Madame Song: A Chinese Love Story


It is impossible to write about the Bulgarian artist Maryn Varbanov (1932-1989) without writing about his wife Song Huai-Kuei (1937-2006), too. They became lovers in an austere Beijing in the 1950s. He was an ambitious tapestry artist who went on to make his reputation in Europe.

She, equally ambitious, would become the glamorous figure known as Madame Song, who for 30 years was Pierre Cardin’s business muse helping him establish the Cardin fashion brand in China and establishing his restaurant Maxim’s Beijing, in the 1980s. The story of their forbidden love affair is one of intrigue, deception, and triumph over cultural adversity in a country that forbade mixed marriages.

Exhibition of Varbanov and Song in Hong Kong

The dramas and tragedies of Varbanov’s and Song’s lives look set to capture the imagination of a younger Chinese generation in 2023, when the M+ Museum in Hong Kong will exhibit Varbanov’s extensive notebooks, archives and several of his monumental ‘soft sculptures’ alongside the 130 Cardin outfits that Madame Song wore almost every day.

Song’s wardrobe of exclusive Cardin clothes were garments brought in from Paris and Japan to be worn by the models at the runway shows. When the models and Cardin left town, the clothes stayed behind and entered Madame Song’s wardrobe. Boriana Song, their daughter, who lives in Paris, has donated everything to M+.

First Met in Beijing

The couple met at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in 1954 where Varbanov was one of a group of exchange students from Bulgaria, the first such group allowed into post liberation China. He was a painfully shy 21-year-old with a pencil-thin moustache, which gave him the dashing good looks of the young Errol Flynn film star from an earlier age. Song – also a student at CAFA – was a slim confident 18-year-old who wore sensible blouses and did her hair in tight plaits and came from a family of intellectuals.

Song would fill in time at home as her father’s secretary, who was a classical literature scholar at Tianjin University, copying his work and writing notes and letters for him. With her prim demeanour and background Song looked like a committed child of the revolution and was thought to be the ideal candidate to chaperone the Eastern Bloc Bulgarians and teach them Mandarin. Little did anyone know.

She was immediately attracted to Varbanov and he, in turn, was smitten with her at a time in China when mixed relationships were unknown and when young lovers hardly went beyond calling each other, ‘comrade’. Even holding hands in public was unacceptable. Boriana Song recalls her mother telling her how she had once asked Varbanov to dance at a school party, but he refused. As the music played, she danced instead with Varbanov’s classmate in an attempt to make him jealous. ‘My mother thought she would teach him a lesson!’, Boriana said.

When the school became suspicious of the couple’s closeness, Song was forced to declare in writing that she would end the relationship. They were forbidden to speak to each other, in public at least. Song developed a secret way of communicating with Varbanov. If she wore her hair in one long plait it was a signal that it was clear for them to meet. Two plaits meant no; they could not meet.

Tryst Uncovered

Song’s family remained in ignorance of the liaison although their tryst was dramatically uncovered when Song was away at summer camp. She wrote two letters home – one to her father and one to Varbanov, but somehow the letters became mixed up and their relationship was exposed. Even so, Song was determined to marry Varbanov and the urgency was exacerbated when she discovered she was pregnant with Boriana.

She took the extraordinary step of writing to Zhou Enlai, China’s first Premier, asking for permission to marry a Westerner. It was several months before Enlai replied. There was no law against mixed marriages, he wrote, while cautioning her about the cultural problems she might encounter and advising her ‘never to forget her own’.

In December 1956, they married in Beijing at a ceremony presided over by the president of CAFA. It was the first mixed marriage since Liberation. They stayed on at CAFA until 1959 when they moved with their infant daughter to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, a gruelling 10-day journey by the Trans-Siberian train via Moscow.

They Built a Career as Collaborating Artists

Over the ensuing decade or so, they built a career as collaborating artists. It would be 16 years before they returned to China, briefly, when in 1974 they received a call from the Chinese embassy notifying them that Deng Xiaoping, then acting foreign minister, had appealed to all overseas Chinese citizens to return to visit their families to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.

