Friday, September 12, 2008

Behind the Glitz

My friend Craig Watts, a native of the grand canyon country of Utah but a quasi "permanent resident" of Beijing nowadays, wrote an insightful and personal piece about the past Olympics on his blog. It corroborates with what friends and family in China told me during the Games: Behind the glitz, as usual, lay the unsightly side. Thank Craig for letting me reprint it here.

"I escaped Beijing for the Olympics, returning just hours before the closing ceremony started, and since returning have been part of interesting conversations with Chinese friends about how they saw the whole thing.

Friends here think the government really took control of Beijing in a heavy-handed way, shipping out all the construction workers and prostitutes, and shipping in the military. Friends here suggest as many as 100,000 soldiers were shipped in to keep the peace, mostly disguised as "volunteers" or in plain clothes, so as not to catch the attention of the overseas press and guests. These were the guys filling the seats at the events. They not only could be trusted not to launch some protest about Tibet, but could also be counted on to step in if others in the audience started to get out of line. Friends said these military observers were even controlling the crowds in some cases, letting them know the appropriate times to cheer like in a recorded game show.

According to friends (and I think this came out a bit in the Western press), a bit of a scuffle broke out at the Bird's Nest after the local fans spent 3 days in line trying to buy Olympics tickets only to be told that all tickets were sold out just 3 hours after opening the ticket window. The police and military were brought in to get the situation under control, and to harass a Hong Kong reporter. Friends here say that the Hong Kong reporters report the real news, and are a threat because they are the only ones close enough to Chinese to know what's really going on here.

During the Olympics period it wasn't even OK to say things critical about how the games were being put on. I heard that a woman in the Beijing suburbs got stuck in a huge gas line at a filling station and ranted a bit about the Beijing Olympics as part of the cause, and then was escorted away by two plainsclothes police who promptly locked her up for 15 days. Friends here say that text messages and emails were all being carefully monitored for anti-Olympic content. A woman online was apparently locked up for something she had posted.

A friend in high school here hadn't even heard about the stabbing of the American, saying it certainly wasn't mentioned on TV. Although I did find some postings of it online, the government definitely played the incident down. But I did hear that the local police official (a chuzhang) where the incident occurred was promptly dismissed when it happened, and police all of the city were warned that it's better to hold 10 innocent people as suspects rather than to let one incident happen in their area of responsibility. So it was a big police state. Ahead of the games, police escorted beggars out of the city or into safe keeping, offering them about $10/day to stay off the streets and out of trouble.

And the games negatively affected small businesses here. A friend who runs a restaurant where there is usually a heavy night crowd singing karaoke and visiting "foot massage" prostitution houses says he has never made a loss in a month until August, when he lost $4,000. Previously his worst days still came in at $300/month, but he had a couple of days in August where his take was under $50. I ordered a safety door for my apartment, but was told it could not be delivered until late September following the para-olympics because the city was closed to all outside delivery vehicles.

In terms of the athletes, Liu Xiang gets the most attention and derision for dropping out of the 110 hurdles with an "injury". Most here don't seem to believe he was really injured. They think he was psyched out by his Cuban competitor who broke his record earlier this year. In short, the pressure was just too great. Some suggest that Liu Xiang took bribes from the Chinese mafia to not compete so that they could collect on the odds in Macau and Las Vegas. But in any case, Liu Xiang remains shrouded in mystery here. All ads featuring him were immediately pulled when he pulled out. A friend who happened to win tickets to the finals in the online lottery had bids of up to $1,000 for each of his two tickets. He was holding out for more money, never expecting Liu Xiang would pull out the next day. As a result, he got nearly nothing for the tickets, and kicks himself for not selling while the price was high. Friends here said there was even some concern that disgruntled fans might wreak havoc in the streets, and so police were on the alert throughout the city the day Liu Xiang pulled out.

People here are critical of the heavy hand the Chinese government holds over Chinese athletes. Tian Liang, who won diving gold in Athens, would likely have medaled in Beijing, but he was not allowed to compete because of his (over?)self-confidence and attempted forays into advertising and commercial stardom. After he won the gold in Athens, Liu Xiang was told not to act in movies - not fitting for hurdlers, I guess, in China to be screen stars?

