Sunday, January 27, 2013
How I Became General George Marshall and a Television Star
in The People's Republic of China
The Dream of the Tan Flower
Getting ready for my closeup!
I received a telephone call from Mr. Wu late in the morning. He said he had to see me right away. It was urgent. When I asked him what it was about he said he couldn't tell me on the phone. He had to come up to my apartment and tell me in person. I told him to come up.
Wu Yingen -- Mr. Wu -- was not the superintendent of my apartment building in Nanjing. He, nevertheless, did everything that needed doing -- and more -- inside as well as outside the building. If I found myself suddenly without hot water or electricity -- a not uncommon experience in the People's Republic of China last year --then I simply summoned Mr. Wu. If I needed a good tailor or barber or cobbler, Mr. Wu had his name and address. If I needed hotel accommodations in Shanghai or Beijing or Tianjin Mr. Wu arranged it. If I wanted anything -- a plane ticket or a train ticket or a taxi -- Wu was the man to see. If I had a package at the post office that needed to be picked up, I went to Wu. Not only would he pick it up for me, it was also quite obvious that, before it was delivered, he opened the package and examined the contents before rewrapping it, often somewhat carelessly. Several times, after he'd taken letters from me to mail at the post office half a mile away, he asked me about the names of people I'd mentioned in my sealed letters under the pretext of wishing to learn more colloquial English. "Is Kiki another way of saying 'Erika' in English?' he asked after returning from the post office one afternoon. Erika/Kiki is my youngest daughter. And on another occasion, "Mr. Larry, who is Mr. Ralph? And why do you worry about him?" Ralph, mentioned in a letter to my daughter, was my dearly beloved and faithful dog. Mr. Wu seemed not at all embarrassed to let me know he read my incoming and outgoing mail. After all, as he was fond of saying, it was his country and I was merely another "foreign expert" come to visit for a few months. There were several times, however, when Mr. Wu clearly slipped up and after reading the mail of residents of our apartment building, put the letter back into the wrong envelope. We American residents, consequently, were occasionally surprised to receive a letter from a parent or sibling that began with someone else's name, such as "Dear Sam" and proceeded to fill us on on the weather in Massachusetts when the writer had lived all of his life in Minnesota. One afternoon, during lunch, one of my friends received a letter from his mother that had been written in Swedish! Odd, he thought, since his mother did not speak a word of Swedish and had never been east the state of Ohio. Wu's English, although almost competent, was usually punctuated with grammatical and logical errors. He was the author, he confidentially boasted to me once, of the huge banner stretched across the front of my apartment building on the afternoon I arrived in Nanjing. It proclaimed, WARMLY WELCOME FOREIGN EXPERTS and HOT WATER 24 HOURS EACH DAY STARTING AT 8 AM. With Mr. Wu, wonders and audacity were without limit.
Mr. Wu stood five feet two inches in his worn and archless People's Liberation Army surplus khaki sneakers. Yet he had a distinctive authoritative strut to his walk, a peculiar pseudo-military affectation that gave him the illusion of being larger and stronger than he actually was. Although I am more than a foot taller than Mr. Wu and I have to look down into his eyes when I talk to him, I often have the strange sensation that he is looking down into my eyes. It is one of the more obvious of the several survival qualities that have served Wu so well over the years in the People's Republic of China, a nation of sharply shifting political winds: he can project or retract stature to suit the moment.
Over time, Mr. Wu's seemingly ubiquitous and sometimes creepy presence, led several foreign experts to request a "job description" for the man from an expected "higher authority" within the university where we were employed to teach. There was no response to the request. We learned later from our students that Wu's position was that of "political commissar." And as for the chain of command, we were told, Wu had been head of the Red Guards during the early days of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966-67 and had one afternoon following a rally, lead a group of his fellow Red Guards to the office of the man who was now allegedly his superior in the university, seized him at his desk and flung him out a second story window. The man survived, barely. And after the death of Mao the man returned to teaching and administering in the University. Yet, despite his own job title, it was clear to us who wielded real power in the university and who did not.
