You’ve surely heard of Laurel & Hardy, the famous slapstick comedy duo of early American cinema. But did you know that China had its equivalent with Langen Han & Xiucen Yin? A 1940 hand fan advertisement for Shanghai U.B. Beer from our collection reminds us of their forgotten history.
The original British-American performers consisted of Englishman Stan Laurel (1890–1965) and American Oliver Hardy (1892–1957). Starting their careers in the silent film era, they were already established actors before they officially became a team in 1927. From then until 1955, they starred together in 107 films and were internationally famous for their buffooneries, with Laurel playing the skinny, clumsy friend to Hardy's pompous bully.
Just like in Hollywood, the movie industry of China developed rapidly during that time and reached its first “Golden Period” of Chinese cinema in the 1930s. Three production companies dominated the market: the older and larger Mingxing and Tianyi companies as well as the newly formed Lianhua ("United China") Film company.
It was at Lianhua Beijing where Yin Xiucen (殷秀岑), born in Tianjin in 1911, was first casted in a comedy role for the 1931 movie “New Resentment in the Forbidden City” (故宫新怨), which was also the screen debut for famous Chinese actress Bai Yang (白杨). The hilarious performance of the portly actor, who reportedly weighted up to 300kg, caught the attention of both the audience and production professionals. Shortly after, he was transferred to Lianhua’s Shanghai studio where he would soon meet his long-time comedic collaborator.
Han Langen (韩兰根) was born in Shanghai in 1909 to a poor family. He dropped out of school and entered the film industry at the age of only sixteen. Imitating the performances of Western comedy masters such as Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, his career started to take off in the early 1930s with his casts in the 1931 movie “The Peach Girl” (桃花泣血記) and Playthings (小玩意) in 1933.
In both films he played alongside the up-and-coming actress Ruan Lingyu who’s tragic story we recounted in our previous post here.
In 1934 Han was cast in Sports Queen (體育皇后), and in 1935 in “The Big Road” (大路), both together with yet another well-known Chinese actress, Li Lili who we also covered previously here.
Han Langen’s big breakthrough however was with the classic 1934 movie” Song of the Fishermen” (渔光曲) alongside famous actress Wang Renmei (王人美), “the wildcat of Shanghai”. The musical melodrama was reportedly the most profitable Chinese film of the 1930s and gave Han the lasting nickname “Skinny Monkey”.
The first encounter of the “Laurel & Hardy of the East”, the thin Han Langen and heavy Yin Xiucen took place in the 1933 movie “The Light of Maternal Instinct” (母性之光), but it was not until “Men without worries” (无愁君子) in 1935 that the comedy duo was cast as leads. By 1937 with movies such as “Symphony of Lianhua” (联华交响曲) and “United by a Hyphen”, literal translation “A match made in heaven” (天作之合), they established themselves as the most renowned comedians in China of the time.
The team would go on to collaborate in more than 200 films such as “Blood on Wolf Mountain” (狼山喋血记), "The Bachelors” (王老五), "The Beggar's Daughter" (乞丐千金), "A Tale of Lovers and Heroes"(儿女英雄传), "The Three Musketeers of China" (中国三剑客), "Tears of Mountains and Rivers" (山河泪), “Chinese Princess Snow White” (白雪公主), "Nine Deaths" (九死一生), and "A Thousand Purples and Reds" (万紫千红).
Surprisingly, just like their much more famous female co-stars, even Han Langen and Yin Xiucen managed to land several noteworthy brand endorsement deals, although for categories more fitting of their characters, with beer being an obvious match. It is unclear to when exactly our U.B. hand fan dates and who the third character is, but it is assumed to stem from around 1940.
But Han & Yin’s advertising collaborations did not end there: From around the same period also promo photos for what appear to be Tissot watches have survived. Yin Xiucen furthermore prominently starred in advertisements for the Shanghai “The Rat” cigarettes brand.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 both actors continued to perform, although no longer as a duo.
That is until, two years after Laurel and Hardy made their final public appearance together, Han Langen and Yin Xiucen re-united in 1957 for one last hurrah, their final film, ironically titled the “Unfinished Comedy" (没有完成的喜剧).
Yin retired from performing, but Han continued his acting career until both men were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution for their movies “Blood on Wolf Mountain” (狼山喋血记) and "The Bachelors” (王老五). Actress Jiang Qing, who would become known as Madame Mao, played roles in both of these movies and was infamous for later going after many of her former co-stars out of envy.
Yin Xiucen passed away in 1979 at the age of 68 and Han Langen died in 1982 at 73. They both outlived their British-American counterparts, Laurel & Hardy, who passed away in 1965 and 1957 respectively, but while the legacy of the latter two persists around the world, Han Langen and Yin Xiucen were not only unknown outside of China during their time, but their memory, even in their home country, today has largely faded into obscurity.