Due to the games, the news in general has been suppressed more than usual. An explosion in Chengdu by activists for the renegade province out west was hardly reported at all in the Chinese press. A friend here heard about it because the walls in his friend's school were cracked by the blast and the whole area was sealed off to everyone. Friends say the latest tactic by authorities in "that renegade western province" is to just turn off the gas and power to communities that are suspected of being rebellious. Another friend saw a video where authorities in Henan were beating a 60 year old man who refused to move from his house, which was sitting on an area they wanted to bulldoze for an office building. When he went back to the website the next day, the link was gone. The new rumor I heard about the earthquake was that the army and government officials were evacuated from the area ahead of the quake because researchers were able to predict it, but chose not to share this information with the common people.

All these things might sound horrible - a plainsclothed military Olympics and Orwellian control over the press - but overall the mood remains reasonably upbeat about the job the government is doing. People are concerned about the post-Olympics economy with the stock market still so low and housing prices falling. But the fact that the common people have access to so much information that authorities might wish were suppressed means that levels of transparency are rising."

Saturday, August 30, 2008

In Memory of Xie Yan...

Xie Yan(谢衍)is dead. He died of lung cancer two days ago in Shanghai. He was 59.

A movie director by training, but unfortunately he was mostly known as the eldest son of Xie Jin - a far more accomplished and famous film director from China's 4th generation.

I first met him 6 or 7 years ago at a bar in Hollywood. Honestly his name didn't ring a bell until a common friend "added" that his father was Xie Jin. From that chance meeting, I learned that he's a film director and that he lived in Los Angeles as well.

But we never became close friends. Although we both belonged to the small and close-knitted filmmaker community in Hollywood that was formed by Chinese mainlanders, we rarely came across each other in most occasions. Yet six degrees of separation, he had never seemed to drop sight from my network of people. I learned that he had had a fruitless love affair with a friend of mine. When I worked briefly at a post-production facility right after grad school, my boss told me that my predecessor was actually Xie Yan.

Naturally his death came as a shock as I've never heard that he had cancer. Yet to me, the more shocking discovery was his age. I've never thought he's 59. When I first met him, I thought he was in his late 30s at most. Now that I think of it, he would have already been over 50. He looked young, really young and I'm glad that I had this image of him and will most likely keep it forever.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Spy Scare (III)

A few years ago, I had a brief stint to run the story department of a Beijing-based production house. Being a development executive, besides receiving and reviewing submissions from outside sources, I spent a lot of time looking, identifying and developing the so-called "in-house" ideas, i.e. stories created or found by the company on its own. Many movies and TV series were originated from in-house ideas. This was true in Hollywood and also in China.

One day, from a rather obscure website, I found a post that blew my mind away. It's a first person narration of the life of a secret agent, a Chinese agent. The story detailed the entire journey of how he was recruited and then trained to become an agent, how he survived and excelled in a number of clandestine and dangerous operations and how, because of an innocent "mistake," was forced to retire and live anonymously thereafter. Never have I ever read a story like this. Besides the breathtaking battle scenes in which he was involved - which were both intense and visual thus perfect for a film, the revelations of his psychological journey were also fresh and of depth. I have always been curious about the real psyche of an agent: how he perceived himself as one of duplicity and what part of him or his feelings was true. I thought I've found gold and immediately shared it with my colleagues.

The response from my colleagues was as excited as mine. We all agreed that the post must be the true account of a real spy as no writer could imagine a story with such insights and details unless he had lived it. Without much arguing, we put the story on the list of our in-house ideas and began to look for ways to secure rights and bring it to the development stage.

Then, the first huddle appeared. Given the subject matter, would the censorship allow us to make it into a film? Even if we obtained the shooting permit and got it made, could it be released without any interferences from authorities other than the film board?

With those questions in mind, we conducted a series of meetings debating the sensibilities of the subject matter and the likelihood of getting it onto the screen. In China, besides the film bureau, authorities in other fields also had a say in deciding the fate of a movie if it involved of such subject matters as police procedures, religion and others.