Wu has a rich mane of jet black hair that he parts on the right side and teases to droop rakishly across his forehead and temple. His large rheumy brown eyes twinkle brightly when he was delighted and turn away instantly when he was displeased. His slightly fractured English is delivered in rapid and clipped phrases like someone reading a textbook out loud for the first time. His tone is even and serious until he says something remotely humorous. Then he pauses for a moment, tips his head back slightly, and touches off his carefully calibrated, high-pitched staccato laugh, like that of a mechanical doll or a politician. Wu's Chinese is equally hurried, clipped, unusually loud and punctuated with interjections like "Lau hau!" and "Lau da!" --the peculiar patois of Shanghai. The Chinese who speak the official elegant northern Mandarin dialect or the more melodious and tonal Cantonese of south China describe the speech of the Shanghainese like Wu as "Tse-tse, tsa-tsa" -- a clucking, clattering noise. The Shanghainese pay little attention to such derogatory descriptions. They are, after all, the "New Yorkers" of China; they are notoriously outspoken in their self-praise, describing themselves as more stylish, cultured, cosmopolitan and intelligent than their fellow countrymen. What they call culture, however, Beijing and Guangzhou call conceit.
I have seen Mr. Wu in many different parts of this city. I have seen him walking, or on a bicycle or in a taxi. And on a couple of occasions I have seen him leave and return in a large chauffeured limousine with curtains in the windows. I have seen him in the halls late at night -- after midnight -- and I have seen him outside performing Tai Chi before 6:00 in the morning. I have seen him listening in on telephone conversations and writing down the return addresses from letters that he distributes for the postman. I have never seen him asleep or tired. I have never seen him yawn. He is always busy. And when Mr. Wu takes time out from his busy schedule to see me, it is never unimportant.
I opened my door slightly and awaited his familiar triple rap and affable salutation, "Hello, Mr. Lar-ly. Are you there?"
"Yes, I'm here, Mr. Wu, come in," I responded.
Mr. Wu prefers to bury his real business in his third or fourth question.
"How are you feeling?"
"Is the cold weather bothering you?"
"No. I just wear a sweater under my sweatshirt."
"Would you like to be a television star?"
"Would I what?"
"Would you like to be a television star?"
Wu reached out and grabbed my hand, like someone congratulating a new father. "Would you like to be a television star, Mr. Lar-ly? There is a television production company here from Shanghai making a television series on Chinese history. The producer is a friend of mine. He called me for help. He needs someone to play General Marshall -- General George Marshall. You know, Marshall-Plan Marshall! I told them you could play General Marshall. Do you want to be a big television star and play General Marshall."
"Well," I said, suddenly disoriented by this proposal. "I guess so. But I've never acted before."
"Oh, anybody can act," Mr. Wu said. "They'll be here to pick you up at 3:00 PM. Be downstairs."
Before I could ask another question Mr. Wu was out the door and starting down the hall.
"Mr. Wu," I yelled. "How long will this take? What should I wear?"
"Not long," he said without looking back. "What you have on," he said, disappearing down the stairs.
When I went downstairs at 3:00 PM, there was Mr. Wu, smiling broadly and his eyes twinkling, standing with two young men in leather jackets, Levis and dark glasses who studied me carefully as I approached. When I was only a few steps away they turned to Mr. Wu and patted him on the back. "Lau hau!" they said to Mr. Wu. "Lau hau!"("Excellent!") Then they turned to me and said in unison, "Once more, warmly welcome to China, General Marshall. Warmly welcome." We all laughed. Mr. Wu saluted me and then escorted the three of us out the door.
Wu arranged for three other Americans to make their screen debut in this big-budget Shanghai production. While I was to play General George Marshall, Pam Yatsko of Bedford, Massachusetts, was to play Marshall's secretary, Peter Bagley of Oklahoma City, was to play Marshall's driver and James Anderson, of Guilford, Connecticut, was to play a young American diplomat or journalist, --nobody seemed quite sure which--who accompanied Marshall to China in 1946. All three of these young Americans are students at the Johns Hopkins University - Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing. All are fluent in Mandarin but none had ever acted before. Mr. Wu had contacted each of them and offered them parts in the film.
Pam, Peter and James had already been picked up by the two leather-jacketed production assistants, Limin and Weinian, and were waiting for us, scrunched together in the rear fold-down seat of a Chinese microbus, a vehicle propelled by a motorcycle engine and with a seating capacity slightly less than that of an old Volkswagen Beetle. I squeezed into the back seat, partly on and partly beside the other three Americans, Limin and Weinian jumped in the front seat and raced north up Zhongshan Beilu, one of the main avenues of Nanjing, honking constantly at pedestrians and other drivers, weaving in and out of the traffic of bicycles, automobiles, rattling, articulated-buses, trucks, wagons and workers jogging up and down and across the street with huge baskets and bundles tied on the ends of long bamboo poles. During the twenty-minute race to the set, Limin and Weinian chatted with each other in Shanghainese and in a pretty good imitation of Mandarin tried to fill us in on the details of the production in which we were to make our screen debut.
