aimed at seizing spectators’ attention, not absorbing them into a narrative experience. In the West, narrative structures of character, settings, goals, cause-effect and wish-fulfillment were yet to come, after the nickelodeon boom around 1905. Meanwhile, moving picture attractions boldly grabbed people’s notice, with crashes, animal antics, contortionists, erotic views, Biblical vignettes, trick shots, scenery, and famous events like coronations, funerals and battles (often recreated). These scenes needed no introduction; they were meant to be grasped at once, for their own sake. There were also “phantom rides,” with the camera mounted on locomotives, trams or boats navigating rapids, much like amusement park rides. For instance, an Edison catalogue says this about a 1903 film Phantom Ride on the Canadian Pacific: “the view taken from the front of the train running at high speed is one even tourists riding over the line are not privileged to enjoy”; also on Panoramic View of Lower Kicking Horse Canyon (1902), the catalogue gushes, “of all panoramic mountain pictures this is the most thrilling, as the audience imagines while they are being carried along with the picture the train will be toppled over thousands of feet into the valley below.” Gunning continues on the phantom rides: “Such phantom rides substitute sensation for contemplation, overcoming effects of distance in a rush of visual motion" (Gunning 2010: 55-56).

Like the Hales Tours (simulated railroad trips), these were journeys through real space and sometimes, creative geography. Vaudeville-variety shows were offered in theatres, and also in Chinese tea gardens, where movie shorts also found a place. Short films thus helped complete an assorted program of entertainment, information and inspiration. To some extent, cinema was marketed as a new commodity; further, it was utilized as a tool to advance social and religious agendas. Moving pictures carried the world to viewers, and were often mobilized to illustrate Christian doctrines (Rapp 1996).

Zhang Zhen asserts that the cinema of attractions received by mass audiences in Shanghai of the 1910s was “distinctly concerned with contemporary subjects, ranging from current affairs, slapstick comedies, and scenic panoramas to educational materials” (2005: 66). She left this page of early film exhibition open for further exploration. Given these holes in early film history, I embarked on a project to investigate film exhibition, promotion and reception at the turn of the century in China.[i] A team of researchers collected film ads and film news from newspapers in four cities–Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Tianjin. We found that at the turn of the 20th century, film exhibition in Hong Kong did not take place just in the tea/theatre garden setting, nor did it fit the traditional yingxi cluster. As a British colony and Chinese speaking territory, Hong Kong movie consumption was highly varied. It was Janus-faced, embodying numerous roles and multiple functions. Movies were used as a promotional tool for Cantonese operas, an essential illustration for Christian deputation and at the same time, served philanthropic and educational purposes for the local community. More importantly, film in Hong Kong rapidly evolved as a commodity, a social institution and a business of the new century. As we shall see, early film scene in Hong Kong was too rich to be subsumed under an enchanting shadowplay or “shadow opera” image, housed in the local tea gardens or opera venues.

Motion pictures’ arrival in Hong Kong

As Law and Bren assert, the first report of public film screening in Hong Kong is dated 27 April 1897, about seventeen months after the first screening of moving pictures in Paris (2004: 20). A news report in The China Mail (24 April 1897) announced: “Professor Maurice Charvet, who arrived today by the French mail steamer, has [come] to Hong Kong from Paris to exhibit ‘Cinematograph’ and the ‘Kinetoscope’, the twin marvels of the age. These marvels have never been shown in Hongkong or the Far East before” (1897a: 3). An advertisement also appeared in the Hong Kong Daily Press (26 April 1897) promoting “the Cinematograph” as “the latest and greatest success of London and Paris” (1897b: 1). Further coverage of the event was also reported in the Hong Kong Daily Press (28 April 1897): “few people [were] privileged to witness the pictures”; “about a dozen scenes were shown on the screen and in each the movements were plainly visible” (1897c: 2). It continues with a description of what was being shown, “[the] entry of the Czar into Paris and the march past of a regiment of French cavalry [was] so life-like”; and recorded a fault of the cinematograph: “an irritating quiver as the pictures are being displayed” (1897c: 2), but then showing tolerance by mentioning that “this fault is common with every cinematograph and a fortune awaits the man who will devise a means of escaping it” (1897c: 2). An item in The China Mail (27 April 1897) even went on to describe the machine itself: “a long strip of film, containing very minute photographs, is wound from one cylinder to the photographs passing the lenses, at the rate of fifty per second. The photographs are projected on a screen [sic] a very powerful electric lamp” (1897d: 2).