Someone suggested that we test the water first by submitting a one or two page synopsis to both the film board and the national security services and see how they would respond. Others thought, without a concrete story outline, that it would be a waste of time because the authorities could simply say that they needed to know more of the details. The debates went on and on, and because the company didn't want to waste a drop of money developing a story that might or might not be made, the project was stalled.

I have left the job since and as I'm writing this post, I still haven't heard any move on the project. As to the original story, it has dropped sight long ago from the hosting website and can't be retrieved from anywhere else. Good thing we have kept a copy. I plan to read it again, soon...

Friday, July 11, 2008

Spy Scare (II)

My second encounter happened when I was studying film at USC.

One day when I was at our department office, an ad on the bulletin board caught my eyes. It was from a known production company, looking for a writer's assistant to work on a TV miniseries that the company was developing. Because it specified that they wanted someone of Chinese background, I answered it and was soon asked to be interviewed.

The interviewer was a woman VP in charge of development. In fewer than a couple of minutes, I learned two things about the job. One was that the miniseries would be based on the well publicized case of Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese-American scientist who was charged and then acquitted all but one count of espionage by the FBI. The other was that it's an unpaid position, i.e. internship, but as the woman VP emphasized, required high degree of calibre and diligence.

I've been working several years before entering USC and was well aware of the tricks played by some companies who hire interns so that they could get their work done for free. Perhaps because of this, there must have been a subtle change in my facial expressions. I didn't appear thrilled and most of all, I didn't jump off the chair and clap my hands: wow, what a great opportunity!

Then, she asked what I thought of the Wen Ho Lee case. I've read a few news reports about the case from the LA Times but didn't feel I understood it fully because those reports were written in such a way that they required some real insights and ingenuity to decipher them. So I said that there must be a lot of mysteries waiting to be uncovered. This, to my great surprise, ignited a fierce response from her. She said there were no mysteries in the case but only a cover up from the government side. It's not about espionage but racism. The fact that Wen Ho Lee was charged was only because he is Chinese...

From that point on, I knew I have failed the interview. Although she handed me a script at the end and asked for a coverage, and I completed and returned it in due course, I've never heard from her again.

The script I covered was later made into a film and played in theaters throughout the world. I was glad that in my coverage I recommended the script to be considered. But the miniseries which has brought me to this company at the first place died prematurely. It never made onto the TV screen.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Spy Scare (I)

A carefully worded but revealing story appeared in today's New York Times, detailing yet another espionage case involving agents from or for the PRC. The accused were again a trio similar to those in other cases in recent years: a corrupted American senior citizen, a seemingly benign American-Chinese middle man and a young woman from China, with love (according to another web source).

I have neither the credentials nor the knowledge of the intelligence world thus am in no position commenting on the accuracy of the article. But the story does refresh the memories of a few "encounters" I had concerning the issue of espionage.

Back in the mid 80s when I was in high school in the city of Tianjin, rumor had that each year some government officials from Beijing would descend to our school and "invite" a couple of graduating students to attend a college in the Capital that was known for training the nation's intelligence forces. Since the invitation usually meant guaranteed college admission and more importantly, the likelihood of going abroad after graduation, I can safely say that quite a number of our students were vying to be picked out.

However, those slots were not meant to be vied for but given and much of the selection process was done behind scenes. As I entered the last year of high school, a new rumor began to circulate, saying that the officials might skip our school this time because one of the students they picked from previous years had ruined the credibility of his alma mater by performing poorly in college. Although the logic behind the rumor was absurd, in those days, we all believed in it.

But the rumor was only partially correct. The former alumnus of ours was indeed an "unruly" character in college. He had to take a job within the school system when he graduated but eventually managed to leave when he became a major pop singer in China in later years.

