Pictured above: my daughter, Chara Brown, appearing on a hugely popular national TV show in China.
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M y family and I lived in China 1990-1997 and then 2010 to the present, and I have no intention of leaving.
There are things that happened in our lives here that would probably have had very little chance of occurring, if we were living in Europe or the United States.
To learn about the first period, 1990-1997, you’ll want to read Books #1 and #2 of The China Trilogy ( http://chinarising.puntopress.com/2017/05/19/the-china-trilogy/). In 44 Days (https://ganxy.com/i/88276/), I reflect back a lot on the 1990s and compare them to the 2010s. The contrast is remarkable. In China Rising (https://ganxy.com/i/113798/), to honor my family and all that we did together in the 1990s, I included at the end several letters that I wrote during that era, which really capture the zeitgeist of the times. It was a very special and formative seven years. It was also incredibly intense, crazy and emotionally draining.
One area that has been a real hoot is acting in movies and TV shows. When we came back in 2010, Chinese cinema and TV were booming. Naturally, storylines often included roles for non-Chinese actors. Beijing was claiming status as the Hollywood of East Asia, so for the adventuresome, it was the perfect place to be.
Acting agents were cruising social media and online groups, looking for “foreign talent”. I can’t even recall how, but we got hooked up with an agent, who will go unnamed, since we found out much later that she was paying us the minimum, when we qualified for much more, based on speaking parts, experience, etc., and likely pocketed the difference. It’s OK. We were making good salaries as international teachers and at the most, it represented no more than a few thousand RMB, not that much for us, probably a lot for her. We knew that our agent was taking care of her mother and she wasn’t driving around in a Ferrari. Heck, she didn’t even have a driver’s license. For us anyway, it was simply a blast to be part of the action and see how big movie productions get done in China.
Over Christmas-New Year 2011-12, our older daughter, Maia, came to visit from the US. Our agent told us that our younger daughter, Chara, fit the part for a movie being filmed in Shanghai. We sent photos of her and she was cast for the part. Since Chara was only 15 at the time, the production company offered to pay for one of us parents to accompany her. We explained to our agent that our older daughter was visiting for only two weeks, it was Christmas-New Year and we really didn’t want to be separated. The production company agreed for all four of us to go to Shanghai, but we would have to pay for the two extra plane tickets, hotel room and per diem. They would send us the bill when it was all over. Fair enough. We thought it would be fun to spend a few days in Shanghai and see the New Year’s festivities on The Bund, an historic district in the city.
It took a while, but we found out that the producers were the Huayi Brothers, a big and well-known film company that would compare in size and reputation to Warner Brothers in the United States. We also eventually learned that the movie was The Great Tangshan Earthquake. Based on one of China’s worst natural disasters in history, the original book was a huge hit, a full length big screen movie was a blockbuster and now, a 35-hour serial TV movie was in the making.
Chara was the “star” on our end, playing with an up-and-coming young actress named Guan Xiaotong. We learned that in fact, the scenes for Chara were supposed to be in Los Angeles. When we got to the first set in a high-end jewelry store in downtown Shanghai, it was not long before we heard, “We need foreigners on the set”! They approached my wife, Maia and me and asked us if we wanted to play parts in the shoot. My wife got to be the sales lady showing outrageously expensive jewelry to Chara and Xiaotong. They wanted Maia and me to act like a couple looking in the glass display cases, asking to check out objects. I knew this jewelry store was for real, when I asked to look at a jade bracelet and the price tag on it was ¥1,800,000, or about $300,000! Don’t drop it! Security on the set to protect all the mega-expensive jewelry in the showcases was non-existent, where in China the idea of big heists is something, well, right out of Hollywood!
The director, Yao Xiaofeng and the executive producer, Bai Yang, were pleased with our performances and our suggestions on how to make the sets look “American” and suddenly, we became an acting family of four. From then on, we were put in various scenes, having the time of our lives in the process.
The next day, there was an outside shoot with about 50 foreigners on hand as extras, for street scenes. Most of them were Eastern European students, with no Chinese and just broken English. Nobody on the Chinese team could speak English, so Mr. Bai asked me if I would take the bullhorn, listen to director Yao and then translate and blast it out in English. Voilà, I became an assistant director the rest the time, using Mr. Yao’s megaphone with relish. Chara kept getting her scenes with her screen BFF, Xiaotong, and my wife and Maia got to participate too.
Yours truly, assistant director on the set.
Later, a scene came where they wanted to have a cop car drive down the street. Oops, no foreigners had driver’s licenses, so I raised my hand. They were now shooting me driving around the city, with a police officer’s hat on. Call me movie set Mr. Handyman!
Yours truly as rent-a-cop for one particular shoot.
Since we were in China and these shoots were supposed to be summertime in LA, all four of us kept getting involved in helping set the scenes and backdrops. It was December, so there were Christmas decorations hung up in a café, so we reminded them that all this needed to be taken down, as well as all the Chinese language signs. They loved all our advice. We were proving to be useful at bridging the cultural gap and making the shoots more authentic.
Xiaotong’s on-screen mother was the big star of the movie, none of us who can remember her name. Every time I see her in a movie ad, I recall her, but keep forgetting to note who she is. Anyway, she had an arrogant attitude, treating everybody as inferiors, so I shall dub her Fathead. I’m not saying all Chinese stars are jerks. Her husband character actor, also famous, was as cool and as laid back as could be and when we met later at a dubbing studio, he hugged me and acted (pardon the pun) like we were long lost friends, wanting to talk nonstop. Yao Xiaofeng and Bai Yang were unpretentious, friendly gentlemen and everybody else in the filming crew were super nice. A couple of times, Fathead blew a gasket on the set, making a big scene (these acting puns are just too easy!) complaining about this or that. Everybody just nodded their heads and made her feel important. I guess it’s part of the big screen ritual, to have a prima donna to suffer through.
