Saturday, May 07, 2005

One Night In Shanghai...Part Three

(part one here, part two here)

The cool thing about being a low-level employee of a famous American entertainment company at the first International Shanghai Film Festival in 1993 was, it didn't matter how many times I scrupulously explained that I was not attending in any official capacity and moreover, I was not in the least an important person in my industry - I was still treated like a VIP and got invited to all the cool parties. And there were some pretty cool genuine VIPs in attendance. I rode in an elevator with Sophia Loren! And she really was, no other word for her, magnificent, dressed head to toe in red, with plunging d├ęcolletage and a giant red hat. I think my jaw actually dropped. She had an aura that both encased her and projected out around her, like a force field. Men and women alike fell at her feet.

I started hanging out with Susan Strasberg's interpreter. Susan Strasberg was the daughter of the famous acting teacher, Lee Strasberg, and in addition to her acting career, she was well-known for her close friendship with Marilyn Monroe. In 1993, she'd just published a book about that relationship, Marilyn & Me, and she'd given her interpreter, call him Xiao Li, a T-shirt publicizing it, red, with Marilyn and Susan's faces in black. I think he wore that shirt every day of the festival.

Xiao Li was a very young college student, or at least, he seemed that way to me. He was probably in his early 20s. His English was very good, and he was actually pretty cute, though I doubt if he saw himself that way. He lacked confidence, he told me.

About those parties. The one I recall most vividly was held at this new, upscale real estate development. I think it was called "The Fountains of Shanghai." We were taken there in a new minibus, and from the moment I stepped out of it, I knew I was in for a trip. "The Fountains of Shanghai" was a collection of high-end townhouses, encircled by a wall. It had a very large pool, Olympic-sized at least. There were, naturally, fountains, lit by colored spotlights. This was not your Chairman Mao's China, that's for sure.

The Fountains of Shanghai included a restaurant and small nightclub/disco/karaoke room. First, we had quite a nice banquet. Then, the rounds of toasting began, with moutai. Moutai is the traditional Chinese toasting liquor. It comes in a white bottle that looks suspiciously like Drano's. But I've kind of developed a taste for it, actually. Up to a point.

On this occasion, I sat at Susan Strasberg's table and chatted with Xiao Li. One of the festival's biggest VIPs had come tonight, a famous American director. Xiao Li was a fan of his. "I'd like to meet him," he confessed. "But I'm too embarrassed."

"Come on," I said. "You have to take chances sometimes. Tell you what, I'll introduce you."

And in point of fact, I'd met this particular Famous American Director the year before, at the Democratic Convention. So why not introduce Xiao Li and reintroduce myself? Even though, truth be told, I'm really more like Xiao Li when it comes to these kinds of things - an introvert, and easily embarrassed. Plus, the Famous American Director was surrounded by an entourage (which I would later christen "the Asshole Buddies"). But I had by this point had several rounds of moutai.

The Famous American Director was very gracious. "The Democratic Convention. That was a special experience," he said to me. I agreed that it was so, and left him and Xiao Li to talk. Shortly thereafter, it was karaoke time.

If you have ever traveled in Asia, you probably have experienced this phenomenon. People get up in front of each other and sing. For cultures that emphasize face and shame and not making a spectacle of yourself, this seems somewhat contradictory. But nonetheless, singing in public is something that people do. My first time in China, in 1979, Paul and I were constantly asked to sing "a traditional American song." The only song the two of us knew all the way through was the Beatles' "Rocky Raccoon." Close enough. We sang that song all the way across China.

But things had changed. Not just in China, but with me. I'd gone back to America and learned how to play bass and sing and write songs, and I'd been playing in bands for over 10 years. And in China, they now had karaoke machines.

I sat back and watched our Chinese hosts get up and do their numbers. Surely, some brave Western foreigner would participate as well. But no. Just Chinese, and maybe a Japanese or two.

What can I say? I had to do it.

I sang two songs (the second by popular demand). I think one of them might have been "Hang On Sloopy." It was one of those rare times when I felt like a ringer. Hey, I not only know how to do this, I'm good at doing this. And it was one of those acts that ended up having long term consequences. Two days later, film festival officials took us on a boat tour of the Huangpo River. Two of them approached me. We started talking. The usual, "how do you like Shanghai?" conversation (though I did confess my admiration for Zhang Yimou, who had been rehabilitated and was one of the Festival's biggest guests, along with Gong Li. Their relationship, by the way, was a huge scandal at the time, the two of them having an affair while one of them was married to someone else).

But then, the woman, call her Yan, said, "I heard you sing. You are a very good singer." I ended up giving her a tape of my band. Okay, I'm as susceptible to flattery as anyone. The significant part came later. About three months after the festival. I got a call from someone named Anna, a Chinese woman living in Los Angeles. She had something for me from Yan. We met. The "something" was a tape of Cui Jian, Beijing's famous seminal rock star. The significance was, Anna and I became friends and sometime writing partners, and more than ten years later, we are still friends and partners. I see Yan now and again, in Beijing and in Los Angeles. So you never know what might happen, when you take a small risk...

(to be continued...)


zhadi said...

ANd they say that Karoeke is a scourge on society! Funny, I had no idea that's how you met Anna!

Other Lisa said...

if you do business in China or Japan (I can't speak for the rest of Asia), it's really very useful to be willing to do's a bonding thing, you know?