Obituary

Screen goddess Li Li-hua was 'evergreen tree' of Chinese cinema

Li Li-hua was the first Chinese actress to star in a Hollywood movie - China Doll (1958), opposite Victor Mature. Li Li-hua in a 1993 photo, and in Empress Wu (1963, above), which was among her best-known films.
Li Li-hua in a 1993 photo, and in Empress Wu (1963, above), which was among her best-known films.PHOTO: SHAW BROTHERS
Li Li-hua in a 1993 photo (above), and in Empress Wu (1963), which was among her best-known films.
Li Li-hua in a 1993 photo (above), and in Empress Wu (1963), which was among her best-known films.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO
Li Li-hua was the first Chinese actress to star in a Hollywood movie – China Doll (1958), opposite Victor Mature.
Li Li-hua was the first Chinese actress to star in a Hollywood movie – China Doll (1958), opposite Victor Mature. PHOTO: BATJAC PRODUCTIONS

Li Li-hua, famous for playing roles such as Empress Wu Zetian, starred in more than 120 movies between the 1940s and 1970s

HONG KONG • Li Li-hua, the incandescent film goddess who breathed life into imperial beauty Yang Guifei, Empress Wu Zetian and various other characters from and beyond classical Chinese tales, died in Hong Kong on Sunday. She was 92.

The news of the death broke on Monday, after Hong Kong actor Weng Wu posted a goodbye message on social media, said Ming Pao Daily News.

Singapore's Capital 95.8FM reported the death on Facebook, citing former Shin Min Daily News journalist Alice Kwan.

Afterwards, Li's assistant confirmed her death to Taiwan's China Times, and added that the funeral will be a low-key, family-only affair, in accordance with the star's wishes.

A glamorous beauty and a gifted actress, Li possessed a soft allure but also an indomitable streak, qualities that enlivened a range of roles, whether historical or contemporary, female or male.

She was 16 when she rose to stardom in Shanghai on her screen debut, Three Smiles (1940), playing Qiu Xiang, the beautiful handmaiden whom scholar Tang Bohu is besotted with.

With a career that took her to Hong Kong and Hollywood, and spanned more than 120 films in nearly four decades, she was the "evergreen tree" of Chinese cinema and a star of many firsts.

She was the first Chinese actress to star in a Hollywood movie, the 1958 war romance China Doll, directed by Oscar winner Frank Borzage.

Among her best-known films are a pair of lavish costume epics, The Magnificent Concubine (1962) and Empress Wu (1963), both tailored for her and directed by Li Han-hsiang. The Magnificent Concubine, starring Li in the title role as Yang Guifei, features a bold scene in which she emerges from a bath. It won a Technical Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was the first Chinese-language movie to be honoured there.

With Empress Wu, she was the first Chinese actress to set foot on the Cannes red carpet.

She played many other famous women from both history and literature, including the intelligent Lin Daiyu (in Modern Red Chamber Dream, 1952), the sing-song girl Xiao Fengxian (in General Chai And Lady Balsam, 1953) and the stunning Xi Shi (in Beauty Of The Beauties, 1956).

In Liang Shan Bo And Chu Ying Tai (1964), she played Liang, the male half of the ill-starred couple.

In the twilight of her career, she starred in King Hu's The Fate Of Lee Khan (1973) as innkeeper Wan Jen-mi, a worldly woman who inspired a later incarnation, Maggie Cheung's saucy proprietress in Tsui Hark's Dragon Inn (1992).

She also had an eye for talent, said Central News Agency. She was the one who recommended Li Han-hsiang to direct her in Blood In Snow (1956), a film that was a success and kick-started the director's career.

Li Li-hua was born into an acting family in China in 1924. Her father was Peking opera actor Li Guifang and her mother was actress Zhang Shaoquan.

When her mother was pregnant with her, she still went on stage, keeping her baby bump under wraps, said Ming Pao. The baby turned out to be as thin as a cat and was nicknamed Xiaomi, or Kitty.

A young Li trained in Peking opera, which would stand her in good stead during her long career.

In the 1940s, she married department store scion Zhang Xupu in Shanghai and had a daughter, Maggie, said Oriental Daily News. But her career kept the couple apart and the marriage ended.

In 1949, the year the communist government took control of China, she stayed in Hong Kong, said Apple Daily. At the time, she was under Great Wall, a film company with a leftist background.

In 1952, she switched to Shaw Brothers. Her career was smooth- sailing from then on.

In the 1950s, she married actor and director Yen Chun in Hong Kong. They made many movies for Shaw, including The Story Of Ching Hsian-Lien, which features a young Jackie Chan as the title character's son. The couple later moved to the United States, where Yen died in 1980.

Unexpectedly, a grief-stricken Li then reconnected in Hong Kong with businessman Wu Zhongyi, whose budding relationship with her had been nipped when he was summoned back to Shanghai by his parents around 1949, said Oriental Daily News. The two married and moved to Singapore, said Lianhe Zaobao. But she could not accustom herself to the tropical heat, and commuted between Hong Kong and the US.

She then moved back to Hong Kong, where Wu died in 2006. In her last years, due to poor health, she stopped visiting Singapore and rented out her home, which is opposite the American Club in Claymore Hill, said Zaobao.

In 2015, she made her last public appearance, accepting a lifetime achievement award from Chan, her erstwhile screen son, at the Golden Horse Awards.

She was in a wheelchair, but her smile, as always, was bright.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2017, with the headline 'Screen goddess was 'evergreen tree' of Chinese cinema'. Print Edition | Subscribe