During a break, Bai Yang asked me if, “I would help Fathead with her lines”. He pointed me to a big van and in I hopped. Fathead was there with her male counterpart, a Frenchman with a very thick accent in English. Fathead couldn’t speak a word of English, but as we learned later, Chinese and foreign actors silently mouth or mumble their lines in English and they are later dubbed over. In fact, over the next several years, Chara and I got jobs dubbing Chinese actors and overdubbing foreign actors with really heavy accents, where they wanted a native sounding voice. That too was a lot of fun and I met a bunch of nice people in the process.
After the four-day shoot in Shanghai was over, Yao and Bai were so pleased with our efforts that they paid for all our plane tickets, hotel rooms and per diem. We all got paid for our acting time. As I said, we later knew that if you have speaking parts, the pay goes way up, so 15-year old Chara did better than the three of us. In fact, we learned way later, that as soon as you are asked to participate in a shoot, you have to negotiate on the spot how much you expect to be paid. Otherwise, you’re working for free. As it stood, the three of us got paid as extras, Chara got underpaid for her speaking parts, all my work as an assistant director was a contribution to the cause, and it all balanced out with the comped plane tickets, room and board. Anyway, we had the time of our lives and the New Year’s fireworks cum laser light show extravaganza in downtown Shanghai was unforgettable.
Back in Beijing, this 35-part drama continued filming. Before Maia returned back home to the United States, she joined us for another day of filming, and then my wife, Chara and I got asked to act a couple of more days, since Chara was still doing work with BFF Xiaotong. Yao and Bai then asked me to play a big part as the psychiatrist for Fathead. It was filmed over a weekend at a gynecological clinic in Beijing. I played Freud to the psychologically traumatized star. Again, for a part that big, I could have asked for a lot more money, but I only got paid as an extra. That’s OK, it was a blast and to this day, strangers will come up to me and say, “Weren’t you in the TV movie, The Great Tangshan Earthquake”? Those moments are priceless memories and the cultural interaction with the Chinese is unforgettable.
We also worked on more movies in Beijing. One was a World War II action flick, which is pictured in Book #2 of The China Trilogy, China Rising, talking about the amazing opportunities one has here in China. My wife and I moved to Shenzhen two years ago, but Chara has been keeping after it, getting a number of acting roles around China, as well as dubbing in the studio, squeezing it all in while being a fulltime student at Beijing Normal University.
Recently, Chara got invited onto a very popular TV show, the first female foreigner to get the call, based on the theme of The Dating Game and The Bachelor, called Feicheng Wurao (非诚勿扰), meaning Serious Enquiries Only. This being China, one guy gets to question 24 women, not just three to four. She was so well received that she was asked back for two more shows. She was even picked by one of the suitors, someone from Nanjing. Not sure what became of that.
As a result, this being China, tens of millions of spectators have seen her on TV. She told us last week that due to her excellent performances on Serious Enquiries Only and her live streaming work, she already has at least one job offer in the media, when she graduates in two years.
If you’d like to see Chara in action, the three shows are below.
My daughter, Chara Brown on the hugely popular national show, Feicheng Wurao, or Serious Inquiries Only. The first foreign woman to get invited, she was asked back two more times. All told, just on internet access alone, over 20,000,000 people watched her, not to mention the actual show, which is broadcast live all over China, seen by many millions more.
All of this is to demonstrate that in China, you have a much greater chance of doing unimaginable things that you would probably never get to do elsewhere. For every internet sensation in the West, like Justin Bieber or Kim Kardashian, there are thousands in China doing something similar. This is especially true now, with live streaming making millionaires out of everyday people, who have a talent for appealing to the masses in front of a camera or microphone. With the Internet of Things, many Chinese writers are becoming online stars, by writing serial and graphic novels, comic books and displaying all kinds of artwork. Others are creating do-it-yourself films, TV programs, infomercials, advertisements, fashion shows, educational teaching and on and on. Start out working for free, get enough hits and the producers come calling with contracts in hand. These stars are known as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs, 主要意见领袖 = zhǔyào yìjiàn lǐngxiù) and when their viewer numbers go up, the money rolls in. It’s insane. I’m looking into reaching KOL status teaching English via live streaming. Why not?
The final thought in all this is, what is your definition of freedom? The Chinese’s concept of liberty is lightyears polar to that in the West, something I write extensively about in Book #3 of The China Trilogy, China Is Communist Dammit (https://www.amazon.com/China-Communist-Dammit-Dawn-Dynasty/dp/6027354380/). While mainstream Western Big Lie propaganda spends billions of dollars/euros trying to portray empire’s enemies (think Russia, China, DPRK, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and many more) as totalitarian, authoritarian and undemocratic hellholes, my 15 years of living, working and traveling on the streets of China tell me that Chinese freedom and democracy are much more vibrant, real and meaningful than anything I experienced in all my years living and working in the United States and Europe (http://chinarising.puntopress.com/2018/03/11/response-to-fellow-writers-who-suspect-baba-beijing-is-benign-despotism-china-rising-radio-sinoland-180311/).
This is why I always say that China is the Greatest Show on Earth (argh, a movie pun) and Why would I want to live anywhere else? I’m having the unforgettable time of my life and feel like I’m getting younger, not older. This country and its people are advancing into the 21st century at warp speed. It is mesmerizing to witness and play a positive role (oh no, another acting pun!), every day that I wake up.
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