Film was introduced to Hong Kong audiences with high expectations and curiosity, as evinced by this detailed coverage. Similar hype and enthusiasm were shown at every subsequent screening. At least 6 more exhibition events following the City Hall screening were announced in the Hong Kong Daily Press (19 August 1897, 16 October 1897; 20 January 1898, 28 March 1898; 23 December 1899; 16 April 1900). Each of the exhibitions was coupled with accounts of the content screened, information on the venue, the owner or operator of the property and reports of its reception or reviews.

Following these events, motion pictures gradually entered into local Chinese entertainments. To better understand the process, we surveyed a leading Chinese newspaper The Chinese Mail (華字日報 Wah Tsz Yat Po, literally Chinese-language Daily) from 1896 to 1940. [Illustration 2] The Chinese Mail, along with Universal Circulating Herald (循環日報 Hsun Huan Jih Pao 1874-1963) were the earliest Chinese newspapers published in Hong Kong with a history of over 70 years (Li 2000: 65). The Chinese Mail began as the Chinese edition of the leading English newspaper The China Mail but soon became an independent press. The Chinese Mail began publishing in 1872 and closed in 1946. Because the microfilm of Universal Circulating Herald was unavailable locally for the period we wished to search, we could only work on The Chinese Mail, which had nearly a complete collection (save 1899) in Hong Kong libraries.

We went over the papers to collect reports and advertisements related to film. We adopted a comprehensive search on film, wishing to collect as many items as possible. We believe by conducting such a carpet search we might be able to come closer to uncover the early film scene in Hong Kong. We found no coverage on film before 1900. So for the period between 1900 to the end of 1940 (when Hong Kong was seized by the Japanese), we collected, scanned and transcribed a total of 11,786 entries, including 4,231 news items and 7,555 advertisements. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on the data collected from 1900 to 1924, the year when film exhibition became highly organized and institutionalized. Below is a summary of our initial findings with respect to the yingxi thesis and the early film scene in Hong Kong.

  1. Nearly one thousand entries were collected during this period.
  2. Different terms for motion pictures other than yingxi were found. They are yinghua and dianhua, drawing our attention to hua, the “picture” quality of the shorts shown at the time. This concurs partly with the statement made by Zhou Chengren and Li Yizhuang in their Early Hong Kong film history (2005: 15). Yingxi was not the only, or even dominant term used in Hong Kong, indicating that early film exhibition was more heterogeneous than what has been prescribed by the yingxi concept. I will tentatively translate yinghua and its similar equivalents as “photo picture” in the following as a way of making a distinction with its Shanghai cousin, yingxi, or “shadowplay.”
  3. The data were sorted and classified into five categories, according to the function and purpose of screening: 1. Advertisements for opera theatres; 2. YMCA Illustrated lectures; 3. Philanthropy: Charity and fund-raising; 4. Hygiene and enlightenment; 5. Film exhibition as a new business. These categories indicated that newsreels and documentaries fared more prominently on Hong Kong screens in the early Republican period. Based on the evidence, the early film scene was not yet drama-centered. The period where the yingxi concept began its influence was not until the late 1920s.
  4. The yingxi discourse is too singular to explain the multitude of film culture in late Qing and the early Republican periods.


In what follows, I will provide an account for each of the categories. A few explanatory notes. Many of the ads contain more than one piece of information, ranging from the number of films packaged in the program, screening conditions, special features of the venue, promotion, and so on. To place these multiple information in proper categories, we end up using some ads or news more than once. Hence the number of the ads and news cited below is not meant to reflect the sum of our data. For illustration, a table with sample excerpts of the ads and news for each of the categories is also included.



