Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Dinner with Nicole Kidman

In the van to the studio for morning crew call with my two bosses. Late start due to a late midnight wrap last night. Read newspaper article on a medical “accident” where a patient died in the hospital after a car accident because his family was 100 yuan (US$12) short for a blood transfusion.
The family had 400 yuan total. A blood transfusion cost 540. The wife begged the doctor to take cell phone and rings as deposits. The doctor said no.
After the “accident”, the hospital publicly refused to admit faults, even after the reporter pointed out an internal memo suspending the four doctors involved. The family demanded 230,000 yuan (less than US$30,000) compensation. The hospital bargained it down to 30,000 yuan (less than US$4000). They settled.
The newspaper asked – How much is a human life worth in China?
Too heavy an article for a morning paper. Talk with my bosses instead about the Peking Duck they’d like to have for dinner.

Arrive at the studio and have brunch with the Western crew in the dinning room marked “Western Dining Room” on the door. There’s French toast, omelet, bacon, oatmeal, fruit salad, cereal, coffee and tea, among others. The Chinese crew eat Chinese congee, steamed bun, pickled veggie and boiled egg out of plastic meal boxes out in the corridor. Apparently all Chinese whose job involves English translation are included in the “Western” crew; but the pay and benefits are far lower.

Finally first shoot of the day after a long setup. The Chinese crew, about twenty of them, rushes off the set as if running away from a plague. The bell rings. The Assistant Director calls “Action”. I’m not needed on the set to assist with operating a second boom mic. Very bored.

Lunch. The “Western Dining Room” serves salmon, quesadillas, beans, garden salads, cheese bread pudding, among others. Delicious food and civilized sittings. The Chinese crew eat Chinese stir-fries out of plastic meal boxes while squatting in the corridors.

First shot after lunch. Have nothing to do after laying the cable before the shoot. The male and female leads, both well-known stars from America, passed by me on their way to the set. They carry this air around them which makes them stand out. Or is it just in my head?

On the van to the hotel where boss stays to fetch his laptop charger. Mr. Hong, the driver, yells the F word. The van just had an extreme closeup with a bicycle. Mr. Hong curses “stupid peasant” at the bike rider. He says that the rider probably would appreciate the chance to get knocked down by a city car; the compensation payment from the car insurance companies would far exceed any amount he could make in a lifetime.
The rider indeed looked like a migrant worker from the countryside. Lots of them in Beijing.
I remember a conversation I had once with a Chinese lawyer friend about using compensatory and punitive damages to curb businesses’ disregard of customers’ welfare. My friend’s opinion was that it would only encourage the poor and desperate to seek out accidents for the legal windfall. Life is cheap in China, he said.
I’m longing for the day when China can have the likes of $250 million Vioxx damage awards without many rushing to kill themselves for it.

Back to set. Pass by a newly cleaned restroom marked “Western Restroom” on the door. The old restroom we’ve all used in the past few days was always wet with water (or something else) on the ground. Sometimes people didn’t flush so the place smelt really bad. Some Western crew members complained. The “Western Restroom” still only has squat toilets and inside it still stinks. But at least it’s quiet.
I walk in the “Western Restroom” without any hesitation.

Dinner in the “Western Dinning Room”. Juicy hamburgers (and dry veggie burgers) with salads and fruits and string beans. Chinese crew eat in the corridor with their plastic meal boxes.
An American crew member comments on the “Western Dinning Room” note on the door. It’s racist and discriminatory, he says; it’s exactly the type of things the civil rights movement was against.
I nod. The funny thing is, he continues, in this case it’s the Chinese production office that got the idea and put up the signs. I nod again. We Chinese all know that many of us have the tendency to discriminate against ourselves.
I want to ask him though – would you really like to enjoy the Chinese experience, including squatting in the corridor at each meal and using a wet bathroom that’s sometimes not flushed?
But I keep my mouth shut.

I’ve been holding a boom mic for the long scene we are shooting. Long dialogues. It’s late. Everybody is tired. The actors constantly make mistake. The directors and assistant directors and camera operators are testy.
I’ve learned to rest the long boom on my head during the long take, rather than holding it up straight like a good boom operator. I still sweat like a pig during the take but my arms are not as sore.
A mobile phone rings somewhere. The take is ruined.
We start again. The male lead makes a mistake.
We start again. A mobile phone rings.
The Western assistant director storms out of the set. We hear him screaming – “Everyone turn off the phone! If the phone rings again the owner of that phone doesn’t need to show up for work tomorrow!”

Break before the next scene. Just learned the two rings were from the same phone. The Chinese production manager, apparently enraged by losing face in front of the Western crew, fired the guy on the spot.
The assistant filling me in with the details also said that the guy was a young kid from the countryside; he had a goofy smile on his face and apparently didn’t even understand what he did wrong when he was fired.