The film, the explained, was part of an important mini-series being made Shanghai Television(STV), the second largest television network in China. The chief producer of the series is Xu Junhai and the director is Xia Xiaomin, both men well-known for their successful, lavish and dramatic productions in the past decade.
STV produces 80 programs a year and the 12-part series currently being filmed, we were told, was to be the centerpiece and the most costly production of next season. The mini-series was budgeted at 600,000 Yuan(the official exchange rate in the PRC is 3.7 Yuan to the dollar; the unofficial black market rate is 7.1 to the dollar) and our episode, the seventh of the twelve was expected to cost about 65,000 Yuan.
The series was titled "The Dream of the Tan Flower"("Tan Hua Meng") and was adapted from a best-selling book of the same title by Chen Juan, a Hong Kong writer who grew up in Nanjing. It deals primarily with the last years of the Kuomintang --the Chinese Nationalists and Chiang Kai-shek -- on the mainland of China and in their capital at Nanjing. A "tan flower," we learned later, is a Chinese flower that blossoms once and then only very briefly. After that it dies. As far as we could find, there is no exact English translation for "tan flower." The term is used idiomatically by the Chinese to refer to anything that is fragile and fleeting. Roughly speaking it may mean "a flash in the pan."
We learned later that the series is intended as a visual centerpiece in the rewriting of history that was taking place in those heady days in China just before the flowering of the democracy movement and its premature death at Tiananmen Square in June. There are two reasons for the revision, one having to do with the international situation and the other with China's internal problems.
Internationally, the PRC at that time was gearing up rapidly for a solution to the "Taiwan problem" through peaceful reunification. In 1997 Hong Kong will be returned to Chinese control by the British and Macao in 1999 by the Portuguese. That leaves Taiwan as the last outpost to be repossessed by the Communist government here and the fulfillment of Mao Zedong's 1936 announced goal of unifying all Chinese national territories(in 1936 Taiwan was under the control of the Japanese). Outer Mongolia, Tibet, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan were the "lost territories" that Mao sought to recover.
Quite obviously, the Chinese would prefer a peaceful reunification, like that arranged for Macao and Hong Kong. With that in mind, in 1987 they began to allow tourists from Taiwan to visit the mainland. And last spring, with crowds of Taiwanese businessmen and tourists in Beijing and Shanghai and other cities, the government was trying to soften the harsh historical image of the Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang that they had fed the public, in books and speeches and films, for forty years. The winds of doctrine appeared to be shifting to suit the intention of the government.
The filmed version of "The Dream of the Tan Flower" points out that the Kuomintang, in its last years in China, faced overwhelming internal and external problems. Runaway inflation threatened the economy, and corruption permeated the government. In those years, the Kuomintang had many faces -- war lords, patriots, nationalists, brutes and profiteers. The situation was complex and the Kuomintang was not, as they are often portrayed, just a gang of thugs. Good men and women in the organization --patriots -- were forced into impossible situations by the times; people were often captives of history, in the control of events beyond their individual comprehension. "The Dream of the Tan Flower" would attempt to show how well-intentioned men and women might become prisoners of events and be led astray rather than how evil men systematically exploited and brutalized their own people. No one knew while the film was being made, how that same theme might apply, tragically, to the events of the spring and early summer in Beijing.
The other, unstated, reason for the series "No one knew while the film was being made, how that same theme might apply, tragically, to the events of the spring and early summer in Beijing."seemed obvious. Many of the problems that the Kuomintang faced paralleled roughly the problems of Deng Xiaoping's government. Inflation, unemployment, corruption and despair were all growing here; the students and workers in the streets and the public squares complained about it and the newspapers decried it. But nobody seemed capable of doing much about it at the moment. Many of the forces that derailed the Kuomintang threatened to paralyze the government of Deng and his inner circle. "The Dream of the Tan Flower" illustrated that the political and economic world is not a simple one and that patriots need time to confront, control and direct it.
