Jian Ping's column
Filming Mulberry Child in China (1)
By Jian Ping
The documentary-drama film based on my book Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China started at the
beginning of this year. In early April, a team of filmmakers, including director Susan Morgan Cooper,
cinematographer Quyen Tran and her two assistants Matt and Alex, and two local sound men, took over
my apartment. They conducted three days of interview with my daughter Lisa and me and filmed some
outdoor activities. From April 23 to May 5, we, a smaller group of five (Susan, Quyen, Susan’s daughter
Alex, Lisa and me), went to China to shoot footage for the film. I had traveled 2 or 3 times each year to
China since 1992. Never before had I worked so hard, yet enjoyed the trip so much—more than 10 hours
of shooting and traveling every day. I was very excited about the film project.
Susan, Quyen and Alex had never been to China before. I told them I could take them in, but they might
need Bill Clinton to get them out. Joking aside, they were quite nervous about shooting in China.
We flew to Hong Kong on April 23—the three of them from Los Angeles and Lisa and I, from Chicago. We
wanted to visit the Cultural Revolution Museum (CRM) in Shantou, Guangzhou Province. My blunder nearly
messed up our schedule—I mistook our flight departure time from Shantou to Beijing on April 27 for our
flight from Hong Kong to Shantou on April 26! We missed our flight, the only one of the day! Since we
Many books on the CR were on display in glass cases. China’s famed author Ba Jin was credited for proposing the establishment of a CR
museum, and his portrait was placed in the center of the museum. I was very impressed by the open and sharp criticism of the CR stated at the
It was a pity that not many people were interested in witnessing this part of history. During the three hours we spent there, we only saw
four other visitors. Even our cab driver, who often took customers to the Buddhist Temples nearby, had never stopped here before.
We could have spent more time there, but had to leave to catch our flight to Beijing at 1:10 P.M. No one wanted to take the risk of missing our
We landed in Beijing at 4:20 P.M., right on time. We piled our luggage to a big van and asked the driver, a Mr. Yao, to hurry—we had book
a boxing match at 7 P.M. at the National Sports Center Gymnasium, an Olympic venue and intended to shoot footage of audience cheering. We
headed right into a traffic deadlock. To beat the traffic jam, Yao got off the airport express way and took a longer route to the city. It was to no
avail. By the time we reached our hotel, it was 7 P.M.! Since we didn’t stop for lunch and the rest of the crew, except me, didn’t touch any
airline food, I had to arrange to have our meals ordered from a nearby restaurant and allowed everyone to have a quick bite in my hotel room.
By the time Yao took us to the stadium, it was after 8:30 P.M. We were disappointed to see the stadium was half empty and the audience’s
cheering far from enthusiastic. Only two organized groups that appeared to be hired by two liquor companies to do promotion made lots of
noises. They hit a big drum and chanted, raising their liquor brand signage respectively to show their “support” for the match. We stayed till the
end of the match nevertheless and took some footage of the match.
“I need a drink to relax,” Susan said when we returned to our hotel shortly before midnight.
Despite the exhaustion each of us felt, we were wired. Alex went to bed and the rest of us went to a bar across from the hotel. All that
Susan wanted was vodka with grapefruit juice. She soon learned that she would not be able to have her favorite drink for the remainder of the
Beijing was windy and chilly. But when we were ready to work the next day, the sun was out and the sky was blue. We spent the morning
shooting at the Great Wall and the afternoon, at the Olympic venues. There were steams of humanities no matter where we were. At one point
when Quyen was filming Lisa at the Great Wall after waiting forever for a moment without “volunteers”, a middle-aged couple from Europe
walked into view. Susan jumped in front of them before I could react. “Look at the birds,” she shouted, pointing toward the hills beyond the
wall. The couple stopped to look, so were a line of people behind them. We were able to finish a clean shoot.
Later that night, we went to film Tiananmen Square. I was surprised the entire squared was fenced off and closed. I asked a guard on the
street when it would be open and learned that the square was closed to the public at 7 P.M. each day and would open early in the morning. I
had never had encountered closure of the square before except special occasions and was very disappointed. We ended up shooting in front
of the Tiananmen Gate instead.
After taking many pictures of Lisa and me at the Gate (Heavenly Peace), we walked back and forth while Quyen did the video. Uniformed
guards stood on duty before the Gate at intervals of 20 yards or so and two police cars parked by the fence next to us. Quyen was nervous, but
Susan, a perfectionist, insisted on getting all the footage she wanted. Right before midnight, a guard walked over to us.
“Where are you from?” he asked in Chinese. “What are you filming?”
The entire group froze.
“We are from the U.S.,” I answered, speaking as casually as I could. “I used to live in Beijing and want to get some footage of the
Tiananmen Gate with my daughter.”
He looked at me in the eye for a moment and I returned his gaze. Then, he turned and walked back to his post.
Quyen and Susan exchanged a look of relief. We left the square quickly.
We filmed the Forbidden City and a section of Hutong, an old Beijing neighborhood, the next day without any incident. In fact, people were
very friendly and the security check at the Forbidden City let us take in all our gears. Susan and Quyen were pleasantly surprised and relieved.
We rushed to the airport at 4 P.M. for our 6:10 flight to Changchun where my mother and sisters live. Now everyone in the group was
checking our flight schedule despite my assurance of no more mistakes. (To be continued)
Above) Quyen hard at work. (Below) Susan and Lisa
(in front) Quyen and Alex in back.
|(Above) Lisa and I in front Tiananmen Gate;
(Below) Lisa at the Great Wall
had such a tight schedule, I frantically
searched online and re-routed our flight
from Guangzhou to Shantou. We took a
train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. A two-
hour flight to Shantou took us an entire day.
But we managed to check into our hotel in
Shantou late at night, with only one meal at
the Guangzhou Airport for the entire day.
(Lisa reminded me later how mean I was
rushing her at the Hong Kong Train Station
and not allowing her to pick up some food
when she was starving!)
We lost half a day of work on April 26
and went to the CRM early in the morning
the following day. CRM is located in the Ta
Shan Scenery Area, a mountain range
dotted with Buddhist Temples. The style
and structure of the museum looked like a
temple as well. Reading the greeting
letters carved on a slab of marble to Lisa, I
was amazed by the open criticism of the
Communist Party and Chairman Mao for
starting the “chaotic”, “disastrous” and
“unforgivable” Cultural Revolution (CR).
Images of atrocities took place during the
CR etched on the black marbles that
constituted the core of display. We took
many stills and footage. Tears emerged in
my eyes as I examined one picture in
which a helpless official was surrounded
by a group of angry Red Guards. He could
have been my father… So many memories
flashed through my mind!