(These excerpts are loosely translated from various articles, magazines and the "Xishuo Li Lihua" biography.)
Born premature at seven months in 1924, Li Lihua was a sickly baby and often cried weakly "miao..ow….miao…ow"; hence her mother nicknamed her "xiaomi" meaning little kitten.
Li Lihua's father died when she was four, her mother lived past 90. She has two brothers and three sisters and is number 5. Her younger brother, Li Huisheng, refused to dye his hair, which caused Li Lihua undue grief. How could her little brother have a whole head of gray while hers is shining black? :o)
Before her film debut, the producer devised a big promotional campaign. A newspaper article appeared daily announcing that Miss Li Lihua would award anyone who helped her find her diamond ring lost at a local circus show. After several days of such publicity, a final announcement mentioned that Li Lihua had found her ring and was grateful to everyone for helping. The producer then released her first movie, drawing a large curious crowd. Everyone wanted to know who this Li Lihua person was. "San Xiao" (Three Smiles, Shanghai 1940) because a box office success and Li Lihua became an overnight star.
Li Lihua's first marriage to Zhang Xu Pu (alias "xiao shandong") ended up in divorce in the late 1940's. Zhang, whose family owned businesses in Qing Dao (Green Island), was very much in love with his wife but was possessive and jealous of her popularity with her fans. In one incident over an ardent fan's letter he struck her and this started a rift in their already tempestuous relationship. Not long after that they separated, leaving their infant daughter Bao Bao in Li Lihua's care.
Li Lihua was never lack of suitors. Zhou You Hai, in hot pursuit of Li Lihua, became a competitor to Zhang Xu Pu. Li Lihua, wary of Zhou's family wealth and power, hesitated to accept him. One day at a restaurant, both came face to face and Zhou in his frustration, aimed a plate at her table and struck Li's second older sister, Li Qinghua, on the forehead leaving a permanent scar. This, of course, terminated any uncertain feelings Li Lihua had for the rich brat. So Zhang emerged the winner.
Insult to Barbers
Li's 1947 satire, "Jia Feng Xu Huan" (The Pretenders), tells of a widow posing as a rich woman seeking a wealthy husband. One poor barber, pretending as an affluent businessman, responded to the ad. They met and so started a string of comedy of errors. This movie incensed the barbers who sought to ban its screening, claiming the film insulted the integrity of their profession. Because of this unexpected publicity, the movie became another hot box office item.
Li Lihua was known as "evergreen tree" for her lasting youthful beauty and her longevity in the movie industry. Her career spanned over 30 years.
Yien Chuen (husband No. 2)
Yien Chuen, nephew of Yan Hua and famous singer/actress Zhou Xuan, and who later became husband No. 2, also courted Li during the early Zhang-Zhou period, but failed to win her over then. Yien, seven years older than Li, was also a godson to Li's mother. He was a great actor and director, and worked together with Li in a vast number of films.
Wu Zhongyi, who later became husband No. 3, was also enamored with Li during the Zhang-Zhou period. He pulled some strings and visited the movie set day and night to watch her filming for hours. At one stage, Li Lihua, tired of being stared at, remarked irritably: "Where do you find anybody watching filming the way he does?" A lover of opera, Wu was also present at several of her opera stage performances. Husband No. 1 was extremely upset with Wu's continued presence, and this became part of the Li-Zhang breakup. Wu, however reluctant, had to return to Shanghai due to urgent business. It was forty years later when he and Li Lihua met again.
Lin Dai and Yien Chuen
In the early days, Li Lihua, Yien Chuen and young Lin Dai were colleagues at Chang Cheng (Great Wall ) Film Studio where Lin Dai, frustrated and depressed, tried to kill herself. Li Lihua and coach Du Dao Qin rushed to Jiu Long (Kowloon) hospital to visit her.
Li: "I brought her out of the hospital and she stayed at my house for several days.
I've not mentioned this to outsiders before…..when Lin Dai and Yien Chuen started
dating each other, they were using the house in my backyard……."
The Love Triangle
Yien Chuen dropped in on a meeting at Li Lihua's house one day, hoping to secure the actor-director role of Lihua Company's first movie, "The Great Wall of China", but the director's job went to Tu Guang-chi (ex-husband of actress Owyang Shafei). Everybody ignored Yien's presence, so he left early.
Days later Tu met both Lin Dai and Yien together and said, "Oh hi, old Yien, haven't seen you for a while. Why did you leave Li Lihua's house early that day?" Without a word, Lin Dai gave Yien Chuen a hard slap.
When Lihua Company planned its second film, "The Beauty and the Dumb", Yien Chuen again came around hoping to get the actor's part, but Li Lihua, to spare him another facial slap, gave Huang Ho the role again.
What they said
Interviews of Lin Dai, Yien Chuen and Li Lihua following the June 1, 1956 Li and Yien's wedding plan news:
Li "Yien Chuen is straightforward and frank. I've known him a long time and I
understand him well; he will be an ideal partner. I have no doubt that we
we will be together for the rest of our lives.