After our race through the streets of Nanjing we drove through the stone arch at the entrance to a long driveway leading to a large mansion. Our segment of the miniseries was being shot in the imposing Nanjing Guest House of the Democratic Association(Minzhu Dang or M.D.). The M.D. is one of the eight political parties authorized in China before the Tiananmen massacre. The Guest House, which serves as the headquarters for the M.D., was at one time used for official functions by the Kuomintang when Nanjing was the capital of this country. The Guest House was constructed in the traditional style of Beijing's celebrated imperial buildings. It is a two story brick and stone structure with a sharply angled and ornately tiled emerald roof attached to the building with brightly painted and polished bracket sets. Inside the building, the long ceiling beams are meticulously decorated with historical scenes, fantastic animals and elegant designs in vivid vermilion, turquoise, ocher, green, ginger and gold that evoke the distant days when Chinese emperors, gentry and war lords erected similar architectural masterpieces and monstrosities throughout the Middle Kingdom.
But it is not simply the appearance of the structure that drew us back in time that afternoon. It was the group milling around in the courtyard that startled us. A full platoon of uniformed Kuomintang soldiers, all armed with rifles, was in various positions of repose as we drove up. It seemed for an instant that we had ridden in a time machine disguised as a microbus and had arrived abruptly in the midst of moment forty years ago; suddenly and without warning we had entered the stronghold of the last garrison of the Kuomintang in China. The effect was stunning. Nothing betrayed the fact that this was 1989 and not 1946. Nothing, that is, except the startled spectators crowded in the back of the microbus.
Some of the soldiers were standing around talking, others were seated on the steps or on the grass smoking cigarettes. They turned and stared at us as we carefully maneuvered our way out of the microbus and then, were escorted through their ranks and into the Guest House.
Inside, too, the scene was extraordinary. The ballroom, just separated from the entryway by an elegantly etched crystal rococo screen, was set for a banquet, with long mahogany tables on three sides of the room and stools for musicians directly across from a row of chairs placed in front of a large fireplace. At one end of the room behind one table a half dozen uniformed Kuomintang generals were seated. At the end of the table sat an actress playing Soong Meiling, the legendary beautiful wife of Chiang Kai-shek. At the other end of the room, behind a table facing the generals were their wives, dressed in formal chinese costumes for the festivities. Several chairs on one side of the fireplace were occupied by other Kuomintang generals and a female military officer. Three empty chairs, on the other side of the fire place, we were told, were for General Marshall, his secretary and an American journalist or diplomat.
The filming was suspended for a moment when we entered the room. We were introduced to producer Xu Junhai who was wearing a down jacket and a beret. James, Peter and I were ushered into an adjacent room for our costumes and makeup. Pam was taken further down the hallway to a restroom that served as her private dressing room.
James Anderson was told again that he was to be either an American journalist or an American diplomat. The producer said James was a diplomat, the director said he was a journalist the director's assistant said each at different times. But one thing was certain, no matter which of these two roles he was to play, the Chinese assumed that the get up for it would be the same -- a powder blue business suit, brown oxfords, a white shirt and tie. Peter Bagley was to play General Marshall's driver. He was given an American military uniform. The shirt he was to wear was two inches too small in the neck -- only a minor problem for the wardrobe magicians. Bagley was instructed to make a very large knot with his tie to cover the neck gap in the collar. Bagley's scene, outside, was to be filmed in semi-darkness, he was told. So there was room for error in his attire. I hoped so, since I noticed that the insignia on his uniform was from the Boy Scouts of America. But, in the semi-darkness, who could tell?
The wardrobe people seemed quite excited by the prospect of dressing me to be General George Marshall. And they believed that they had the proper uniform for me.
What was uncanny about this is that, except for Bagley's insignia, the uniforms and decorations appeared to be authentic American military issue. Later we guessed where they might have been picked up -- in Korea, perhaps, or in Vietnam in the late 1940s or in Nanjing after the Communists entered the city in April, 1949?
I was given a tan shirt that was the proper fit in the neck but was several inches too short in the sleeves. Never mind, the wardrobe man told me. The sleeves of the jacket would be long enough to cover my bare wrists. And indeed, as I tried on the jacket, amazingly, it fit almost perfectly. The pants, on the other hand, did not. They were at least ten inches too large in the waist and about two inches too long in length. A long belt and the folding of the waist band took care of the top of the pants -- the jacket, again, served to cover the ill-fitting pants. And the length was probably good, the wardroom man said, since he had no dark socks for me -- a rare oversight -- and I would have to wear my white cotton socks with a NIKE logo on the side along with a pair of black military shoes. The shoes were size 9 and I wear a size 11. It took several minutes for me to curl my toes and squeeze my feet into the old leather shoes and when they were finally on and the wardrobe people applauded, I stood up and announced that I could wear the shoes only if I did not have to walk far. They promised I would not have to walk far. Then they had me sit and pulled the pants cuffs down far enough to make sure they would hide the NIKE socks.