It’s got to be the 10th take now of another long difficult dialogue scene. I’m kneeling right in front of the female lead and holding the gun mic up to collect her sound. I can see the veins on her arm and the creases around her wrists.
It feels weird to be so close to a famous star. As if I’m intruding on the mysterious aurora the celebrities have been so carefully cultivating and guarding. Up close, they are just like anybody else, stripped off the effects of camera lighting, engineered smiles and scripted interviews.
I stare at her. She’s having difficulty finishing a long line. She curses with the F word and then giggles. The director comes and whispers into her ears.
She must have suffered a lot in her own way, and now she’s reaping millions of dollars in return. I wonder what her lifestyle is like, living from one party to the next in the Hollywood hills, around glamorous people.
I feel so keenly aware of both the similarities and differences between us. Everywhere I look I see these similarities and differences – the Beijingers vs the migrant workers from the countryside, the Western vs Chinese crew, the stars vs the “normal” people.
I also feel keenly aware that the position I’m in looks like I’m kneeling in front of a pedestal of a star and worshipping her.

We wrap.

Home in my comfortable bed. Dream of Nicole Kidman: She’s in Shanghai shooting Wong Kar-wai’s new film; We walk into a fancy restaurant chatting like old friends, her elegantly in her Chanel dress she wore in the Buz Luhrmann Chanel commercial.
We sit down at a table and look at the Bund. The night is beautiful; she is beautiful. She listens to my dreams and I listen to her loneliness after Tom Cruise.
In my dream, she’s really no different from any of my other friends.
And she’s not wearing any expensive jewelry either.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Alaska dreaming

The film co-production I’m working on assigned a van to each department. Mr. Hong is our department’s driver. The middle-aged Mr. Hong is loud and vivacious, guffawing easily whenever my Australian boss attempts to speak Chinese. Yet unlike the other drivers on the team, he never lifts up his T shirt to cool his protruding belly, no matter how hot the weather gets.

“Housing in that area is very expensive. How much rent do you pay?” He asked point-blank while out on an errand with me. I had just told him I live in the Central Business District area.

“Oh, I have a roommate.” I hesitated, not sure how much to divulge on my living situation. “We pay 3000 kuai (less than US $400) each for a two bedroom.” The truth is we live in a small one bedroom apartment, but I don’t want him to feel that we have little financial sense.

“That expensive!” He banged on the steering wheel while the van squeezed its way onto the highway. “Ah, Wu, that’s not very smart of you. You shouldn’t pay more than RMB 1000 for an apartment.” Apparently he didn’t hear the “each” right after the “RMB 3000”.

“That’s ok.” Strangers in China constantly pry into your personal finances, so I tried to preempt any further inquiries about my current salary by stating; “I had some savings from the years living in America.”

“America.” He said with a dramatic sigh, shaking his head. “Wu, if I were you, I wouldn’t come back.”

“That’s not very patriotic of you.” I teased him because he is employed by one branch of the military. He is using the van owned by the military to make some side cash while he’s not needed at work.

“I don’t love the country (Ai Guo – be patriotic). I love the world (Ai Shi Jie).” He laughed heartily. “One of my friends just paid 120,000 renbinmi (US $15,000) to go to San Francisco. I wish I could go.”

The van stalled in traffic on the highway linking the Third Ring Road to the Fourth Ring Road. The smog was so bad that the air literally blended in with the gray concrete high-rises all along the highway. “What do you like about America? Most of my Chinese friends who studied and worked in America want to come back to China.” I asked.

Mr. Hong lit a cigarette, which I took as a sign that we would be stalled in traffic for quite a while. “Look at this.” He pointed at the traffic with his right hand, cigarette smoke coming up from between his fingers. “Too many people in this place. Too dirty. In America, I figure things would be nicer. At least people’s manners would be a little better. “ He laughed again, self-deprecatingly, as if trying to discount what he had just said.

“Maybe.” I thought for a second, about the clean suburb shopping malls and shoppers who rush between Wal-Mart, BestBuy and Gap. “But the changes here are so rapid. It’s fascinating…” I pondered briefly if I should say “to watch” or “to experience”.

“Yeah, fascinating all right. But in many aspects it’s not changing. Like democracy, I just don’t think we’ll be able to see it in China in our lifetime. The communist party is very good at feeding people. But…” He laughed again, and dragged a smoke.

I was a bit dazed by this unexpected talk about communism and democracy. Or maybe it’s because of the humid weather.

“You work for the military and they allow this kind of thought?” I probed tentatively.

