The typical leading man of silent films was a strong, dependable, clean-cut type, with names like Harold Lockwood or Earle Williams. By the 1920s Rudolph Valentino’s popularity had initiated a craze for “exotic” Latin lovers. But modern moviegoers might be surprised to learn there was another matinee idol even earlier than Valentino who seemed “exotic” to white audiences: the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, a major star of the 1910s.
Hayakawa’s early life was tinged by drama. He was born Kintaro Hayakawa on June 10, 1886 in the city of Minamiboso in Chiba, Japan. He had a wealthy family, his father being the provincial governor and his mother having aristocratic roots. At age eighteen Hayakawa attempted to join the Japanese naval academy in Etajima, planning on becoming an officer to fulfill his parents’ wishes. When he was rejected due to hearing problems (he had ruptured an eardrum while diving), he attempted to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) by repeatedly stabbing himself in the abdomen. Fortunately, his father discovered him in time and he managed to make a recovery.
The early 20th century was a turbulent time in China. The lengthy Qing dynasty was overthrown during the 1911 Revolution, and it was replaced by the more democratic Republic of China. Class struggles ran deep and traditional attitudes were starting to clash with more modern mindsets. As the country opened more and more to the west, great metropolises like Shanghai bustled with foreign-controlled industries.
Film was popular in China as early as 1897, when Lumière and Edison films were first shown in the major cities. Early Chinese studios sprang up quickly, flourishing the most during a brief boycott on foreign films in the 1920s. But in general they faced tough competition from films imported from Europe and especially from Hollywood, which were wildly popular (as indeed they were everywhere in the world). But Chinese cinema did cultivate some gems, and one of the very brightest was the fragile star Ruan Lingyu.