The incorrect part of the rumor was that the officials did show up after all. About two months before the national College Entrance Exams, two middle-aged men from Beijing paid a visit to our school. But unlike in previous years, this time they came to invite a couple of students to attend a newly created foreign language program at another college. The program was paid for by a number of government agencies and the students would then be assigned to work for those agencies when they graduated. It also involved of two years of studying abroad - which in the eyes of many of my peers was extremely enticing, but there was a catch: those entering the program would not be learning one of the major foreign tongues but a "small language," i.e. Arabic, Korean or Bengali and etc.. Their two years of studying abroad would take place in the country where the language they were learning was spoken. The prospects of studying and possibly working in the Middle East and Bangladesh might have scared off a lot of wannabes and as far as I could remember, the response from my peers was unenthusiastic.

But the school was obliged to present a list of candidates to the men from Beijing and somehow my name was on it. I brought the news to my parents who, as usual, didn't have much an opinion. But a relative of mine got the wind of it and strongly suggested that I decline the offer in case I was interviewed. He believed that I wasn't made for this kind of "program."

Yet the interview never took place. I could only guess that my family background must have failed the preliminary screening test. Two of my classmates were chosen to enter the program. One was assigned to learn Turkish; the other, Danish. The specialist in Turkish went on to become a reporter; the one in Danish, a diplomat.

Over the years I occasionally heard rumors or news about those two, but I don't remember I've ever heard from them directly. During one of the recent trips to China, I got hold of the number of the specialist in Turkish who was thought to be in Beijing at the time. I called him but learned that he has already left for Turkey again. I didn't try to track down the other one as I knew he had perished in the early 1990s. He didn't die of any sort of violence, but of AIDS, in Denmark. In fact, he was the first Chinese diplomat who died of this disease and his death, though remains unpublicized, has caused quite a stir in the Chinese foreign service world.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Shanghai" is NOT Returning to Shanghai

The shooting permit simply came too late. A set has already been built in Thailand and the Weinstein Company's World War II espionage thriller "Shanghai" is unlikely to return to Shanghai to shoot after all.

But getting the shooting permit does allow a second unit to go to Shanghai and shoot additional exteriors if needed. It might also clear the way for the film's future release in China. Of course the title has to be changed. Already heard one version of the new title: 谍海风云 or The Wind and Cloud over the World of Espionage - when translated directly. How do you like it, huh?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Law of Karma

The past Saturday was my B-day. After a wonderful dinner with some friends at the Twin Dragons on Pico, we retreated to our place to have another round of beers.

The weather was extremely hot that day, so we settled in our backyard which has just been re-landscaped two weeks ago. Our 6 years old Shih-Tzu was also let out to play in the yard and because of his presence, our topic was soon shifted from Obama vs. McCain to dogs.

Then, my friend John told us a little story.

Years ago when he and his wife Cara were living in the NoHo area, they found three newborn puppies dumped on the their front lawn one day. Until then they have never thought of becoming dog owners, but the sight of these helpless puppies changed their mind. They took one in for themselves while finding the other two reliable homes through friends and relatives. They named the dog Buster.

When Buster grew into a full-sized dog, John and Cara were ready to leave NoHo for west LA. They still wanted to rent as John was afraid of being tied up by a mortgage. But they soon concluded that because of Buster, they were better off buying than renting. Few landlords allowed dogs and even if they did, they hiked the rent to such a level that it easily exceeded the normal mortgage payment.

So John and Cara scraped every penny they had and purchased a fixer in the westside. Not before long and all of sudden, the housing boom began and their home value skyrocketed. Even after the recent credit crunch and market corrections, because of its location, their home was still priced at the level that was way more than what they paid for. This was the single best investment they've ever made and John gave Buster the full credit.

When I first heard the story, I didn't think much. Then the next day while I was driving on the freeway, a thought came in my mind. The relation between Buster and John and Cara's home equity suddenly became clear. Wasn't it karma? They saved a dog and the dog in return rewarded them with financial security. Maybe it is true that all of our actions will bring consequences - sooner or later and only a matter of time. Moreover, it also reaffirms the law of paradox. 塞翁失马,焉知祸福 (sai weng shi ma, yan zhi huo fu). Behind bad luck comes good luck. Misfortune might be a blessing in disguise.