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Thursday, March 8, 2012



Originally this article was conceived days before Women's Day. However, by the time I was done researching, it was in time for the day. Some elements in the essay are very appropriate to the celebration to this wonderful day.

The year was 1922 and Queen Victoria no longer sat on her throne and her grandson, George V had been reigning for twenty one years already. Europe was recovering from the Great War that had collapsed the royal Houses of the Hohenzollern and the Habsburg. The Kaiser and his cousin, the Tzar, had been swept away like leaves in the autumn. At least the former German Caesar was alive, unlike the great tragedy that had befallen on the Romanovs four years earlier. It was also the year that the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ had finally expired. The once great Ottoman Empire had disintegrated and Egypt gained her independence from Great Britain and Turkey by having a King on the throne while another Egyptian King was discovered – the tomb of Tutankhamen. The USSR was formed and Stalin became its General Secretary. Although radio was in its infancy with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) beginning its service in the United Kingdom, there were already five hundred broadcasting stations in the US. President Harding introduced the radio to the White House. The Duke and Duchess of York were married, four years before Queen Elizabeth II was born. A world record was broken and Johnny Weissmuller swam 100m in 58.6 seconds that eventually made him into a movie star – as Tarzan.

Vitamin E was just discovered and the first successful insulin treatment of diabetes was applied, just four years before the advent of TV! The British Empire was at its height with the annexation of all former German colonies to become an empire with the largest land extent, covering a quarter of the world and ruling one in four humans. On the sad side, the Barbary Lion had become extinct in Morocco. So did the Amur Tiger in South Korea and the Californian grizzly bear. Sadder still was that Benito Mussolini became the Prime Minister of Italy and Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany where hyperinflation had seen the value of the Papiermark against the Dollar rose to 1,000.

On the Asian side, the Chinese Republic was ten years old and Sun Yat Sen was the president with the Last Emperor, Puyi still living in the Forbidden City. Shanghai was known as the “Sin Capital” with rampant white prostitution. Hence we have the English word, “Shanghaied” – meaning kidnapping usually by drugging. Another nicer explanation is “to drugged men to man ships going to China”. Japan was building its military for its Asian designs.  Korea and Taiwan were its colonies while the Chinese fought among themselves.

On the American side of the world, Eva Peron of Argentina was only three years old and the Panama Canal was only eight. The Gilded Era of the US was replaced by the Progressive Era. Fortunes were amassed even more by greater efficiency and mass production of goods. While royal houses of Europe were crumbling or crumbled, the US industrial houses of Mellon, Carnegie, Bloomington, Vanderbilt, Morgan and Stanley were rising meteorically. There were four tax reductions under Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon who believed that lower taxes meant greater economic growth. Automobiles were beginning to replace horse buggies. Women were accepted into work places and they finally get to vote 2 years later.  It was only a year ago that the first Miss American Pageant came into existence. The shackles and conservativism of the Victorian Age were falling. It was the Roaring 20’s. Though the Prohibition was still in place, people were rebelling. It was time for fun and craziness. Women gained greater empowerment for themselves. It was also the Jazz Age and many offbeat dances came into vogue – the Charleston, the Bunny Hug and the Turkey Trot. From the most famous dancing couple, the husband and wife dance team of Irene and Vernon Castle, came the Castle Walk and the Castle Waltz.  They introduced the Tango to the American public and it became an overnight sensation for its sensual moves. From Irene Castle herself, hemlines of women went up when hers were raised. Hemlines were not the only things raised.  Eyebrows were raised too and eyes were in shock when Irene Castle bobbed her hair. Every American woman worth her salt, had theirs bobbed as well. Yes, I learnt my Americana from movies, this one comes from the “Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (Sorry can’t find a link. You have to search yourself).

