In the early years of my teaching career, while I was still single, I kept on the move. I never liked staying at one place for too long, always on the hunt for a new challenge and a good adventure. I was fascinated with the country of China; it held an aura of mystery about it that I was eager to explore and discover. I signed up with the Educational Services Exchange with China organization which trained and sponsored English teachers, sending them out in teams across the nation of China. My four-person team was assigned to teach at Jiaotong University in Shanghai. Recently I decided to type up my journal and get it stored on my computer. Just for fun, I thought I would share an excerpt from my journal of one very unusual, and delightfully fun day…which in reality, they all were:
Last night, Zhang Zhong Xiang, director of Foreign Affairs at Jiaotong University called to request a favor. A friend of his, a director with the Shanghai Film Studio, was in a panic. (Shanghai is considered the Hollywood of China.) They were scheduled to begin work on the movie “A Grain of Rice in the Boundless Sea,” and needed some foreigners who could pass as Europeans to appear in the movie. He didn’t know any foreigners and called Mr. Zhang hoping he could draft some teachers from Jiaotong. So, Mr. Zhang called me and asked if I could round up some teachers on the spur of the moment. He told me the movie was about the life of Liu Hai Shu, a famous Chinese painter. Mr. Liu is now quite elderly, in his 90’s, and they were wanting to film his life story while he was still living. As a young man, Mr. Liu studied art in Paris. This particular segment of the movie was to be a dance scene in Paris at a private party, and we were told they only needed us to appear in the background and we needn’t worry about any speaking parts. It was pretty short notice and I was only able to recruit six teachers, including myself. At 8:00 this morning the studio director came in a van to pick us up. Rollie was told to come dressed in a suit and tie. The five of us ladies were told we would be able to change into suitable clothing from the studio wardrobe.
As soon as we arrived at the studio, we were whisked off to the dressing room. We dressed and undressed a dozen times, but couldn’t find anything that fit! Being foreigners, we were considerably larger than the average Chinese and couldn’t fit into any of the clothes! I finally managed to squeeze into an ugly, old aqua-colored dress that was about three inches too short in the sleeves. The side seams in the dress were ripping out. I couldn’t find any dress shoes that fit, so I ended up having to wear my brown loafers. I was then told to go to the hairdresser to “have my hair repaired!” That was an interesting experience as my hairdresser had never styled curly hair before. I was feeling rather dowdy until I saw my “partner.” I was paired up with a tall, Swedish business man passing through town for a few days. He was spotted at his hotel, recruited, and whisked away to the studio! We were one motley looking crew and not feeling very Hollywood. Mr. Swede was forced to wear a suit about three sizes too small. They ended up taking the hem out of his pants, but they were still too short! We nearly split our sides with laughter when the others emerged from the dressing room. Kate was the only one fortunate enough to find a good-fitting dress. The others, out of desperation, were dressed in sweater-tops and make-shift skirts, made from dresses with the bodices rolled down!! Yikes! We were all walking around feeling rather sheepish, and grateful that we would only be appearing in background scenes, with no close ups – or so we were told.
Once everyone was dressed and had their “hair repaired,” the filming began with the dance scene. Swede and I were told to sit on the sofa, pretend we were sipping wine, and carry on an animated conversation. Fortunately, he spoke fluent English. The dance scene was shot several times and lasted about an hour. In the middle of this scene an elderly man walked into the studio and immediately filming came to a halt. Everyone gathered around to make introductions and shake hands. It was Liu Hai Shu, himself – the man whose life-story we were filming. He and his wife, and daughter stayed quite some time to watch the filming.
Once the dance scene was finished, the six of us got up and headed back to the dressing-rooms, relieved that it was all over. However, as I was walking down the hall someone grabbed me by the arm and said I had to come back, that I was in the next scene. Horrors! It was a very minor scene, but nonetheless, I was front, and stage-center in my ugly dress and brown loafers!
I was asked to stand by the leading lady, keep my mouth moving and feign a conversation. (She spoke no English.) Then the leading man was to walk up and ask her for a dance. They shot the scene five times before they were satisfied with the results. Not knowing what else to say in Chinese, I simply kept repeating the question “Ni de shemme mingzi?” –What is your name? The poor lady would politely nod and repeat her name for me. She did this about fifty times before it was all over. The worst part came in the second shooting. I had accidentally exposed some flesh in front of the camera, because of the growing rip in the side seam of my dress under the arm. The director yelled something, the cameras stopped, and in ran an assistant with needle and thread, whipped in a few stitches and the cameras continued rolling.
Soon after, we were told we would be taking a lunch break. All of the cast were to be transported by bus to a local restaurant a few miles down the road. By this time, we all just wanted to go home. We weren’t too excited about making an appearance in public in our dumpy clothes. To top it off, we only had a few minutes to eat a bowl of noodles before we were rushed back to the studio. By this time, we were all convinced the life of a movie star was none too glamorous.
Once back at the studio, we were told that we were needed for several more scenes, and were asked to stay. It was too late to back out. We were committed! Norah was asked to sit at the grand piano and play some music, which she managed to feign by running her hands back and forth across the keys. Rollie was plugged into several scenes with the leading man. They really liked his appearance in his (own) nice suit (which fit), and with his white hair he looked rather dapper and sophisticated.
As the afternoon wore on without a break, we began to get progressively more tired and hungry. At six o’clock we were served a delicious box supper of rice and meat sauce with pork. We were famished and managed to gulp down our supper between scenes.
Once again I was escorted to center-stage, asked to sit in an easy-chair, and was told a Chinese gentleman would walk up to me, bow and feign an animated conversation, to which I was to respond. The cameras started to roll. A very sophisticated man walked up, bowed politely, and began reciting the only thing he knew in English, the ABCs! So, I responded with the only thing I could think of in Chinese at the moment – the numbers one to ten …”yi, er, san, si…” We tried to look as animated as possible, nodding our heads and smiling a lot, and desperately trying not to burst out laughing as we repeated this over and over. The director seemed pleased and only shot the scene one time. Later, Karen asked me, “You two seemed to really be enjoying your conversation! What were you talking about?”
Finally, at about 7:30 in the evening we were told filming of the “dance scene” had been completed. Relieved and more than ready to head home, the director took us all to a back room and presented us with gifts of appreciation. We were each gifted with an original piece of Chinese calligraphy done by one of Mr. Liu’s pupils. He is also rather elderly, but quite well known in China. The calligraphy is considered quite valuable and certainly a treasure, but the memories of our “Chinese movie debut” were even more so. We shared quite a few laughs on the way home, and all we could say was, “Only in China!” Only in China could we have ever snagged a bit part in a movie on the spur of the moment! Once our claim to fame was officially over (eight hours, which topped the proverbial fifteen minutes), we all agreed we probably needed to keep to our day jobs!
The movie is scheduled to be aired on T.V. in April.
(It would have been interesting to see the final result of our movie debut, but we all left the country before its scheduled showing.)