"Oh, his and Lin Dai's affair? I don't bother with what's in the past. I don't wish to
interfere in other people's affairs.
"My feeling? It's a wonderful feeling; I'm very happy! ……I think we will always
be happy. Nothing bad will ever happen to us."
Yien: "This is the beginning of my happiness and good
Lin: "When is it? (referring to the wedding date). Yien Chuen was always fond of Li Lihua.
He thinks she's a good wife; now that he can marry his ideal 'good wife', of course
Yuen Chuen and I were friends, are friends now and will always be friends."
In 1956 Li Lihua, contracted by Cecile de Mille, visited Hollywood to film "Hai Dao" (Sea Pirate) with Yul Bryner. Filming of this movie was later shelved but she and Yul were introduced and he was immediately struck by her beauty. They attended the premier of "The King and I" together.
When Li first lived in California while waiting to shoot "China Doll" with Victor Mature, Yul Bryner was very attentive. Every day he bought and left groceries at her doorstep. When Yul found out that Li's daughter Bao Bao was studying in New York, he traveled to her school and brought her candies. Both mom and daughter were touched by his thoughtfulness, but grateful Li continued to treat him like a good friend and refused to go a step further. Besides, she was engaged to Yien Chuen, while Yul, though estranged with his wife, was still married. Li did not wish to be the third party. Despite her reservation, rumor of their romance spread like wildfire all over Hong Kong.
"Oh, you mean that baldy? He was very nice to me and we are good friends. No, I was not romantically involved with him. Oh, you reporters are so weird! baldy Yul, baldy Yien….really, it's none of your business!"
"May I have a kiss?"
During the filming of the last scene of "China Doll", Victor Mature moved forward to kiss Li Lihua on the lips, but she turned her head away and muttered, "You've been eating onions!" Humiliated, Victor stomped off to his dressing room. Li, too, returned to her room. Director Frank Borzage went after her to get an explanation. Li (via an interpreter) pointed out that there was no mention of kissing on camera in the contract. Borzage went to console Victor and later they both returned to finish filming the movie.
When news of this episode reached Hong Kong, Yien Chuen (Li's fiance) said it was just a Hollywood promotional campaign and that there was indeed no kissing in the movie contract.
Thirty years later, when Li was approached about the incident, she claimed that it was not true that she told Victor off. "In fact," she said, "Victor was very helpful and respectful and I am very grateful to him. He came to the set to be with me even when there was no shooting on his part. A few years later when a friend of his visited Hong Kong, he sent his regards to me."
Li's first daughter, Yien Ren -sheng, nicknamed Bao Bao, married an Italian and they have a daughter. Li's second daughter, Yien Mei-sheng, born of Yien Chuen, graduated from college in hotel management. She was originally named Yien Deh Lan by Grandfather Yien Wen Hua, but Yien Chuen changed it to "Mei Sheng" simply because she was born in America. Her American husband is an engineer and they have two daughters. The daughters of both Ren-sheng and Mei-sheng brought bundles of joy to grandpa Yien Chuen and the still ravishing grandmother Li Lihua.
Shaw and Cathay Film Studios
Dating back to the early 1940's, Chinese film companies have competed fiercely with each other, beginning with the well-known separate Zhou Xuan's and Li Lihua's movies, "San Xiao" (Three Smiles). The companies fought fast and hard to get their films out on screen first. At that time the two "San Xiao" both won out as box office success.
Battles between Shaw and Cathay in the late 1960's were not so fortunate. A classic example: In 1963, when Cathay started filming "Liang Shan Bo Yu Zhu Ing Tai", Shaw too began shooting its own "Liang Shan Bo…" With more superior technique and manpower, Shaw completed first, rushed it to the theatres. The Shaw version made tons of money and Ling Bo, the actress, became a household name. Cathay, unable to keep up, lost shamefully. In revenge, Cathay shot ahead with its black and white "The Lotus Lamp", finishing ahead of Shaw's planned color production of the same title. Ha, Cathay's version with a wonderful cast of You Min, Ge Lan and Lin Cui, won the second round. Third round, Shaw began its black and white "Between Tears and Laughter" to push ahead of Cathay's color production of the same film. Shaw's film received a best actress award for Li Lihua, making Shaw the winner of the third round.
A fan's word of advice: Competition between film companies is good for audience, but only when competition is based on products of excellence.
Yien Chuen's Illness
During the hot summer of 1980 in Long Island, New York, Yien Chuen's health suddenly deteriorated. He shuffled into the kitchen one day, gazed long and deep at Li Lihua and said: "Xiaomi, I feel you ought to marry someone else who will love you more, and who can take care of you better." Eyes brimming with tears, Li said, "What's got into you?". On August 18 that same year, Yien died of a heart attack. He was 63 years old.
"Qiu" (Autumn) was Li Lihua and Yien Chuen's first movie together. Yien Chuen played one of the brothers while Li played the maid who fell in love with the oldest brother. "Qiu" was adapted from famous author Ba Jin's trilogy, "Jia", "Chun", "Qiu".