A few moments later, in the uniform of a five star general then, I was led off to the make-up room. Everywhere I walked(painfully) on the set after that, people seemed to snap to attention. Already, I enjoyed acting.
While we were getting into our costumes we were joined in the dressing room by Zhou Yemang, a good looking young man who plays the lead in "The Dream of the Tan Flower." Yemang has starred in a dozen other major television features and had traveled abroad to make films. He had worked in Australia and in the United States, he said, and so had several of the other performers in the company. Some of them had also played roles in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," which was filmed in Shanghai. The best-known of the performers, and Yemang was one of that select group, were better known and more revered in China, he said, than even Joan Chen, the celebrated expatriate actress of "The Last Emperor." They lived a life of privilege in China, with their own apartments and access to a car and a driver. They are featured regularly in stories in the newspapers and in fan magazines. Their income is very limited, by American standards, but their fame is comparable to that of an American Superstar. And their audience, in a country of more than one-billion, is several times larger. Yemang had picked up some of the affectations of American celebrities; although it was early evening and we were inside, he continued to wear his sunglasses. Whenever he took out a cigarette, someone nearby quickly stepped forward and lit it for him. I do not believe that Yemang himself even carries matches or a lighter. He has not need to. He is a star.
Yemang was joined shortly by the director, Xie Xiaomin, a slightly built and intense man who wore black Adidas sneakers, Levis and a smartly tailored leather jacket zipped nearly to the throat. Under the jacket he wore he wore an American sweatshirt and a long silk scarf. Xiaomin seemed pleased by my appearance and my agreement to play the part of General Marshall in his film. He sat down, lit his own cigarette and carefully filled us in on the story.
In 1946, he said, General Marshall had been in China trying to patch up differences between the Communists and the Kuomintang. Before he departed from Nanjing, the Kuomintang threw a party for him in the very building where the filming was taking place. Every effort had been made to make the film historically accurate. Marshall, Xiaomin said, was a fan of Chinese opera. And so the Kuomintang had arranged for a private performance by two opera stars shortly before Marshall departed for Washington. During the performance, however, someone stole General Marshall's car. The Kuomintang insisted that the car thief was a Communist, and they thereby hoped, through the incident, to embarrass both Marshall and the Communists. Xiaomin, however, said that most Chinese believed that the Kuomintang had hired someone to steal the car and tried to manipulate the incident into a major international scandal. The episode that he were filming was the story of the stolen car and Marshall's last days in Nanjing in 1946. The woman who worked as the chief make up artist for Shanghai TV was a legendary miracle worker, he said. She is "by far the best make up artist in Shanghai," Xiaomin told us. She, however, obviously chose to perform no miracles on herself. She wore no makeup at all and her own hair looked as though she had just walked through a wind tunnel before entering the building.
She sat me down in a chair, put a towel around my neck and then placed a black and white photograph of George Marshall next to me on a table. Now I look nothing like General Marshall. Nothing at all. First, I am 24 years younger than Marshall was in 1946 when the episode in Nanjing took place. Second, I am several inches taller, about ten pounds heavier, and have different coloring from Marshall.
That did not deter the make up woman. She went to work energetically, powdering my face and lining my eyes and combing my hair and continually referring to the Marshall photograph. She applied makeup for about twenty minutes, stepped back and examined her masterpiece several dozen times and then went to work again. When she was finally done, she called over the director and the producer, both pronounced he work "Lau Hau!" - Excellent -- and patted her and me on the shoulder. Then she held a mirror up to me with one hand and the photograph of Marshall with the other. Just as I had imagined, I looked like myself in makeup with my hair parted on the right rather than the left side. There was no resemblance at all between the face in the mirror and the face in the photograph. Yet when I stood up and walked onto the set, the other of the actors and actresses applauded "General Marshall."
There were no photographs available of Marshall's driver, the diplomat or journalist, or of Marshall's secretary, so the make up woman used her imagination with James, Peter and Pam. Peter and James looked fairly normal -- that is, exactly like themselves in makeup-- after a session with the make up artist. Pam presented a problem. The make up woman painted Pam's lips so red and so liberally that Pam appeared to be someone's version of a military tart rather than a general's officious secretary. Since she had no name on the set, it seemed perfectly appropriate for us to call her "Hot Lips" for the rest of the evening, a nickname she accepted in good humor -- one of the prices of stardom.
