Popular singing star Chen Gexin was born in Shanghai. His original name was Chen Changshou. Shanghai in those days was renowned as the cultural capital of China and held center stage for artists. It was the epicenter of drama, movies, and song and dance. Chen Gexin was a musical genius. He never studied music professionally in his life, but with a keen interest in music and his innate talent, he grew to become a legend in the Shanghai musical circles.
In 1930, Chen joined the Mingyue Song and Dance Company as a piano teacher. The troupe was founded by Lai Kamfai, the father of Chinese pop music. It was home to some of the most famous singers and performers of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Zhou Xuan, who was a member of the troupe.
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It was also during this year that Chen Gexin met Miss Jin Jiaoli, a wealthy girl who loved art. Eventually, Chen won the heart of this beautiful woman. A happy marriage inspired Chen Gexin’s music, and for many years after his marriage, he was at the peak of his composing skills and abilities. He is known for composing many popular songs with melodies that were so easy for the public to sing along with, such as Forever Smiling, dedicated to his wife Jiaoli, as well as Phoenix in Flight and Shanghai by Night.
Chen Gexin blended and popularized Chinese and Western melodies
Chen Gexin liked to blend Chinese and Western music into his melodies. He was not only a prolific composer of high-quality songs, but he was also versatile in style. At that time, many singers were all too delighted to sing his compositions as they became widely popular as soon as they were released.
Chen Gexin’s eldest son, Chen Gang, recalls that his father could write songs at a rapid pace, and that he could even write three or four songs a night. He would regularly wake up his wife, Jiaoli, in the middle of the night to show off his new songs that he had just finished writing, and he would confidently predict: “They will all be popular when we send them out tomorrow.”
This brings us to one of Chen Gexin’s most legendary songs, the worldwide hit Rose, Rose, I Love You. I’m sure you’ve heard this song before. It was written by Chen Gexin in 1940 for the film The Wandering Songstress, sung by the popular singer Yao Li. It was an instant hit upon its release. At that time, if you walked into any nightclub in Shanghai, you could hear this song.
The song was not only a hit in China, but also in the faraway United States. After the end of World War II, Rose Rose, I Love You was translated into English and brought to the U.S. where it was covered by one of the most famous jazz singers of the time, Frankie Lane. It topped the U.S. pop charts in 1951. It was the first Chinese pop song to be covered by a foreigner. The Americans were even willing to pay millions of dollars in royalties to the original author. The Chinese Communist Party however had other ideas as it was engaged in an intense “intellectual rehabilitation campaign” on the mainland, inciting anti-American, anti-democracy sentiment among the Chinese. Chen Gexin was forced by political pressure to give up the opportunity to travel to the United States to receive the huge royalties due to him.
When you hear the names of Chen Gexin’s songs, which are mostly related to “spring,” “flowers,” and “dreams,” do not think that he was a soft sentimentalist who was just immersed in surrounding himself with flowers and snow. It would be wrong to think so, as Chen Gexin had a sense of social responsibility as an artist. At the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war, he was kidnapped by the Japanese military police on December 16, 1941, on the pretext of composing anti-war songs. He was imprisoned and tortured for three months.
End of the Sino-Japanese war: ‘Congratulations’
At the beginning of 1946, when the Chinese people celebrated the first Chinese New Year after victory over the Japanese in the war, Chen Gexin wrote a new song called Congratulations under the pseudonym “Qing Yu” to celebrate the New Year. The song has only four stanzas, but five verses of lyrics, like a poem that goes back and forth endlessly. The word “congratulations” appears dozens of times in the lyrics, but it does not bore people, rather, it is catchy. The song was later covered by singers such as Teresa Teng, and has become a must-have Chinese New Year song ever since.
With Chen Gexin’s talent, it was foreseeable that his artistic future would be boundless. However, his fate was implicit in his name. His name Gexin — in Chinese, “ge“ means song and ”xin” means hardships — means that the singer’s life would probably be hard and full of sorrow. How did all this come about?
As early as 1938, Chen Gexin met Yang Fan, an underground member of the Communist Party, and together they translated and set the Soviet song Volga Boatman for the film The Legend of the Children. He was also guided by Shanghai left-wing literary figure Xia Yan and others to compose works promoting the Chinese communist revolution.
In June 1946, Chen Gexin was arrested by the Nationalist Government on suspicion of being a traitor and imprisoned for seven days before being released without charge. After his release, Chen Gexin was invited by Xia Yan to live in Hong Kong, where the “left-wing literati” were concentrated, and he went to Hong Kong a happy man. From late 1946 to 1950, he lived a comfortable life in Hong Kong, and his creative output was quite fruitful. It was during this time that Chen Gexin wrote his familiar classics such as Shanghai by Night and The Flowery Years, which depict the Shanghai Bund. But it was also here that the seeds of his later tragic fate were laid.
In 1950, when Xia Yan returned to Shanghai to take up the post of cultural director of the Chinese Communist Party, he invited Chen Gexin to return to Shanghai. And Chen Gexin readily agreed, returning to Shanghai full of hope and expectation and wanting to contribute more. His return to Shanghai was however a fateful decision. The trajectory of his life was forever changed by this decision.
See Part 2 here.