Wu Zhongyi first fell in love with Li Lihua around 1940's, but fate kept them apart and they went their separate ways.
Years later, Wu's understanding wife, seeing his hidden unhappiness, said to him: "At this age, you should find a way to fulfill your innermost desires; or else you will have a life time of regret." With permission granted, Wu left Shanghai for Hong Kong. His first mission was to look for Li Lihua, the love cord that he has never been able to cut off completely for 40 years.
With help from film producer, Tung Yueh Juien, Wu came into Li Lihua's life again. After the deaths of her beloved mother and Yien Chuen, Li Lihua was at the lowest point of her life when Wu appeared at the doorstep of her New York apartment. The meeting was like a scene from another life time. He began his courtship. She hesitated, thinking of his long-suffering wife and wondering how the kind old lady could risk losing everything in her twilight years. With advice from friends and relatives, Li finally relented to become Wu's constant companion. Much later, Wu became husband No. 3.
In 1962, the eight year old Jackie Chan was selected from his opera training school to play Li Lihua's son in one of her movies. He must have been a "good" son because he was selected again two more times to play opposite the famous Li Lihua. Wonder if Li Lihua remembers this "son" who has become the popular martial arts star of present day? Wonder too if Jackie will invite Li Lihua to make a cameo appearance in one of his upcoming movies... sort of like a full circle.....
Li Lihua used to learn painting from well-known teachers but due to her busy schedule, has never been able to continue her interest. Because of her grandchildren she picked up her brush again and draws a grand mickey mouse. In the last few years, she is once again able to pursue her early interest in Chinese calligraphy and painting.
Lin Dai's Untimely Death
Yien Chuen, upset over Lin Dai's suicide, blamed Lin Dai's husband, Long Woo for her death. Li Lihua, herself being a colleague and a competitor of Lin Dai, regretted the sudden and shortend life of such a talented and vivacious person. Much aware of Yien Chuen's feelings, she however sympathized with Lin Dai's bereaved husband and felt compassionate for Lin Dai's little infant son for losing his mother at such a tender age.
In the early 1960's, Li Lihua was an important star at Shaw Brothers. One day, Shaw had some Hollywood visitors and Raymond had to arrange a dinner reception for the guests. Li Lihua was on the list to welcome the visitors. At that time, extremely busy and tired, she was annoyed at having to make an appearance, so still in her movie costume and with her movie contract in hand, she went to look for Run Run Shaw.
(Shaw was No. 6 in his family), I don't think my contract stipulates that I
have to eat dinner with visitors, does it?"
"Okay, okay. Raymond must have made a mistake. You don't have to go," was Shaw's response.
So they scrambled to find someone else to take her place. A new young starlet from Taiwan was chosen. This young actress, also named Li, also brought her contract to see Run Run Shaw. Dr. Shaw said to her, "Oh, okay, you don't have to eat dinner with our visitors. You also don't have to come in to work tomorrow." Poor Ms. Li got the sack and returned to Taiwan to get married.
This of course was all Li Lilhua's fault! As some wise guy might say, "One may have the same last name but indeed there is a great difference." :o)
Most Beautiful Star of the 20th Century
The Singapore Entertainment & Television Eight magazine (Issue 460, July 31-August 7, 1999), featured Li Lihua as one of the Most Beautiful Stars of the 20th CENTURY. The weekly magazine described her as a "Bewitching Belle: she was a diva before the title was trendy. Li LiHua, the classic Chinese femme fatale, exuded a regal air which she lent to to her portrayals of bold women like Empress Wu...."
Other selected beautiful stars were Gong Li, Lin Ching Hsia, Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, to name a few.
Little Bao Bao
Yien Chuen was very fond of his stepdaughter, Bao Bao and wanted her to adopt his last name Yien. In New York awaiting the birth of his child with Li, he decided to improve the western-educated Bao Bao with her knowledge of the Chinese language. Unfortunately Bao Bao had difficulty writing her last name "Yien" in Chinese. Impatient Yien Chuen lost his cool, "You little nuthead, how could you not know how to write your own name?" Li Lihua protested on behalf of her daughter, "It's all your fault! There are so many last names and you had to have such a complicated one!"
This is true. The word Li has only 7 strokes, while Yien has 19 strokes. Why didn't Yien Chuen change his name to Li, life would be much simpler.
A Lesson from Xiaomi
Famous director Li Hanxiang in his memoirs mentioned that young starlets of today need to learn some work ethics from Li Lihua. She comes to the film set early, gets made up and waits patiently for her turn to film. She does not leave the set until the director says so. Even in hot summer days, she leaves her heavy costume on, not wanting to trouble the crew to have to re-attend to her. Asked if she minded being too hot, she says, "A calm mind keeps the body cool." At the end of a long waiting day and if it happens that there is no part for her to play that day, she just smiles and says, "Oh, it is quite all right. Another day, then." No temper, no attitude. Cool saint!