Foreigners living in China can easily land one-day gigs acting for commercials and other productions. Earlier this year, I put on an ill fitting tuxedo, was made-up, and "welcomed" people to an expensive high rise apartment at their extravagant opening day party. For this, I was paid the average factory worker's monthly wage. Knowing that makes me feel guilty, but not guilty enough to reject the money. Actually it's not much money if I exchange it to dollars. And that is the normal rate for doing that kind of work, as dictated by scarcity of supply and strength of demand.
Last month, I spent a morning along the sea wall in Zhuhai pretending to be a foreign good-Samaritan who helps a stricken fisherman, while all the Chinese bystanders stand around him doing nothing. I walked up and knelt down to place an unknown medical device on his chest. Then he sat up and vigorously thanked me, and I said "you're welcome" in Chinese. A German guy was hired to wear a white lab coat and hold the device while speaking medical jargon into the camera. The device seemed to be just a little plastic disk with a blinking red light and a switch.
people playing bystanders surround a man playing a fisherman in Zhuhai
The whole concept was curious. Why do the "white" guys get to save the day and play doctor in the Chinese commercial? Neither of us are health care professionals, or even real actors. My impression is that the people who produce these commercials assume that using foreigners provides them some amount of credibility and "prestige". I later felt some regret that some people may interpret my appearance as an endorsement, as if my relatively pale skin color represents knowledge and experience. Perhaps the device is real and useful. But, I suspect my appearance was being used to deceive people.
You can see that doing commercials in China makes me a bit guilty. But I've just got news that I'm an actual Hollywood star! No more China commercials for me, I've hit the big time.
There is George Clooney from the 2009 film "Up in the Air" (Chinese names: 在云端，型男飛行日誌 ). Where am I? In the carpet!
In my last job as an architect back in the states, I was responsible for design when that same apartment building was renovated a few years ago. I chose that rich orange color for the carpet and doors, among other things. What do you think of the colors?
Now, if I can just figure out a way to build my new career on this...
One of my favorite Asian films is the 1994 movie Chungking Express (重庆森林) by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai. The film is popular in university film studies classes; just Google it and you can find lots of term papers analyzing endlessly. I think of it as the Asian version of Pulp Fiction because of its similarly non-traditional narrative structure. Amazingly, they were both released in the same year; it seems some small cross-cultural movement was going on.
Using hand held camera work, choppy editing, and real locations, the film creates vivid impressions of life in urban Hong Kong. The two main locations are Chungking Mansion and a food stall with the name Midnight Express. Other locations include the escalators that go up the steep streets from central up to Soho neighborhood. On a recent visit to Hong Kong, I made a point to visit some of the filming locations.
In the first half of the film, a mysterious woman in sunglasses and a blond wig is involved in a drug trafficking scheme. Chungking Mansion is the chaotic place she recruits the traffickers, who are Indian Nationals. Today, Chungking Mansions is still there, on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui district. It's well known among budget travelers as the cheapest place to stay in Hong Kong. And it's still the gathering point for lots of Indian immigrants and their businesses, and now more Africans too. The first 3 floors are a mall. As it was in the film, the ground floor mall is occupied by money changers, cheap Indian restaurants, and lots of little shops selling electronics. The third floor mall has gone upscale and renamed after the movie. Above the mall pedestal are multiple tower blocks, mainly occupied by dozens of different hostels. I stayed in a room there with a bathroom but no windows, that measured 1 meter by 3 meters. Chungking is a hyperactive and dense place, like Hong Kong itself and more so. In a fully developed city, there is still this pocket of the developing world allowed to exist.
So I took the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island to visit Midnight Express. The food stall is the only connection between the two narratives of the film. It's where two policemen stop and spend their lonely time after losing their girlfriends. But they never actually meet. I searched all over for the place. Actually, I wasn't even sure if it ever existed, but I assumed so because other shooting locations in the film were real places. I thought I stumbled on the place where it had been on an alley called Graham Street, filled with improvised semi-permanent street kitchens literally leaning against the back facade of modern skyscrapers. But I decided that place wasn't right. So I went to Pacific Coffee, Hong Kong's ubiquitous chain coffee shop with free internet. After Googling it, I found an address listing and even a photo of Midnight Express in Lam Kau Fong, a popular nightclub street.
I feel kind of silly admitting that I felt very disappointed when I finally got to Midnight Express, 16 years too late. Was I expecting to meet Faye Wong and order a Caesar Salad? As the post title suggests, it is indeed a 7-11 convenience store now. So I went inside and bought a Vitasoy drink.