Saturday, April 30, 2005

One Night In Shanghai...Part Two

(part one here)

Shanghai, October 1993 - the first Shanghai International Film Festival...

I don't recall much about the Shanghai Airport, even though it was the first time I'd ever flown into the PRC - in 1979, we'd arrived and departed fron Hong Kong and traveled everywhere by train.

What I do remember is being greeted by an official driver from the Film Festival. This in spite of my making it very clear that regardless of my film studio affiliation, I was traveling on my own initiative, a humble, low-level employee here in no official capacity, on vacation.

Nonetheless, here was a driver with a minivan to take Paul and me to our hotel, the Shanghai Holiday Inn, official hotel of the festival.

I think I sat in the back of the van, staring out the window at the flat landscape, chattering with Paul in disbelief about being back in China after all this time. We hadn't gone to Shanghai in 1979, but still, this was China. We'd finally returned.

It quickly became apparent that things had changed.

The Holiday Inn, for example. There were of course no Holiday Inns in 1979. In Beijing, there was the famous Peking Hotel, the Qianmen (a dump that smelled like mildew, with some of the worst food I had during my time there, and believe me, I had a lot of bad food), and the Youyi Binguan, the Friendship Hotel, where I'd lived. Anything else was a Chinese facility and strictly off-limits to Waiguoren such as myself. Now, here we were in a Holiday Inn. It looked exactly like any Holiday Inn anywhere in the world, which is kind of the point of such franchises. This Holiday Inn featured a bar called "Charlie Chaplin." We visited it straight away. It was an absolutely typical bar - dark, a Philipino house band that played rock covers, fluorescent writing on the blackboard with the drink specials, and the local beer on draft - called "Reeb." I drank a lot of Reeb in Shanghai. The first time Paul and I raised a pint of Reeb in Charlie Chaplin, "Hotel California" came on the jukebox. There wasn't enough Reeb in the world to drown the surrealism of that moment.

In other ways, however, it was still very much the China of my memory. One of the first things I did after we'd settled in was take a walk around the neighborhood of our hotel. Inside was global franchise culture. Outside, things were different. Gray, decaying sidewalks, mud in the gutters. Walled factories emitting suspiciously toxic smells. This was a pharmaceutical factory, according to its tarnished brass plaque. A tourist hotel, in central Shanghai, next to a pharmaceutical factory? Clearly, China had yet to learn about zoning. I would use this factory as the landmark to guide me safely back to the Holiday Inn. As soon as I sniffed that burnt vitamins mixed with ammonia scent, I knew I was in the right neighborhood.

Registration for the festival took place at the civic theater complex where the films were to be shown. While standing in line for our welcome bags and badges, we right away met some cool people. First, Brigitte, a free-lance German journalist, about my age. Maybe it's compensation for their parents and grandparents having been Nazis, but I have to say, the Germans I've met in general are friendly, open-minded, adventurous and fun. Brigitte was no exception. She'd come to the festival because she'd thought it sounded interesting. Later, she would try to return to China to write about something else, I forget what, I think it was some kind of flower festival, only to get turned back at the airport because she'd neglected to obtain a visa.

We also encountered John, an American living in Hong Kong who was a film critic. He spoke Chinese and seemed very savvy. The Shanghai Film Festival officials had given him the big sell, he told me, about how significant this event would be, the first international film festival to be held in mainland China, and how one film would be chosen the grand prize winner. "They went on and on," he told me, "about the grand-prize. It was this big build-up, this really important prize for the first international Chinese film festival. Guess what the prize is called."

"Ummm...I don't know. I give up."

"Well, you have to imagine this official, telling me about the grand prize. They'd put a lot of thought into the name. He stands up very straight, and tells me proudly, with a lot of drama: 'it is called...the Golden Cup.' The Golden Cup," John repeated. "A little anticlimactic, don't you think?"

And then there was Mark. Mark was a guy my age or a few years younger, handsome in in a dissolute way, with thick hair, full lips, stubble of beard and a slightly bleary eyed expression. He wore a long, khaki sort of trench coat and had one arm in a sling , wrapped in a somewhat bloody bandage. When we met, he was arguing with one of the officials, some problem with his registration, in a mix of English and a sort of sing-song Chinese, definitely not the Beijing accent that I knew.

Mark had made a small career for himself acting as the foreign devil villain in a series of Hong Kong action movies. On the last one, he'd gotten hurt (the painkillers he was on accounted for his bleariness, at least in part). And the bastards wouldn't pay him his contract, wouldn't pay for his medical bills, but they were all a bunch of gangsters, the money behind these films; you couldn't really fuck with them.

"Gangsters?" I asked dubiously.

"Yeah. Full-on Hong Kong triads. The whole Hong Kong film industry is run by them."