The Cultural Revolution was in its last throes and Deng Xiaoping was on the verge of introducing reforms that would lead to the opening up of China and the transformation of the country into a socialist market economy. The lives of millions of Chinese would change for ever, as would the lives of Varbanov and Madame Song when they returned to Europe.

Meeting Pierre Cardin

In 1979, they met the fashion designer Pierre Cardin at the International Contemporary Art Fair (FIAC) in Paris where Varbanov was exhibiting several of his three-dimensional fabric sculptures at Hervé Odermatt Gallery. In an impetuous move, Cardin bought the whole of the exhibition for his personal art collection and sent the work off to his newly opened Espace Pierre Cardin in New York. Song was vivacious and attractive and inevitably Cardin became enamoured with her and was receptive to a proposal that she put to him. She had plans, she said, to return to visit her family in Beijing and suggested to Cardin that perhaps they could collaborate on something while she was there.

Promoting Cardin Brand in China

Cardin, ever the shrewd businessman, had pioneered advances in ready-to-wear and in licensing his brand in Europe and America but had yet to gain a strong foothold in the Chinese market. Song’s offer came at the right moment and Cardin accepted with enthusiasm. She should launch his brand there, he said, organise fashion models and runway shows whilst also planning the launch of his restaurant, Maxim’s, that he wanted to open in Beijing. By late 1980, Song was back in Beijing and working full-time for Cardin, joined by the rest of the family in 1983.

They stayed at the Beijing Hotel, two blocks from Tiananmen Square, where Cardin also had an office. They could see the square from their hotel window, Boriana recalled. While Song was run ragged recruiting models, many of who were literally plucked from the streets of Beijing, Varbanov spent his days drinking coffee and smoking in the hotel café – that locals called the Zoo because they would stand and watch the foreigners inside. In clouds of cigarette smoke, Varbanov would work feverishly on his conceptual sketches, pouring a tsunami of ideas onto the pages of his notebooks. They remained a fantasy, as many of his ideas such as a floating island on West Lake in Hangzhou, were never realised.

Varbanov as a Tapestry Artist

Varbanov’s own career as a tapestry artist had flourished in Europe where tapestry making had a long history and which had experienced a renaissance in the early 20th century with the collaboration of artists such as Braque, Picasso, and Matisse. But tapestry even in the hands of such illustrious exponents remained the craft of artisans who transcribed their designs onto fabric.

In contrast, Varbanov’s tapestries proved revolutionary at the time in that they were sculptural three-dimensional objects – often very large – made from assorted fabrics and natural materials such as goats’ hair, which he brought over from Bulgaria. He had twice shown at the Lausanne Tapestry Biennale (in 1969 and 1971), and in 1979 he work was included in the French Modern Art Tapestry exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.

In 1983, when Varbanov arrived in Beijing he found a city vastly different from the one he had left in 1959. The population was edging towards prosperity under Deng’s reforms and the influence of Russian social realism on a generation of artists had long succumbed to exciting new avant-garde experimentation, a terrain occupied by artists such as Ai Weiwei, Huang Rui, and Ma Desheng – all of whom were members of the Stars Group that was active between 1979 and 1983, who used their personal experiences and social issues as their subject matter.

Varbanov’s Studio in Sanlitun

The ever-resourceful Song found a disused carpet factory in Sanlitun, close to what is now the Great Wall Hotel, that was to become Varbanov’s studio and where he invited young art students to join him to explore ‘soft sculpture’, as his work would be called in China. He began work on a series of monumental pieces that brought together a European approach to weaving – using wool, cotton, and goat’s hair with Chinese aesthetic sensibilities.

Varbanov was able to show this work at an exhibition he organised at the National Museum of China in Beijing, which proved to be wildly successful. The American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who was concurrently showing in Beijing, is reported to have said that the best exhibition in Beijing was not his, but Varbanov’s. Tapestry was, Varbanov wrote in 1988 for the exhibition Chinese Modern Tapestry at Pao Galleries in Hong Kong, ‘An inseparable component of modern architecture’.

