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Echoes of a `golden voice'
27/1/2005 8:48

Shanghai Daily news

One of old Shanghai's grand apartment blocks was once home to ill-fated singing and movie star Zhou Xuan. Michelle Qiao walks through the building and recalls some of the stories of the artists who lived there.
The Brookside apartment block at 699 Huashan Road has a confusing name. At first sight, it looks like an elegant Western building but there seems to be nothing nearby to connect it with its waterside name.
However, walking into its dim and pale recesses, past a wall oddly painted green and white and past two lines of old-fashioned green iron mailboxes, one passes through a glass door and into a sad-looking garden where the puzzle of the name is cleared up. The garden used to cover an area of 2,500 square meters behind the 1,500 square meters occupied by the apartment block. People today guess the name Brookside came from either the stream that used to flow through the garden or the swimming pool that was in the basement. Now there's just a rockery, bamboo, some withered weather vanes and oval stones in this secret garden where one of Brookside's former residents, Zhou Xuan, ``the golden voice of Shanghai,'' used to walk. ``The apartment was designed by an American architect and built in the Spanish style since there was a Spanish trend in architecture in southern California after World War I,'' says Liu Gang, an expert on architectural history at Tongji University. ``The house has a simple decor and the smart design makes good use of the minimum of land. Every suite has a bathroom, dining room and kitchen with Western cooking facilities. There are two-bedroom, three-bedroom and four-bedroom suites. However, the big five-bedroom and seven-bedroom suites on the sixth and seventh floors were really rare in Shanghai at that time.'' Liu says the original owner was Li Jingmai, son of Li Hongzhang, prime minister of the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Perhaps that's why this house was given such a dreamy Chinese name -- Zhenliu. In fact, the building's name comes from an interesting Chinese game of word-playing. The original term was ``Zhenshi Shuliu,'' or ``Rock as pillow and brook as gargle.'' But a Chinese scholar changed it to ``Zhenliu Shushi,'' or ``Brook as pillow and rock as gargle.'' When his friends argued how one could lie on a brook and gargle with a rock, he explained that in this way ``you can wash your ear with brook pillow and harden your teeth with rock gargle.'' ``There used to be an elevator and a swimming pool,'' Liu says. ``At that time, this location, Huaihai Road and the western end of Fuxing Road were the most expensive residential areas in the city. Many cultural celebrities lived here since it was close to the Shanghai Theater Academy. Zhou Xuan moved into the apartment in 1932.'' Raised by adoptive parents, Zhou went on the stage at the age of 13 when she joined a singing troupe. She began her acting career in 1935 and two years later starred in the hit movie ``Street Angel'' in which she sang her most memorable song ``Singing Girl at the Edge of the World.'' She continued her singing and acting career throughout the war. By 1949, she had made more than 200 recordings and starred in dozens of films. But it seems that her brilliant career as a recording and movie star was far removed from her real life which was dark and miserable. In the 1950s, she was driven to madness by callous men and disastrous love affairs. After divorcing her first husband, musician Yan Hua, due to scandals, she fell in love with a silk merchant named Zhu Huaide who had already been married and later dumped Zhou when she gave birth to their son. ``She began to burn things in the apartment in 1951 and even wanted to throw her son out of the window,'' Huang Zongying, a former actress and the adoptive mother of Zhou's two sons, said in an interview last year. ``In the summer of 1957 she was admitted to Hongqiao Psychosis Hospital. She was later sent to Huashan Hospital for emergency medical care. Giant blocks of ice were placed in her room which was a special gift from the government since Shanghai had no air-conditioner then.'' An art teacher named Tang Di then came into Zhou's life and they had a son. But later Tang was arrested and jailed for seducing and raping the mentally ill Zhou. It was also believed that over the years Zhu and Tang had robbed Zhou of gold bars, money and other treasures. Zhou died heart-broken on September 22, 1957, aged only 39. Another tragedy connected with Brookside was the double suicide in 1966 of literary critic Ye Yiqun and seal-cutting artist Wu Putang. But there was also joy. Another famous actress who lived there was Fu Quanxiang who met her most ardent fan Liu Jian for the first time in her apartment on November 5, 1955. Fu's Yueju Opera play, ``Butterfly,'' was popular across China in the 1950s and Liu wrote the actress more than 1,000 love letters in five years before he finally got his chance to meet her. They enjoyed a happy marriage until Liu's death from a heart attack in 1979. Rooms in the apartment block are all spacious with ceilings 3.35 meters high. High-quality steel windows keep the interior warm and the floors are sandalwood. The doors to all the apartments are the same -- chestnut-hued wooden doors with Spanish-style iron decorations. The sound of tears and laughter must have once been heard behind the chestnut doors of many of the building's ``arty'' residents but especially in the apartment of the ``Singing Girl at the Edge of the World'' who was gifted with beauty and a golden voice but never with a good man.