Chinese culture too, became the in thing. Mahjong was played in all upper echelons of society in the major cities. Prices of Chinese porcelain, especially those of the Ch’ing Dynasty's Kang Hsi, Yung Cheng and Chien Lung periods were rocketed sky high. Thus promoting fakes made in China to satisfy this demand. The Chinese collection of Sir David Percival was starting as eunuchs were secretly selling treasures from the Forbidden City. Chinese fashion became the rage. The Cheong Sam (長衫) was modified with high slits to the hips from the informal Manchu dress, Chi Pao (祺袍). It was fashionable to wear Chinese silk pajamas. However the greatest influence was the Manchu Court official long beads. You are chic if you wear a long string of beads. However with a breasty façade, the beads will not be in place. Therefore, it became very fashionable for women to be flat chested to keep them hanging straight down! (Alas, its people were not treated in the same manner. A sign in a Shanghai park read, “No dogs and Chinaman allowed”. The Chinese Exclusion Act was still in force. It was not a good time to be Chinese in America! They were discriminated and treated like dogs). These flappers were the precursors to modern women. They wore short skirts, bobbed their hair and listened to jazz.  They were brash in wearing excessive makeup.  They drank hard and smoked with men on equal terms.  They drove in automobiles.  They treated sex in a casual manner and flaunting social and sexual norms.

For the men, well at least for college kids, bear skins and ukuleles were in vogue. As for the English language, well, much slang came into existence. See how many words you can spot that are still in use today and thus accepted into standard English usage:

Absolutely, by jingo, all wet, applesauce, atta boy/girl, bank’s closed, bearcat, beef, beeswax, bimbo, bull, butt me, cash or check, cat’s meow, cheaters, ciggy, clam, daddy, dapper, doll, dolled up, drugstore cowboy, ducky, egg, fire extinguisher, fish, fly boy, frame, gold digger, handcuff, heebie jeebies, hit on all sixes, hood, horsefeathers, jalopy, java, john, joint, kisser, level with me, moll, neck, now you are on the trolley, nobody home, on the lam, on the level, ossified, owl, pet, pipe down, putting on the Ritz, razz, real McCoy, ritzy, sap, says you, scram, Sheba, swanky, swell, take for a ride, torpedo, upchuck, wet blanket, what’s eating you, whoopee and finally, you slay me.

As for Los Angeles? It was still a sleepy town of no great consequence. New York was the center of the US. In 1922, the total number of cars was only 172,313. In the latest available figures for 2008, it  has the largest car population in the US with more than 5.8 million vehicles registered. Only five other STATES have more, California (14.2 million - not including L.A. County), Texas (8.8 million), New York (8.7 million), Florida (7.2 million), and Ohio (6.4 million) 1. Hollywood was still in its infancy of producing silent movies.

As usual, I am off my track again. Originally, I did not intend that this article to be a history lesson for the year 1922. It was supposed to be a short introduction to a movie that I am going to introduce and share with you that took place in that year. This movie, “Thoroughly Modern Mille” was made in 1967, a musical comedy that I enjoyed very much. I was able to find a copy on site that my Mainland Chinese friends can access. It starred three greatest personages from their areas of entertainment when the movie came out. Julie Andrews was the reigning movie queen for her Oscar award in “The Sound of Music” two years earlier; Mary Tyler Moore, from her just ended TV series, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and the first lady of Broadway, Carol Channing from the still ongoing “Hello Dolly” on Broadway.

The movie contains many politically incorrect scenes deemed by today’s standards. Groups were stereotyped – Russian Jews and of course the pigtailed inscrutable Chinese. In the last few scenes of the movie, whites were made to look like heroes of effortless efficiency while the Chinese were portrayed as buffoons. I could not understand the Chinese that was spoken by the main villianess. Finally I figured it out that it was Mandarin; meaning “quickly” (速手). However, I do detect Cantonese sounds spoken in the background scenes depicting life in Chinatown. For those who had seen the more recent movie, “The Karate Kid”, see if you can recognize Pat Morita, the Karate teacher in this 1967 movie! At the end of the day, it was how Americans perceive us as such in the 1920s and even in the 60s. Whatever the case may be, how one group is viewed by another is due to how their countries treated each other. One day, they are friends and enemies in the next day.  Then they are back to being kissy kissy again. Their actions are no better than those of a squabbling married couple.

Without further ado, here is the link to the movie and others for your easy reference. Most of the things mentioned in this article can be searched easily by Google. So take out your popcorn or a cup of tea, sit back and enjoy this wonderful entertainment of song and dance.

Conceived 06 mar 2012. Completed 08 Mar 2012


Thoroughly Modern Millie

The Castle Walk

The Castle Waltz

Hello Dolly – Carol Channing

Hello Dolly – Barbara Streisand

Dances of the 20s

Roaring 20s – Dance Craze


More Flappers

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