Illustration 2: The Chinese Mail, circa 1900


Hong Kong film scene, 1900-1924

1. Advertisements for opera theatres. Between 1903 to 1909, around 82 film ads were sponsored by opera theatres, 40 of which advertised opera performance bundled with motion picture screenings. In addition to these forty ads, there are twenty or so ads (printed between February 1900 to October 1900) that were difficult to determine. Sponsored by Chung King Theatre and Ko Shing Theatre, these ads used terms like qiqiao yanghua, exquisite and marvelous western pictures, or “lantern magic” to attract potential customers. We believe these were either magic lantern or slide shows, based on the previous findings (Huang 2009; Zhou and Li 2005: 10)

Here films were named in a number of terms, including yinghua (photo pictures, 61 times) and huatu yingxi or huaxi (picture photoplay or picture play, 9 times). Yingxi appeared 10 times. Use of the term yingxi is limited. These ads show the concurrence of opera and motion pictures, revealing traditional theatres’ intent to secure or to broaden its audience via film screenings. These ads also have something in common. They advertised a change of repertoire. With the new opening, a foreign picture would be added to the program as a bonus.

Before cinema houses like Victory Cinematograph and Bijou Scenic Theatre began to set up around 1907, these opera theatres were the established venues for movie screening.[ii] Then starting from 1905, motion pictures gradually moved from the margin to the center as sometimes the theatre would only screen films. From 1904 on, the opera theatres would only list film screening as the main attraction in their ads, indicating film’s increasing popularity. For example, “Tai Ping Theatre features recent arrivals of foreign photo pictures” and several similar ones listed on Table 1.


2. YMCA Illustrated lectures. This category finds early film functioned as community outreach. Sugawara Yoshino recently wrote about the robust film exhibition at Shanghai’s YMCA in early 20th century. By promoting “healthy entertainment,” film shows at Shanghai YMCA not only formed an alternative screening culture, they also helped nourish the first generation of Chinese film entrepreneurs with business ambition and aspirations to social reform (2013). Similarly we found evidence of the use of cinema to advance the cause of evangelism, by introducing sights and scenes from the world to local populations.

Held at the YMCA, there were 14 local news stories printed between 1908 to 1913 featuring talks by missionaries or travelers on their tours in various places like the UK, the Canadian Rockies, Korea, Beijing, Manchuria, America (including the story of Columbus), the Philippines, Turkey, etc. These were informative talks to introduce Hong Kong audiences to the culture, scenery, customs and history of foreign countries or cities. To enhance the interest and the credibility of the lectures, screening of moving pictures of such places was included. It is worth noting the news items used the term “projecting” (ying) to highlight the accompanying visual presentations, implying that the events themselves were not just talks, but had some kind of attractions, extras and amusements offered by moving images.

For example, “YMCA Lectures (〈青年會演說〉),” The Chinese Mail, 28 October 1909. The films shown at YMCA were called either dianhua (電畫 electric pictures), or yinghua (影畫 photo pictures). Dianhua appears 5 times while yinghua appears 4 times. Here too use of yingxi is nowhere to be seen. For sample data, please see Table 2.

Based on the opera ads and the illustrated lectures, we can see that in Hong Kong, between 1903 and 1913 cinema was primarily understood as “photo pictures” (yinghua),[iii] not shadowplay or some derivative of Chinese performing arts. Yinghua and dianhua appear to be representations marketed as performance or show, mechanically mediated. They are not meant to be (mis)taken as traditional amusements. Movies were not indebted to or extensions of shadowplay or opera; they were utilized to sell traditional amusements, just as they were mobilized to illustrate lectures with religious and colonial messages. The practices of early cinema in Hong Kong exceeded the cultural boundaries of “shadow opera.”

The service-oriented film events at the YMCA culminated between 1925 and 1927 when the general strike in Hong Kong and Kowloon brought temporary closure of theatres, leaving local audience with very limited film activities. During this period, YMCA held regular film screenings, including Chinese, American feature films (2 February 1925, 1 December 1925; 19 January 1926; 16 May 1927). 


3. Philanthropy: Charity and fundraising. Between 1908 and 1924, we identified 8 ads and 8 news stories on fundraising for disaster relief in South China or secondary school fundraisers where they show either commercial pictures or newsreels of the disaster sites as the main attraction, or “hook” to arouse audience curiosity and sympathy. For sample data, please refer to Table 3.


4. Hygiene, science and current affairs. Films were used to promote hygiene, science and a visualization of current affairs. Between 1904 and 1924, 11 news stories and 95 ads were identified. These movies projected ideals of public health, scientific and geographical knowledge, and views of current affairs, including the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, coronation of King George V in 1911, military exploits of the warlords Zhang Zuoling, Wu Peifu in the North, and footage of floods, and other natural disasters. The Russo-Japanese War was particularly popular, showing consecutively for over six weeks (from June 21 to 5 August 1905) at a temporary outdoor space near the Central market. This was quite possibly the longest running film show in the decade. Among these news stories we found an advertisement printed in 1908 selling a phantom ride to famous sites in France. This information opens a new research link on the early visual experience of Hong Kong audience. For sample data see Table 4. 


