I have just discovered the Travel Film Archive, a collection of travel footage from 1900 to 1970 available on YouTube. If you’re a fan of old newsreels, you’ll probably love this. Complete with serious voiceovers and the slightly patronizing tone of the man on the spot to those funny foreigners, they capture a time when the world wasn’t so easy to access and the Orient as exotic as the moon.
There are three videos available featuring Beijing:
The first clip is rather poetically called “Ghosts of Empire: Peking” from the Port O’Call series by William M. Pizor. Dating from 1931, the video begins with camels entering the city and gives viewers a quick tour of street life in Peking. The video makes any number of amusing observations about coolies throwing out their water, how topsy turvy China is where the men wear the skirts and women wear the pants, street puppet theatre, as well as a woman’s bound feet. There is also a brief part showing the Forbidden City (“now it is forbidden to no one, except cameramen”) and the old Qianmen/Legation Quarter as it was.
Focusing mostly on the Forbidden City in the 1930s, the second clip presents the “most interesting city in China.” This clip has many shots of statuary and architecture, shots that now seem token and run-of-the-mill to any travelogue about China but must have seemed so strange and fascinating then. My favourite part is towards the end of the clip, where there’s a little quiz, complete with a ticking clock, to see if viewers can guess the name of that Venetian explorer who came to Peking and had a bridge named after him.
The third clip, “Peking: The Imperial City”, was produced and narrated by James A. Fitzpatrick–”The Voice of the Globe”–and in general, it’s not too different from the others, except does show the extremely unrestored Great Wall and a brief shot of a Chinese funeral procession going through the streets. Also, judging from this video and the Ghosts of Empire footage, foreigners were particularly fascinated by street barbers in Peking.
Because I can’t get enough of these videos, here are videos for other parts of China:
Manchukuo, 1938 – This nearly eleven-minute silent film from Eastman Classroom Films shows Japanese-occupied Manchuria, but it’s mostly a compilation of fairly random footage. Some of the earlier scenes are definitely set in Changchun, the capital of Manchukuo, as quite a few of the buildings still stand. One part shows glimpses from the life of a Chinese merchant, including his dinner of mantou and congee, while the ending footage is of elementary school students studying.
Shanghai, 1947 – Produced by Castle Films, this one is also a silent film with beautiful shots and one memorable intertitle breathlessly exclaiming, “In 10 years its population doubles to a seething 7 million!”
Hong Kong, the Gateway to China, 1938 – Part of the Screen Traveler series, depicting the “proud Crown colony” before it was skyscraperfied. Rickshaws and sedan chairs transport residents and visitors about, and even back then, Hong Kong is pointed out as a shopping mecca. Most amusingly, a small group of children explode in their haste to get away from the camera, leaving behind a little girl covering her face.
Hong Kong, 1930s – It has the feel of an amateur home video, but this was actually created by the Cunard steamship line as part of a promotional campaign for their liner Franconia. The footage itself is fairly neutral, but the intertitles have all the picaresque histrionics of a D.W. Griffith melodrama. Take this intertitle describing life on the sampans: “Incredible homes these, but here millions live and die.”
Tibet: Land of Isolation – Also produced by James A. Fitzpatrick, who did the “Peking: The Imperial City” clip mentioned earlier. Unfortunately the sound track doesn’t seem to be included, so I don’t know what the narration sounds like.
These are just the China videos that I’ve been able to find. With many other videos to choose from, including clips of pygmies and cannibals from Places Far Away, the Travel Film Archive is an utter gem.