BEIJING -– By the late 1980s, Depression-era child actress Shirley Temple Black had been retired from Hollywood for some 40 years and was nearing the end of her second career as a U.S. diplomat. But in China, her star was enjoying an improbable -- and meteoric -- rise.
After decades of isolation from the West, China had begun to open up, and on Sunday nights, families were tuning into state-run television for two special programs featuring foreign films: “Upright Theater” and “Translated Movies for TV.” Programmers, though, insisted on family-friendly fare, sans anything scandalous or political.
Shirley Temple pictures proved just the ticket. Viewers were treated to the entire Depression-era Temple canon, including “Curly Top,” “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and “Our Little Girl,” all dubbed into Mandarin. Her dimples and ringlets, innocent charms and angelic face became iconic for an entirely new generation of fans half a world away from the actress’ California roots.
On Tuesday, as word of Temple’s death reached Asia, the news spread quickly across China. On Wednesday morning, more than a dozen major Chinese newspapers carried front-page obituaries of the child star featuring huge photos and headlines such as “The Angel Says Goodbye to the Human World.” (Shirley Temple movies were imported into China in the 1930s, yet as the country fell into war and then communist revolution, she was largely forgotten.)
Shirley Temple dolls were also hot sellers in the early 1990s, and many people in Asia associate her with the Mentholatum brand of ointment, thanks to an image on the company’s tins that bears a striking resemblance to the young star.
Online, her passing has been the top subject on China’s Weibo microblogging platform, with more than 570,000 posts discussing her films, career and death. For many Chinese now in their 30s and 40s who grew up watching Temple, the news hit hard.
“I was shocked,” movie star Li Bingbing wrote. “She will always remain an angel in my mind, or maybe the angel is just going home.”
Wrote another mourner: “Today you see a lot of child actors; many of them are pretend-innocent or just pretentious. Shirley Temple was innocent and lovely and very few mature actors have been able to perform to the level of this child star.”
As a diplomat, Black visited China in 1977, but she had already been to the Middle Kingdom -- in the movies, at least -- many years earlier.
In the 1936 musical “Stowaway,” she played Ching-Ching, the Mandarin-speaking orphaned daughter of a slain missionary. Stranded in Shanghai, she meets a playboy, ends up on his cruise ship and is eventually adopted by him and his wife.
A warm New York Times review of the movie noted that the role required Temple to “chatter in Chinese, operate chopsticks, [and] appear in a Chinese amateur hour.” She also plays the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese instrument.
When her bilingual Chinese tutor, Sun-Lo, comes to her school to warn the students that bandits are attacking her town and tell Ching-Ching that she will be sent to safety in Shanghai, she exchanges florid Chinese-style greetings with him in English. PHOTOS: Shirley Temple Black, 1928-2014
“Greetings, most honorable Sun-Lo!” she says, sunnily.
“Greetings, Ching-Ching. May your shadow lengthen always in the sun of happiness,” he replies.
“Thank you,” she bows. “May the bird of prosperity continue to nest in your rooftop.”
“I hope you will always remember the sayings of our wise men,” Sun-Lo tells her. “It was a great privilege to instruct the daughter of my friends.”
“Friendship,” she answers him, “is a tree of shelter from the rains of trouble.”
Tommy Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.