“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

How Shirley Temple Helped Pioneer Mandarin

Posted: December 20th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

There was a time (the 1930s) when cinema audiences queued around the block to see a new Shirley Temple movie. There was also a time (also the 1930s) when the Chinese Nationalist Government launched a concerted effort to make Mandarin, the language of the Peking court, the national language. Interestingly the Nationalists in China roped in little Shirley Temple in Hollywood to help their cause. I blogged earlier this year, noting her death in February, about Shirley Temple’s one cinematic outing to China – the 1936 movie Stowaway in which she played Barbara “Ching Ching” Stewart, an orphan stranded in China. She is saved from bandits and taken to Shanghai where she meets a rich American playboy wasting his time in the city’s nightclubs and stows away aboard his ship back to America. In the film she has a pet Pekingese dog, Mr Woo, which Temple later kept for herself as a pet renaming it “Ching Ching”.

So here’s how she was roped in to promote Mandarin. Hewaring of the movie (filmed entirely in Hollywood of course), the Nationalists dispatched a certain Paul Fong, originally from Canton (Guangzhou) but a Mandarin speaker (and University of Missouri graduate – China’s history is littered with them!) to California as a Chines language expert to 20th Century Fox. The studio agreed to use Mandarin in the movie, but had a problem as the vast majority of the Chinese extras they regularly used in such movies were native Cantonese speakers and spoke little to no Mandarin. So, organised by Fong, Shirley started Chinese classes alongside the extras who also needed to learn Mandarin. In the movie she uses about 400 words of Mandarin and sings a little song in Chinese too. All thanks to Fong who hired Bessie Nyi, a Shanghainese in LA who had studied at the University of Southern California, to teach Shirley while he himself taught the extras – 900 of them in all. It was a dedicated process and Mandarin is spoken even in several scenes set in Hong Kong!

And so America got to hear Shirley speak Mandarin and the movie got released in China to encourage kids to learn Mandarin too. Seems everyone was happy, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for Sunday, December 20th, 1936.

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One Comment on “How Shirley Temple Helped Pioneer Mandarin”

  1. 1 Christian B said at 6:41 pm on December 12th, 2019:

    Hello, I’m currently writing an essay based on Stowaway and saw your blog post. Could you kindly direct me to any references for the mandarin promotion part of the post? It is really interesting and I would like to look into it further. Thank you!


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