Establishing Tapestry School at Zheijang Academy of Fine Art in Hangzhou

In 1987, he was invited to establish a tapestry school at Zheijang Academy of Fine Art in Hangzhou, fulfilling a dream he had harboured for over 30 years. One of his students in Hangzhou was the Chinese artist Gu Wenda, who credits Varbanov as having pushed him towards free-standing tapestry work. The Hangzhou school still exists today and Gu Wenda went on to became one of the school’s most illustrious alumni, as well as one of China’s most accomplished artists whose use of hair – albeit human hair – has permeated his practice over many years.

Last Work Varbanov Made

In 1989, Varbanov was preparing a large net-like work called Perpetual Motion for an exhibition at the Hangzhou China Academy of Arts. Suspended from high in the gallery space the net gave off endless shadow configurations. It was to be the last work he ever made. He stayed alone in the gallery late one night and climbed up a three-metre-high ladder to fix something on the work when he fell hurting his left hip. In hospital, ex-rays detected lung cancer. Always a heavy smoker, he died in July 1989, aged 56, just weeks away from the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square where students calling for political reform and freedom of expression, were subjected to suppression by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Madame Song and Chinese Fashion Culture

For her part in the story, Madame Song helped nudge China’s fashion culture towards a future where art and fashion could exist in a symbiotic relationship. In her role working with Cardin, she recruited models for his incipient runway shows when nothing like it had previously existed in China. Song literally plucked young men and women from the Beijing streets and overnight turned them into fashion models.

Few had any idea of what a runway fashion show was and the idea of appearing in one was revolutionary. In less than two decades, fashion in China had moved from ubiquitous blue, black, and green uniforms worn during the 1960s and 1970s to lose fitting multicoloured garments and stylish Western-inspired, mass-produced, clothes much of which was manufactured under the Cardin brand.

Song as Front-of-House for Maxim’s Beijing

Song’s life as the front-of-house hostess at Maxim’s possessed a legendary aura and the restaurant thrived under her creativity and energy. It has hardly changed since it opened in 1983; the Tiffany-style, stained-glass windows have remained as has the tiny stage set into the back wall. There was a constant stream of celebrities and high-profile visitors through the restaurant, including international movie moguls and fashion industry types.

Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino called by, as did British fashion designer John Galliano. Madame Song rubbed shoulders with them all, including China’s political and social elite. Few ordinary Chinese could afford the restaurant’s inflated prices where a meal would set them back the equivalent of three month’s pay.

The Last Emperor Film

The filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, was another habitué when he was in Beijing filming his epic biopic The Last Emperor (1987). At Bertolucci’s suggestion, Madame Song was given a role in the movie as the mother of Puyi, the last emperor. Nineteen thousand extras were needed through the course of the film and the PLA was drafted in to create the crowd scenes. Madame Song made ‘Maxim’s a cultural centre where China and the world could exchange ideas,’ Boriana remembered.

Madame Song died of lung cancer in 2007, the same disease that had taken her husband. She had been diagnosed six months earlier, but had kept the disease a secret and could always be found at the end of the bar in Maxim’s resplendent in her Cardin couture. Her death occurred on the same day that Cardin flew into Beijing to attend a fashion show.

When he heard that Song had died, he is said to have sobbed all the way from the airport to his hotel. She was capable of doing anything anywhere, Cardin is reported to have previously said of Song. She could speak seven languages, he said. He was wrong. She could only speak four!

Madame Song's Legacy

While Madame Song’s legacy has held firm in China Varbanov’s has not been so fortunate. His contribution to art in China has slipped into obscurity. Even though the school he established in Hangzhou has survived, Varbanov’s ‘soft sculptures’ have been virtually erased from Chinese contemporary art history.

Pi Li, a senior curator at M+, commented on the couple, ‘Varbanov and Song left quite a legacy. They met in the 1950s, moved to Bulgaria in the 1960s, returned to China in the 1980s, where Song collaborated with Pierre Cardin on fashion and in establishing Maxims Beijing. And all this, amazingly, happened during the period of the Cold War’.

One can only hope that the chill of a new Cold War will not settle over Hong Kong and China, disrupting Pi Li’s 2023 plans, bestowing on Maryn Varbanov and Song Huai-Kuei more years of obscurity rather than letting their story of love, collaboration, and artistry be told.

The exhibition is scheduled to be shown in Hong Kong, but no definite date, as yet, has been set - at M+ Museum in Hong Kong