JISHOU, HUNAN — OK, so I was only on screen for maybe 10 minutes — tops — sandwiched in between musical acts for a pre-Spring Festival concert extravaganza, but it was still a debut on provincial TV.
And, get this, all of my lines were in Chinese! I learned them on the spot, with patient coaching from a Hunan Economic TV director (and of course promptly forgot them all by the following day).
Here is the link to the on line version of the telecast last night. You will only be able to watch it if you are using Internet Explorer and only if you download a plugin for IE here. I have had no luck viewing the clip yet. Either it is not yet available, or my antiquated versions of Windows (2K Pro) and IE6 are not up to the task.
When you load the first link, this is what you will see. I have labeled the appropriate buttons to click on to see the video.
If any clever person can figure out how to capture this video stream and/or make it a YouTube video, let me know. I have people working on the task on this side of the world, too.
I have already chronicled the background behind how I ended up in this TV production, so I won’t go into great detail here. Briefly, I was pressed into service when ETV called the university looking for a westerner who could speak both English and Chinese well. I was the closest approximation, an American with next-to-no Chinese speaking ability. I agreed reluctantly, since I had made other plans for Jan. 1, the day of the shoot.
Previously, I had appeared with two other American teachers in a local TV production about Dehang, a nearby Miao village. My friend, Shelldy, had been my interpreter for that gig, so I asked if she could join me on the ETV shoot. So it was that she and I ended up spending more than 12 hours in Fenghuang, a scenic, historic town about 90 minutes from Jishou, with a buoyant (and young!) TV crew.
The star of the program is YoYo, the stage name of Jiang Hongjie, an attractive actress/model/TV host and a Hunan celebrity. In the scenes that survived the editing process, she and I sit across a table in a Fenghuang bar, she playing a tourist to Fenghuang and me playing the ex-pat owner of the bar. She asks me how long I have lived in the town (two years) and about how I came to be there.
I pull out a photo album, and we look at the photos. In one, I am pulling ginger candy at a local candy shop. As we look at another, I tell her that I came across a beautiful Miao girl (YoYo in custome) washing clothes in the Tuojiang River. And finally, I reminisce about another beautiful Miao girl I saw passing by in a boat, as we see me taking photos of the second “piao liang.”
We shot that bar scene after dinner Jan. 1. By that time, we had been working for close to 10 hours and were all tired. I was extremely unsure whether my hastily learned dialogue even sounded remotely Chinese. (Remember, I was playing an ex-pat who had been living in China for two years, so I didn’t need to sound like a native speaker, just intelligible.) Once that was in the can, we left Fenghuang, arriving around 12:30 am, with me retiring to my flat and Shelldy and the TV crew to the crew’s hotel.
The riverboat scene came from day 2 of the shooting. Shelldy had an exam, and could not accompany me. When she sent me a text telling me about the details of day 2, I was chatting online with Yang XiXi (Katrina), one of my senior English majors. Katrina’s spoken English skills are also very good, so she ended up being not only my interpreter, but actress and singer, too. The Miao girl in the boat is in fact Katrina.
I had to give exams myself the following week, so if the crew had planned to use me again, my further involvement would have been out of the question. As it turns out, the crew stayed in Jishou for nearly three weeks, leaving for home (Changsha) only after filming all over Xiangxi county and shooting the big concert at the university on Jan. 17.
To spotlight the video, ETV planned to show segments between performances during the concert. Many big superstars were in the concert, so the viewership was expected to be very high. Xiangxi and Jishou are in the midst of an economic crisis, after thousands of residents lost millions of yuan in a dodgy (and illegal) real estate investment scheme last fall. There have been mass protests in downtown Jishou, and the local police have been on heightened alert since August, pulling long shifts and duty rounds. [My friend, Smile, is not sure if her policeman husband would actually be able to join her for Spring Festival tomorrow. That’s how bad it is.]
To bring attention to the more positive aspects of western Hunan and bring in some tourist dollars, I suspect the venue of the end-of-year superstar concert was hastily moved from Changsha (ETV’s HQ and the provincial capital) to the Jishou U gymnasium in the fall. The tourism spots featuring YoYo were, I also suspect, another last-minute addition, since inserting them between superstars singing would virtually guarantee an audience.
There were two rehearsals at the Ji Da gym (Ji Da is local slang for the university, which in Chinese is Jishou Da Xue). At the first, on the 16th, I was able to see the final video for the first time. After my appearance spouting Chinese dialogue, the guy sitting next to me started up a conversation — in Chinese! — assuming that I would understand him. So, I was convincing after all, if still functionally unable to speak the language. [My students are also similarly impressed, since they know how little Chinese I know still. I’m getting better, though!]
The first rehearsal was also the dress rehearsal for the dancers who would be performing around the superstar singers, the special effects (hundreds of LED panels, flamethrowers, sparklers, smoke machines!), and the timing of the acts. Some of the dancers were pros, and some were from the College of Music and Dance. Local Miao and Tujia people also participated.
The second rehearsal was the afternoon of the concert. When I arrived at this one with Smile and another friend, we saw police everywhere. This rehearsal was for the superstars, so the cops were there to protect the stars from … what, I dunno. The campus was virtually empty, since school officially closed for Winter Holiday on the 15th, and hardly anyone knew the big concert was in Jishou. Mostly the police tried to discourage us from taking photos during the rehearsal, which we all did anyway.
We could tell there were superstars present because some of the people standing around were wearing black masks covering the lower halves of their faces. Why someone would expect this disguise would make them more anonymous defies logic, but there they were.
After sitting in a cold gym watching the second rehearsal, I was fully expecting that I, Smile and Tina would also be able to attend the actual performance as guests. No such luck. ETV was being stingy with passes, so instead I wangled a free ticket from the university. That ticket gave me a seat in the nosebleed section, but at least I didn’t have to shell out a couple hundred yuan for a ticket or worse yet, sit at home watching the TV broadcast.
My comrades in the nosebleed section were also impressed with my performance, and a couple took photos of me, but that was the extent of my fame for the night. [Good, I think those black masks look stupid!]
So, what came out of all this TV brouhaha? For me, experience being an actor, working with a professional TV crew, making new friends, cementing existing friendships, discovering my mouth can actually make Chinese words, gaining a little fame (but not fortune) and some street creds. We’ll see whether there are long range effects after last night’s province-wide telecast on satellite TV.