As soon as we were properly made up and ready to "act," it was announced that there would be a break in the filming. The director had just completed a rather arduous scene and the performers wanted a rest. The director suggested that his assistant take the four American performers out to a restaurant for dinner. And so in full makeup and costumes we were squeezed back into the microbus and drove several miles to a large, busy restaurant.
I can only imagine what passed through the minds of the customers of the restaurant when we walked in. Already seated in the place at that time were a group of People's Liberation Army(PLA) officers, several policemen and a score of civilians. The restaurant went suddenly silent as a five star American general, a diplomat or journalist, a military tart, a soldier with boy-scout insignia and a Chinese guide speaking Shanghainese walked in and sat down. Chinese restaurants are usually quite boisterous with conversation and laughter. This one was dead silent. We sat down and still the only noise in the restaurant was some animated whispering. I suspect that somewhere in the restaurant, perhaps back in the kitchen, someone must have checked the calendar to make sure it was indeed 1989.
During the next 45 minutes, while we ate and talked about the film, everyone else in the restaurant remained quiet. We tried our best to ignore the stares of those around us. We thought of perhaps standing up to explain that we were making a movie. But we didn't. The other patrons listened quite attentively to our conversation, trying to pick up clues to our identity or our peculiar brand of lunacy, and seldom looked away. Before leaving, we discussed stopping by the table of the PLA officers for a moment to ask if they might direct us to Chiang Kai-shek's headquarters. But we decided against that, having obviously confused them enough already.
When arrived back on the set, the director was ready to shoot our scenes.
As he explained it to us, a party was thrown by the Kuomintang for General Marshall in 1946. Marshall was an informed fan of Kun Ju, the traditional form of Chinese opera and the form after which the modern Beijing Opera patterned itself. I was to sit next to the actor playing General Tan En Bo, with James on my right and Pam seated behind James. Then two young women in ornate costumes would perform a scene from an opera. Since I (Marshall) was a big fan, after watching and listening for a few minutes, I was to start tapping my fingers on my right knee in time to the music. The other generals in the room, on seeing this, were to do the same. Finally, a few minutes later, I was to applaud the performers, and the Kuomintang generals, still watching me, were to applaud along with me and then stop at the moment I stopped. Throughout this detailed briefing, the director continually referred to the script, held by his assistant.
After walking through the scene and positioning the cameras, an assistant to the director came out and stood before the main camera with her clap board. The scene number and other information was chalked on the board. She paused for a moment and then clapped the top down on the board. The director barked out his directions:
"Bu yao shuo hua!"(Quiet onthe set!).
There was a three count beat from the orchestra, the music began and the two young opera performers began to pixilate across the floor, with that stylized pattern of pauses and glides that is peculiar to the Chinese opera. They sang in a hyper-falsetto, gradually telling a story.
I sat, as the director had instructed me, far back in my chair in a slight slouch, and never took my eyes from the moving dancers.
I began to tap my fingers on my knee. The others followed. Then I applauded and the others in the room imitated me.
"Tingzhi!"(Cut), the director's voice rang out.
Mr. Xiaomin was not happy with my applause. He said that while my knee tapping was nearly perfect, the position of my hands when I applauded was all wrong. He wanted me to bend my elbows a little more, hold my hands up and away from my body and the clap the fingers of my left hand against the palm of my right. He demonstrated. I watched. He asked to see me do it. I did it. He applauded my applause and returned to his position across the room and to my left.
During these momentary interruptions, Soong Meiling stood and stretched and smoothed out her long gown, which was split up each side to slightly above the knee. When she stood, I noticed that she was wearing brightly colored long underwear beneath her gown. She had rolled up the bottoms to mid calf and when she sat down, the camera only filmed her from the front, so the longjohns did not appear on film.
The assistant director slapped down her clapper.
"Bu yao shuo hua!"
The music began. The singing began. I acted.
I sat and watched the dancers again. I began to tap my knee. I applauded.
"Tingzhi!" Mr. Xiaomin called out. "Tingzhi!" His tone now was one of mild frustration and slightly hostile amusement.
He walked to my chair and announced that this time I had begun to applaud too early. Try again.
"Zhunbei!" he cried as he walked away from my chair.
"Bu yao shuo hua!"
