Reel lives - Li Lihua

By Paul Fonoroff (Biography)

Right: Li Lihua had already been a star for 21 years when she posed for this 1961 publicity shot.

No star personifies ''glamour'' more than Li Lihua. Nicknamed the ''evergreen tree'' of the film industry, due to the longevity of her career, she is perhaps the only actress to retain above-the-title status for nearly 40 years, never being relegated to supporting characters or ''old lady'' parts.

The daughter of a Beijing opera star, Li was born in Shanghai in 1924 and studied opera while she was still a child. She made her film debut at 16 in Three Smiles and became an immediate sensation, a status she never lost through a career embracing Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei and roles in approximately 120 films until her retirement in 1978.

Her career survived the political shifts of mid-20th-century China. Li's participation in a couple of Sino-Japanese co-productions during World War II led to post-war allegations of collaboration. The accusations were quickly dismissed and she went on to be a leading light in the pre-communist, golden age of Shanghai cinema.

Moving to Hong Kong in the late 1940s to star in some of the colony's earliest Mandarin films, Li was on the verge of returning to the newly established People's Republic when, at the last moment, she decided to remain in Hong Kong. In light of what happened to many of her colleagues during the ensuing political movements, her decision proved a wise one.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Li made a succession of memorable films that showed her adeptness at sophisticated comedy and heart-wrenching tragedy, modern women and classic roles, and even taking the male lead in the 1964 opera classic Liang Shan Po And Chu Ying Tai. She also made a foray to Hollywood in 1958 to star opposite Victor Mature in China Doll.

Her marriage in 1946 to Shanghai actor Zhang Xupu was short-lived. A decade later, she married director-actor Yan Jun, a union that lasted until his death in 1980. A few years ago, she married a Singaporean and now splits her time between homes in Singapore, Hong Kong and America.

When my pictorial history of Hong Kong cinema, Silver Light, was launched in Singapore in 1997, Li graciously served as guest of honour. The fans turned out en masse, proving her appeal had not dimmed with the years. She looked far too young to have begun her stardom more than a half-century earlier in pre-war Shanghai, more than living up to her evergreen reputation.

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