5. Film exhibition as a new business and a form of social life. Some of the bigger ads are about the “state of the art” theatrical experience. Film exhibition was noted as a novelty, with reports on theater fires (discussing public safety) and about the running of film exhibition as a business and a new form of social life. There are five distinct subcategories of material on this.

a. Screening conditions. Between 1907 and 1924, we found at least 9 news stories and 31 ads on movie screening conditions: stability of the pictures, crispness of the image, lighting, noise control, sound effects, comforts of the viewing experience (seats, fans, air conditioners, fresh air, cleanliness). For sample data see Table 5.

b. Theatre ads, with opening of new cinemas, opening new pictures, financing, ownership, administration. 32 news stories and 218 ads were printed between 1902 and 1924. For sample data please refer to Table 6.

c. Public safety of film screening. From 1905 to 1922, we found 19 news stories on public safety, fire hazard, fire inspections, commotion and excitement of the audience incited by the images. An interesting one concerns a 1910 boxing film shown in the US, with white vs. black pugilists. Black fighter wins, and this caused a major ruckus. The British parliament debated the pros and cons of allowing such incendiary screenings. For sample data, please see Table 7.

d. Film narrators and other guides to the programs. Between 1913 and 1924, we found 270 ads featuring film narrators and 9 ads emphasizing the provision of bilingual synopsis (handbill), one news item on film narrator and one on the handbill. This sub-category collects the largest number of advertisements, indicating the importance of translation in receiving foreign silent pictures. As we can see, over 90 percent of the pictures screened in Hong Kong by the mid 1920s were foreign pictures. Despite being a British colony, the majority population in Hong Kong spoke Cantonese. In order to boost attendance and ticket sales, it was apparently necessary for the theatres to provide bilingual synopsis of the pictures with English intertitles.

The statement by historians Zhou Chengren and Li Yizhuan that in Hong Kong narrators (or interpreters) started to work in September 1916 is proven to be incorrect (Zhou and Li 2005: 18). We found that narrators accompanying foreign pictures operated as early as February 1916. Judging from the number of ads, film narrators were an important side of film exhibition for at least six years. But their importance began to decline in late 1922 when printed handbills or synopses were gaining importance as movie guides, to reduce distraction from the screening. This information may change the standard view of the decline of film narrators in the late 1920s. It is repeated that the advent of sound pictures puts the accompanying narration to an end (Richie 1990: 4; Fujiki 2006: 79-80), but the stories we gathered in Hong Kong says that a handbill or a brochure made exclusively for the screening was more desirable to viewers than the interpreters. Further investigation would be needed to see if indeed film narrators had already confronted competition from print publicity, before the coming of the sound era. For sample data, please see Table 8.

e. Exhibition promotion and marketing. There were ways to add value with ticket purchase: reimbursement of ferry fares between Hong Kong island and Kowloon; extras such as western musical performances and magic shows and acrobatics. Between 1905 and 1924, there are at least 8 news stories and 246 ads on exhibition promotion and marketing, demonstrating movie exhibition becoming a capitalist enterprise competing for profits. For sample data see Table 9.


Yinghua as photo pictures: Re-translating Yingxi

Before 1924, most of the public information on movies concerns screening events, screening conditions and their attached message, purposes and so on. Movies were sometimes just an adornment, tools for other aims, such as Christian deputation as in illustrated lectures held in the YMCA and fund-raising. Movie screenings were an excuse for people to assemble, participate and perhaps commit themselves to a worthy cause.

