This Week in History: When Charlie Chaplin Came to China

By Ned Kelly, March 9, 2020

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It was not until March 8, 1936 – one day before it was due to dock – that news reached Shanghai that a US ship, the SS President Coolidge, was steaming towards Shanghai from Japan with one of the world’s most beloved stars on board.

Charles Spencer ‘Charlie’ Chaplin had kept his itinerary secret, wishing for a relaxing holiday after the completion of his first sound film, Modern Times, not least because his travel companion was his co-star in that film, and new fiancée, Paulette Goddard.

Even once it was known he was aboard there remained the fear that nobody would get to see him.

In 1931, after completing City Lights, Chaplin and his brother had embarked on a 16 month circumnavigation of the globe which had seen him dock in Shanghai, but not leave the ship. An optimistic 40 Chinese and foreign journalists still lined the riverfront at noon on March 9 though, and at 1pm the SS President Coolidge docked. The assembled throng took the opportunity to board the ship and requested to see the passenger list.

Chaplin’s name was not on it, but that of Goddard’s was, albeit without a cabin number. It sparked a frenzied search of the vessel. The funnyman was soon found, if not in the guise that they were expecting – he was leaning against the railings taking in the Shanghai skyline, dressed as an English gentleman rather than as his onscreen ‘Little Tramp’ persona.

A still from The King of Comedy Visits Shanghai with impersonator Richard Bell as Chaplin

The bowler hat, shabby suit and cane, not to mention mustache and waddle walk, were as famous in Shanghai as they were the rest of the world. Historians have chronicled that 29 Chaplin films had played in China between 1919-24 alone. His mastery of silent slapstick appealed to Chinese sensibilities, its fledgling film industry serving up similar fare. So much so that one studio, Mingxing, had produced a film, Huaji Dawang You Hu or The King of Comedy Visits Shanghai in 1922, recounting a fictional visit of Chaplin to the city, with impersonator Richard Bell taking the lead role.

Sure enough, after sailing to shore on a waiting yacht and taking two-hour tour of the city, it was the Mingxing studio’s top actress Hu Die, known as Butterfly Wu, who hosted a welcoming banquet for Chaplin at the International Hotel. They had become acquainted when Hu was in Hollywood as part of Peking opera legend Mei Lanfang’s 1930 USA tour (a visit she had prolonged due to an affair with tycoon Howard Hughes.) When Chaplin met her again he shook her hand and said, “I still haven't seen any of your movies, but my next time in Shanghai that will be the first thing I do.”

Chaplin to Mei: “My hair is half white now, but I don’t see any gray in yours, is this fair?”

Charlie-Chaplin-Shanghai.jpg

Mei Lanfang himself was also at the reception, and when they met Chaplin is said to have put his arm him and joked, “I remember when we met six years ago in Los Angeles we both had dark hair. As you see, my hair is half white now, but I don’t see any gray in yours, is this fair?” to which Mei responded, “That’s because you work harder than I do: you write, direct and act in all your movies, and that turns one gray. I wish you’d take better care of yourself.”

After signing autographs for those in attendance and some picture taking, where he praised the beauty of the women in attendance –  “Chinese girls are very cute, I like China.” – Chaplin held a press conference, the majority of which was spent sidestepping questions about his relationship with Goddard, offering answers like, “Interesting question, but you’d have to ask Paulette about that.”

The press pack turned to Goddard, who is reported to have said, “Yes, we are getting married, but I don’t know when.” Later, Chaplin maintained that they were married in China in 1936, but to private associates and family he claimed they were never legally married, except in common law.

Whatever the truth, contradictory facts about her marriage to Chaplin are said to have cost her the role of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With The Wind; she is believed to have originally been producer David O. Selznick’s first choice, but that he became worried that questions surrounding her marital status with Chaplin would result in scandal, and that legal issues might arise if she signed a contract that conflicted with preexisting ones with the Chaplin studio.

After more questions on sound movies (he said he was holding out against them), Modern Times having been banned in Germany (Hitler had erroneously been told that Chaplin was a Jew) and his walk (“It’s a universally recognized walk, it’s also common in China.”), he was taken by Mei Lanfang to see a Peking opera, Famen Temple, at the New Everbright Theater.

By now word had spread of his visit, and a crowd had gathered by the theater entrance to witness Chaplin’s arrival, while inside the theater the audience applauded him as he took his seat. He was positioned next to Qu Guanliang, an employee of a travel agency who interpreted opera for visitors, and who noted, “Chaplin’s appreciation for the Peking Opera was not like that of a layman, but more that of a knowledgeable fan.”

Only down to stay at the theater for 15 minutes, Chaplin was so engrossed by the performance he not only stayed until the end, but went backstage afterwards to congratulate its star, Ma Lianliang, and the other performers, while Goddard admired their ornate costumes and makeup.

Chaplin congratulates Peking Opera star Ma Lianliang post-show

Asked by Qu where they wished to go next, Goddard remembered the advice of swashbuckling silent film star Douglas Fairbanks on hearing they were heading to Shanghai. He had told her that the city was for dancing, and so they went on to The Paramount to dance the night away, before returning to the SS President Coolidge for their 9am departure to Hong Kong.

Later in the year Modern Times was released in Shanghai, setting box office records. Chaplin never made it back to the city, though he often spoke fondly of it, including to Premier Zhou Enlai, who he hosted at banquet at his home in Switzerland in 1954, at the time of the Geneva Conference. During the evening, Chaplin told Zhou of his admiration for Mei Lanfang, his delight at the opera performance, how honored he was to have met Ma backstage and offered a toast to the New China, expressing his desire to see it firsthand.

It was not to be, he died in Switzerland in 1977 at the age of 88.

Chaplin hosts Zhou Enlai at his home in Switzerland in 1954

See more China history stories here.

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