“I’m a long-time communist party member too!” He chuckled. “But I don’t like some of things the party does here. Like its tight control over the media. Every news outlet rehashes the same propaganda. No wonder America criticizes us all the time.”

“Why don’t you go to America then, like your friend?” I wondered what the RMB 120,000 was paid for – a fake marriage with an American, or a spot on a smuggler’s boat? “You could drive taxi’s in New York.”

“I wish I could.” He gave a last drag on the cigarette and put it out. “My friend speaks English. I don’t.”

I thought about the impatient New Yorkers and how they would treat an immigrant taxi driver, and nodded.

“My dream, “ He sighed, and immediately followed with a laughter, “is to drive across America, to drive through all that open space, to Alaska. I want to see the grizzly bears and the snow peaks there.”

I stared at the traffic and muggy weather ahead of us on the highway, and got lost in the dream of Alaska– there we wouldn’t have to hide in air conditioned vans and get stuck in traffic; the air would be pure between us and the grizzly bears and snow peaks. I was lost in my dream of Alaska while Mr. Hong turned the air conditioning up a notch, and started whistling a Chinese folk tune.

Grudgingly, the traffic began to move.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Got till it's gone

I live in a gated community in Beijing’s CBD, Central Business District. It is one of the many high-rise apartment complexes that are shooting up in Beijing’s posh neighborhoods, which are many, catering to expats and rich Beijingers (don’t ask why I’m living there). Where I live, the rooms all have Western-style amenities, and the complex has a gym where half of the people exercising are white. Everyday at the community gate and in the building lobby, I pass by security guards who look barely out of their teens. They make \600 (US$80) a month and always smile at me courteously.

My neighborhood is undergoing a dramatic change. To the south there’s a complex called SOHO (Small Office Home Office), one of the earliest high-rise complexes in Beijing modeling after Western architecture and management. To the west are Gold Field and Wanda, two brand-new communities consisting of commercial and residential buildings. To the east is a complex called China Trade which will include a Ritz Carlton and a J.W. Marriott, in addition to some of the most expensive residential buildings, a water park and a huge mall.

One of the real estate person I know predicted a glitzy future for the area. There will be wide promenades, dancing water fountains, and a huge happy shopping destination for Beijing since every building in the area has set aside a mall space. The real estate price will continue to climb, of course, according to him.

But before that glitzy future arrives, the area outside the gated communities is nothing but China-style chaos. Construction cranes are doing their smooth but persistent dances in every direction you look. Dust everywhere. Huge billboards promoting new residential complexes with fancy Western names like “Upper East Side” and “Yosemite” everywhere. Few observe traffic rules. During rush hours, donkey carts would fight with pedestrians, bicycles, buses, private Audi’s, taxies and illegal taxies for rights of way; and the buses, private Audi’s, taxies and illegal taxies would angrily honk back at the donkey carts. Traffic simply stalls.

I find the chaos endearing. A daily reminder of China’s reality for me who spend too much time living in the comfort zone inside the gates. When I walk to the subway station, I would pass stalls selling beef cakes, newspapers and fruit mixes. In front of these stalls would be the illegal street vendors peddling everything from Tibetan trinkets, pirated copies of popular or underground books, fruits, to cheap cameras “directly from the factory”. Scattered between the illegal vendors would be beggars of all kinds and shapes, some with their whole family, some playing the Chinese traditional instrument erhu, some deformed and prostrating on the ground. Pedestrians would rush and stop haphazardly, causing traffic jams on the sidewalk, as the voice of peddlers and speakers from the stalls rise with the dust. Sometime someone on the lookout would spot the police coming near. Then the whole sidewalk would clear instantly, leaving waste paper, rotten fruits and other garbage to the pedestrians.

Then last weekend the government came in and cleared the trees on the sidewalk. The street is to be widened and the trees were in the way. When I talked to the cab driver about this, he said: “Those trees are poplars. They are useless.” I asked what he meant by useless. He replied: “Oh, they are just useless. We need wider streets.”

At dinner with my expat friends from various gated communities, we lamented the disappearance of the trees. It felt strangely spacious now walking on the street. And the little trunks left above the ground pain the eyes.

The Ritz Carlton is finally coming to the neighborhood.

I can foresee the day, definitely by the 2008 Olympics, when the neighborhood will be glamorous and clean and spacious and full of happy shoppers. All the beggars and peddlers and donkey carts will have been cleared off. I’m confident there’ll be new trees, young trees still growing tentatively. The area will be the face of the new Beijing, an ideal the whole country is aspiring to. And all the past chaos and the old trees will have been gone in people’s memories, including those of my own and my expat friends’. For most of us do enjoy the comfort of Western-style amenities in quiet gated communities, which will continue to be the dream that will never come true for most of the Chinese people.