At the time, I thought, yeah, right. Here's this guy, stoned, wearing a trenchcoat, with his bloody-bandaged arm in a sling, claiming to be an actor. He did not strike me as the most credible source. But later, not long after I got back to Los Angeles, I read an article in New Yorker about this very thing, the extent to which the Hong Kong film industry is controlled by Hong Kong mobsters. Mark, wherever you are, forgive me for doubting you!

For this was another thing that was new: the presence of foreigners in China, not just official foreigners attached to embassies, or teachers on contract, or businessmen looking for deals. All of the sudden, there seemed to be foreigners who were just, sort of, hanging out. You didn't have this in 1979. There was another guy I met, an American who was trying to get a business going fixing cars. It wasn't exactly above ground; he didn't seem to have permits, exactly, and he was living, not in a controlled foreigner's ghetto, but in the pantry of some guy's apartment, just crashing there while he tried to figure things out. And there was this whole expat scene, apparently, which mostly seemed to revolve around drinking. I mean, there was a social scene of sorts in Beijing all those years ago, and I could tell you about that party thrown by the notorious Chilean attache, attended by the famous Chinese TV celebrity, an acordian player, and the drunken wheelchair races that ensued, and I could tell you about Lori, the daughter of a high-ranking American embassy official, who'd smuggled a hundred hits of blotter acid in the gas tank of her moped, but in Beijing in 79, the stories were more about isolation, and frustration and living a very artificial existence. About an Embassy wife who described in great detail what she had to do to make her famous chocolate chip peanut butter cookies...."well, there's no chocolate chips, so you have to smash up the chocolate bars...and there's no peanut butter, so we got a big bag of peanuts and shelled them out on the balcony. And it was freezing, and the wind was blowing peanut shells and skins everywhere..." She narrated this story with a sort of weary shock. It had been so hard to make those cookies.

Things had changed in China.

Paul and I spent a lot of time just wandering around Shanghai. In 1993, Shanghai was a city in transition. Cranes and scaffolding were everywhere as the city's officials attempted to transform Shanghai into China's number one, no, Asia's number one, most modern city. Meaning that in 1993, things were kind of a mess. The Bund, that stretch of classic European buildings that front the Huangpo River, was beautiful. Shanghai's gardens, lovely. But then there was the Pudong New City rising across the river, with its landmark that dominated the Shanghai skyline, the Oriental Pearl TV tower. I don't know what it is about Chinese cities, but they seem to have this weird thing for TV towers. Every city that wants to be important has one. The Oriental Pearl epitomizes the form: it is this huge Tinkertoy tower with a bulbous, well, bulb on top, a giant pink bulb. It is maybe one of the ugliest constructions you will ever see, sort of like Disney's Tomorrowland on some bad combination of steroids and hallucinogens.

The rest of Shanghai, at that time, was a seemingly random conglomeration of old and new and everything in between, elegant French style buildings, moldering in the damp, proletariat concrete block, graceful traditional Chinese roofs and walls, cheap-looking glassy modern boxes, weird fantasies of foreign styles, like the new Muslim restaurant that resembled a stucco mosque. Everywhere was traffic, swarms of little red taxis that filled the streets, scuttling in and out of narrow lanes never designed for cars. Towards the end of the festival, a Shanghai city official asked me what I thought of Shanghai. He was a short, solid man in a black suit who moved as though there were no possibility that his torso could ever bend in any way other than a sharp angle. A stiff, in other words. "Please, give us your criticisms, so that we might improve," he'd said.

"Well," I'd said cautiously. "Shanghai is a wonderful city. might want to think about some mass transit. Because with the traffic, it's very hard to get around. And...maybe it's not such a good idea to have factories next to tourist hotels."

Okay, I was young and dumb, but instead of saying something obvious like, "yes, naive young American woman, we are working on these issues," this fellow bristled defensively and immediately changed the subject.

Still, I was in a near-constant state of culture shock during that visit to Shanghai. I felt like I was some hick from the Chinese countryside, staring at the big city lights. Benetton? They had Benetton stores? In China? Euro designer shops? Real coffee? I mean, in 1979 you had a choice between PLA green Mao suits and dark blue Mao suits. You had to use clothing coupons. You could not go and buy a groovy sweater at a Benetton store, for chrissakes!


Anonymous said...


I don't think the triad society controlled the whole movie industry in Hong Kong, but part of the cheesy movies in Hong Kong are made by gangsters, and there are many of them.

Other Lisa said...

Dear JR,

Thanks for writing. I'll have to see if I can dig up that New Yorker article. As I recall, it said even names as big as Jackie Chan had run into problems with the triads - but like you said, I'm sure the bigger players in Hong Kong films aren't gangsters! I was just surprised that what this fellow told me was true at all - it seemed like such a fantastical tale at the time...