Everyone keeps banging on about how "the eyes of the world are on Beijing" ensuring me that by living here I am "part of history making" with the re-emergence of the Middle Kingdom, as the Chinese know it. Having been a laowai (literally - 'old foreigner', I'm not old though, I'm actually quite young I think but that is irrelevant) here for the past 18 months I am slightly baffled by what exactly I am supposed to think of this phoenix from the ashes and just who is actually watching us.
I do generally have great faith in China and she has been a very kind host nation so far. Working here as an actor has probably been far more fruitful than the perpetual merry-go-round of London's fringe theatre scene and surviving on Tesco Value hummus and bagels. This has now been replaced with voice-over jobs hunched in smelly, pop-up studios in Chinese bedrooms, in exchange for fist-fulls of Red (my lingo for the yuan) with Mao's smirking face staring up at me from my sweaty palms; and Chinese dumplings. Yet despite my general optimism, this part of the Far East remains firmly planted in the Wild West. Despite the Chinese Government just last week easing the restrictions on the release of American films in China, or indeed leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping petting a pony in Iowa and sipping an Irish coffee in Ireland, I'm gobsmacked yet again.
Last week I was called to a dubbing job for a studio producing a TV drama for CCTV 9 (the English language state TV channel). The Chinese-made English drama was all about the settlement of European Jews in Shanghai in the second half of the 19th century. The acting was laughable, the script a complete disaster and the bulk of the narrative unbelievable. I was shown a few clips, at which point I was unclear what exactly I would have to dub as the majority of the show was in English already.
The director explained that having made the drama, before it could be aired, any reference to, or mention of, the word 'Jew' or 'Jewish' needed to be removed and dubbed with the word 'foreigner'. I was to do this for each character, regardless of age, accent, gender - and there were many female roles. So this I did with my usual chutzpah, dubbing out all of the 'Jews', despite the fact that the drama was all about Jews. One particular line was problematic with "us...foreigners...have no homeland" which I wasn't sure would resonate with the masses. Or, for that matter, the interjections of a booming baritone from the mouth of a Marie Antoinette lookalike.
Now then, this of course, was an absurd situation and highlights the ludicrous restrictions on entertainment here, but it is also symptomatic of a much deeper problem that this country faces- that the product, or quality of the product, is seemingly negligible. I took greater issue, ashamedly, with the total lack of artistic integrity and was flabbergasted that such talentless, wooden actors could actually get work. Good for them I suppose. We hear time and time again that China is all about saving face, yet what face are they actually saving? Ensuring a reputation is preserved in the actual production of a TV drama is paramount- despite the fact that it is hideously bad.
As I sip on my espresso in Sanlitun Village, just next to the Apple store that was recently witness to a riot over iPad2s, there is a face-off of John Wayne proportions unfolding before me on a one-way street. Two enormous Chyslers refusing to reverse to let the other one pass. Their bumpers touching.
Surely it's time that face stopped being saved? The dispute was only solved when another car pulled up behind one of them, forcing the other into submission. There seems to be a fine line here between protecting your reputation and self-preservation. Maybe it's time that Xi Jingping takes a long hard look in the mirror, as opposed to in everyone else's. Oh and also if some good drama could be commissioned that would be great, we can even leave religion out of it if necessary.
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