Among these categories, film exhibition as a new institution, commodity and business takes center stage.[iv] Over 600 ads and news combined can be found under this rubric, which outnumbered the entries under each of the other 4 categories. If we add those magic lantern show ads, cinematic and proto-cinematic exhibition as business pursuit is an essential part of the cinema between 1900 and 1920. Stories on film production, on the other hand, were virtually non-existent at this stage, with the exception of a call for shareholding in Li Mingwai’s Minxin 民新Studio. Early film in Hong Kong thus is primarily an exhibitor’s cinema, a novelty for visual pleasure and a new medium for socialization and cultural uplifting. More importantly, screening motion pictures was harnessed as a capitalist commodity, whose surplus value was being enhanced by adding physical comfort and aesthetic decoration. After 1920 we see the domination of Hollywood pictures and the emergence of film criticism as a profession, which seems closely related to Hollywood’s popularity. Stars, genres, business operation and the technology of American cinema occupy the center of movie reviews. There is ample evidence to chart the growing influence and maturation of movie screenings, in technical, aesthetic and economic improvements. In Hong Kong, journalism of the time proves sensitive to the institutionalization of cinema as a growing business and entertainment enterprise.

 “Cinema of attractions” was evident in Hong Kong’s early screen as there are plenty of news and ads on the visual presentation of warfare and current affairs. For instance, the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, coronation of King George V in 1911, military exploits of the warlords Zhang Zuoling, Wu Peifu in the north, and footage of floods, and other natural disasters prove that movie attractions were not limited to yingxi–dramatic features with embellished performances and well-crafted storytelling. Yinghua, photo pictures, the Hong Kong term for cinema, testifies to the wider scope of movies’ local meaning. Via the lenses of moving pictures, we may reconsider the ways and means of movie screening as functionary events with specific social and educational aims. Screenings were often a means to some further end, such as education/evangelism as in the YMCA talks, fundraising, or building business synergies with a cognate enterprise, such as opera. If cinema of attractions was a pre-narrative “come-on” similar to fairground barkers and ballyhoo, yinghua by way of its picture quality promoted a community objective through illustration, showing, presentation. Yinghua, the idea of photo pictures thus departs from the yingxi concept in its distance from a drama-centered dogma that defined the specificity of the ethnic audience: Chinese audience’s preference for xi, dramatic effect.

       In the 1980s historians found yingxi as an entry to formulating an indigenous film theory and aesthetics. Yingxi’s emphasis on script and literature differentiates Chinese cinema and it is a strategic enunciation. However, translating yingxi as “shadowplay” has opened a false link between motion pictures with puppetry and opera. This forced connection has led scholars to continuously return to the same sites and sources to establish cinema’s genealogy in China—the teahouse, garden, shadow puppetry and the opera. We have overlooked the materiality of yingxi–images, movements, projecting light beams–that might have transformed the theatrical experiences of the audience into a phantasmagoric adventure beyond a recurrence of live performance. Following yingxi’s earlier meaning as magic lantern, we may consider re-translating yingxi as photoplay, calling attention to its photographic quality, instead of its ethnic affinity. Undoubtedly it came to change the audience’s view of the world and unleashed their perceptual bonds.


Table 1-9 (in a separate document)



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[1] “Street Scenes in Madrid,” “Lynching Scene in the Far West” and “Passing of Cavalry” are the shorts billed in the newspaper advertisement for the movie shows at Astor Hall. See Law and Bren (2004:13-14).

[i] This is a three-year research project entitled “Chinese Film Industry beyond Shanghai: 1900-1950” funded by the Research Grant Council of Hong Kong, 2010. The research team comprises Emilie Yeh, Poshek Fu, Feng Xiaocai and Liu Hui.

[ii] It is widely accepted and cited in almost all existing studies that the first dedicated cinema in Hong Kong was the “Bijou Theatre” (比照戲院). It was opened on 4 September 1907 “by Lo Gun, a Chinese, and Mr. Ray, a Jew,” according to the following sources: Yu Mowan (余慕雲 1996: 37); Zhou Chengren (周承人) and Li Yizhuang (李以莊2005:19) and Stephanie Chung Po-yin (鍾寶賢 2011: 47). Here “dedicated” means a venue specifically used for film exhibition. But our research shows that The Victoria Cinematograph should instead be the earliest movie theatre in Hong Kong, see Chinese Mail, 1 November 1907.

[iii]The ads sponsored by Ko Shing Theatre used yinghuaxi (photo picture play) to promote the coronation of King Edward VII (The Chinese Mail, 3 December 1902). Another frequently used term was huatu yingxi (picture photoplay), emphasizing the pictographic quality of motion pictures. For example a 1902 ad sponsored by New Hei Lai (Xing Xilai) Theatre, featuring “a life-like picture photoplay” (The Chinese Mail, 27 December 1902).

[iv] A similar claim was made concerning early Japanese cinema by Aaron Gerow (2009).