Actress stuck in nations' conflict

Actress stuck in nations' conflict
Yoshiko Otaka

Yoshiko Otaka, who died on Sept 7 at the age of 94, was one of the biggest Chinese stars - a popular singer and film actress - when China was invaded by Japanese forces.

There was a secret though: She was Japanese passing herself off as Chinese until her real identity was exposed in the aftermath of the war, an identity that saved her life but almost derailed her career. However, she bounced back with more vigour and a clearer realisation of Sino-Japanese relations.

Otaka was born Yoshiko Yamaguchi to Japanese parents who were settlers in Northeast China. At an early age, she was given the Chinese name Li Xianglan (sometimes spelled Li Hsiang-lan, or Ri Kouran in Japanese) by a Chinese godfather who had become a family friend. She also took singing lessons from a Russian expatriate. When a local radio show called for a Chinese girl who could read music and speak Japanese, she was about the only one who fit the description - except that she was a Japanese girl who could speak authentic Chinese.

From then on, she appeared in public as Li Xianglan - especially when she moved to other parts of China before they were occupied by Japan, and anti-Japanese sentiments were high.

Her film career was launched at Manchuria Film Production as it made propaganda films that promoted Japan's national policy. She rose to stardom and was named "Japan-Manchuria Goodwill Ambassadress". The 1940 film China Nights, or Shanghai Nights, was highly controversial: Li portrayed a Chinese girl who was mistreated by a Japanese man, but nonetheless fell in love with him and reacted with kindness. She was criticised by Chinese audiences for debasing Chinese women.

While touring Japan, she got a taste of racism even from those close to her. She was mocked for being too Chinese and thus looking second-class. In her later memoir, she recalled that she was sad that her compatriots would "insult the country of her birth".

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