This time the music commenced, I listened, I looked, I began to tap on my knee, but before I could begin my applause, there was loud shouting just on the other side of the screen dividing the ballroom from the veranda. Several of the actors stopped and turned to see what was the matter. The orchestra stopped playing. The performers dropped their hands and turned toward the screen.
"Bu yao shuo hua!" Xiaomin cried.
The racket continued. "Sa zhr ti la!" he shouted. "SA ZHR TI LA!"(What's going on!)
The cameraman stood up from behind his camera and looked around.
"Tingzhi!" Xiaomin cried out.
Peter Bagley had been going through a rehearsal for his part with the assistant to the director and other actors on the steps outside the Guest House when the fight began and he saw it all from its unhappy a beginning to its bizarre end.
What was supposed to happen was that Peter was supposed to ask for my car and Zhou Yemang was supposed to run up to him and tell him that the car had been stolen. But just as Yemang ran up the stairs, another car pulled up carrying a group of officials from the Democratic Association(M.D.). They interrupted the rehearsal and really didn't care. They proceeded to walk up the stairs past Peter and Yemang and almost made it to the door before the assistant to the director stopped them.
"Where do you think you're going?" he asked them.
"We are going inside. We live here," the leader of the group responded. "And who are you?"
"We're making a movie here," the assistant to the director replied. "And you are forbidden to go on the set."
"What set?" the M.D. official asked. "I live here. Let me in!"
"If you live here," the assistant to the director replied, "then what is your room number?"
Stunned for a moment, the M.D. official tried to remember his room number. Then he lost his patience. "There are no room numbers here. I live on the second floor. Let me in."
He began to push his way past the assistant to the director, who held him back for a moment and then shouted out an order. "Help me!" The platoon of Kuomintang soldiers, who had been standing around watching, suddenly swung into action and with their rifles barred the door. The shouting and profanity mounted. One of the M.D. officials ran out to the street where he hailed a policeman and a passing PLA officer. They rushed up to the pushing match at the door. The PLA officer tried to position himself between the Kuomintang soldiers and the Association members. One of the members fell down and was being trampled beneath the feet of the Kuomintang, howling out in both pain and political outrage as he scrambled frantically to get out from beneath the boots of the soldiers. The assistant to the director had his beret knocked off and the leader of the Association lost his glasses in the fray. The poor PLA officer had not been trained for this kind of war, and he didn't know which group to face, the increasingly irritated Kuomintang or the raging Democratic Association officials.
Suddenly the director and the gaggle of curious Kuomintang generals and their wives and Soong Meiling arrived on the scene behind the soldiers and began shouting orders, clarifications and insults. One particularly determined M.D. member, in a low crouch at about knee level, made it through the soldiers and the generals and came crashing through the hallway and into the screen behind the set. It tipped and began to fall, but was caught by the members of the orchestra.
The director surrendered at this point.
All right, he said. All right. They could come inside, all of them. But they would have to be quiet and they would have to go to their rooms. They could not disrupt the set.
The six MD officials marched in, straightening their clothes and their glasses, combing their hair. They surveyed the set in the ballroom and stopped. They watched. They planted their feet on the floor. The did not go to their rooms. They would not be moved. For the remainder of the evening the stayed right where the were, just inside the door, and watched in fascination as General George Marshall and a dozen Kuomintang generals and their wives, and Soong Meiling, were entertained by an opera troupe in the Guest House of the Democratic Association.
Again we repeated the scene. Xiaomin thought it was fine. But he wanted to shoot it from different angles. We repeated the scene. The camera rolled past the dancers. The camera panned in on each Chinese general and on each American. It panned in on Soong Mei Ling. It panned in on General Marshall and on the diplomat or journalist and on the military tart. The camera filmed from a low angle and from a high angle. And each time the music of the opera set the pace of the scene.
I attempted during these scenes to keep the bottoms of my pants pulled down far enough to hide my white socks somewhat in the way that Soong Meiling hid her longjohns. But I was unsuccessful. In the still shots later, there sat General Marshall, perfectly uniformed and made up, wearing NIKE athletic socks under his military uniform. Someone might guess, one day, upon seeing the "Dream of the Tan Flower," that either Marshall was an avid jogger, or stylistically, in a bizarre way, he was either a hick or a trend setter.
During one of the shootings, at exactly 10:00 PM, the alarm on James Anderson's digital watch went off and ruined the scene. The director heard the rhythmic beeping of the watch and stopped. He walked directly to James, pulled up the sleeve of the jacket of the rather sheepish young diplomat or journalist, and then asked James to remove the watch. Peter held it off the set for the remainder of the shooting.
We stopped filming shortly after 11:00 pm. When we had finished with our scenes, the Chinese actors asked to be photographed with the American performers. Many of them wanted to be photographed alone with the famous General Marshall. In those photographs I am standing up straight, so the white socks do not show. I tried to look as distinguished as these actors imagined General Marshall might have looked in 1946. And from the appreciative handshakes and backslaps I received, I would conclude that I was somewhat successful.
We changed back into our civilian clothes and then proceeded back to the microbus. Nearly everyone on the set thanked us several times over. The assistant to the director had release forms for each of us to sign, and then he gave us each 30 Yuan in cash for the work on the film.
He said he thought the filming went well. He thought we had performed our roles convincingly.
We gave him our addresses and phone numbers and he told us that the film would be on Shanghai Television in the spring. In late February he would contact each of us, he promised, and we would be able to buy a taped copy of the episode.
I asked him how large he thought the audience would be for this mini-series. "Oh, maybe 200 or 300 million people," he said. "Maybe even more."
When I expressed amazement at the size of the STV audience, he laughed and said, "Yes, you're a big star now. Big star, General Marshall. Everyone in China will see you."
"And everyone in China will see my white socks," I thought.
Then, was we entered the car in the darkness outside the Guest House, he placed his hand on my shoulder and shook my hand one last time. "Thank you, General Marshall," he said with mock seriousness. Then he turned and bolted up the stairs and back into the Guest House.
On the way back to the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, we talked and laughed about the day's filming. We were tired and we were cold by that time -- the Guest House had been unheated and the temperature outside and inside was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Soong Meiling's longjohns had been unstylish but practical.
As we raced back down Zhongshan Beilu, which was nearly abandoned at this time, I thought about the complete zaniness of the day as well as the seriousness of it. For a few hours I had been a representative of my country and I had portrayed as well as I could a commanding American figure at a pivotal moment in history. And for a few hours all four of us had played feature roles in a production intended to facilitate the fulfillment of Mao Zedong's program to reunify China. John Foster Dulles and Joe McCarthy, I was absolutely certain, would not have been amused by our performances.
No doubt the American segment of "The Dream of the Tan Flower" was brief and would run, at most, for a few minutes. I hoped that in those few moments the Shanghai Television Network had accomplished with this group of amateur American performers what it had set out to do. And I hoped the result of the film would be positive. I hoped that when Mr. Xu Junhai produced another historical epic requiring an American general, he would call Mr. Wu and Mr. Wu would once again call me. I also hoped that my acting career would not be like that brief blooming of the tan flower. I hoped there would be a second chance, a time when I might use what I had learned in this, the first of my film appearances in China. Next time I would wear dark socks.
As we pulled up to the apartment, Mr. Wu was waiting for me just inside the door. He wore a big grin. Before the microbus stopped I waved out the window to him.
Mr. Wu snapped to attention and saluted. Then he turned and marched down the hallway and disappeared into the darkness.
I never had the chance to see my performance as General Marshall on Chinese television. Along with thousands of other Americans, my stay in China was cut short by the tragedy of June 4, 1989, and I left the troubled country. For the next year I heard nothing about "The Dream of the Tan Flower" and I assumed it had been scrapped. But then, much to my surprise, I received a letter from a friend in Beijing in mid June of this year. She told me that as the first anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre approached, she and her friends had waited for some sort of special television programming to commemorate or perhaps explain away the national tragedy. And one night, just before the anniversary, she wrote, as she was watching a lengthy Chinese drama, suddenly there I was on the television screen, seated in the great hall of the Guest House in Nanjing, Chinese words flowing gracefully out of my mouth thanks to the dubbing department of STV, as I applauded the opera stars of China in the final years of the rule of the doomed Kuomintang in China.
My friend told me that the program, meant to pacify and entertain the Chinese public while the authorities braced for the appearance of an illegal celebration of the Tiananmen incident, reminded her of how fleeting so many things can be in China: the Kuomintang, the democracy movement, the film careers of a foreign experts. And the dictatorship of brutal old men. She told me that she cried as she saw the film remembering China in the spring of 1989 and the dreams of all the tan flowers that had bloomed and been crushed but would, no doubt, bloom again in another kinder spring.
James Anderson pre-movie star days