Sunday, March 29, 2009
A Chinese English teacher I met recently had been asking if I'd be a "guest lecturer" for one of her morning university classes at the China's Central Academy of Drama.
"You can pick any topic," she said, "and talk for an hour or more." I'd done this before in Shenzhen and can barely talk for 5 minutes, much less an hour, about anything of interest. Previously I'd dodged the time line by rambling for 20 minutes or so and then asking for questions - a technique that never fails to fail here as students are taught specifically not to ask questions, though pleading and offering 20 yuan to the first questioner usually worked.
I floated the idea and she told me what I already knew. "They won't ask questions." But she offered to show me her school, from which many of mainland China's film stars and directors have graduated and added that "Julia Roberts will be coming to speak on Tuesday. Maybe you can attend too?"
Julia Roberts? Yeah? "You know, the big mouth movie star," she said. I knew, I knew and while never really a huge fan, the idea of crashing a talk by her in Beijing seemed intriguing. And, hell, I liked her in Erin Brockovich, Nodding Hill and her Tess Ocean role in Oceans 11 and 12, so yeah, sounded like a plan.
My first surprise was that the vaunted Central Academy of Drama was in a place I hang out frequently after hours and I'd never noticed. So much for my "trained observer" skills. It's in the middle of a popular tourist and Chinese yupster hutong (alleyway community) called Nonlou guxiang, otherwise chock full of small coffee/tea bars, mostly low key booze bars (including Beijing's smallest, a 12 square meter place aptly named "12sm")snack shops, clothing, ceramic and gift stores and some homegrown yoghurt stands.
I'd seen the academy, of course. It's hard to miss squatting comparitively large among the smaller buildings aand residential courtyards, but also gated and locked I'd assumed it was some minor bureaucratic tumor and not paid any interest.
We got there on an early Saturday afternoon, the teacher walked through a side entrance and suddenly we were inside. I'd imagined something grand - babe-olicious heartbreakers like Zhang Ziyi (Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon, Memoirs of a Geisha) and Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell my Concubine, Curse of the Golden Flower, Miami Vice (!)had trod these floors with their golden feet. And what floors they were. Dingy concrete, worn small classrooms, all cast in a feeble 20-watt glow. It looked like a very tired middle school. Photographs of famous alums were along the walls at eye level, none autographed and all looking as if they'd been taken by a bargain photog at a Sam's Club.
I looked in vain for pictures of Zhang Ziyi or Gong Li and then heard the teacher calling from around a corner. She wanted to show me the poster for Julia Roberts' appearance.
"See," she said, pointing. "Julia with the big mouth." She pointed to a Chinese character poster with several French movie titles and a picture of a woman with a large mouth named Juliette. French actress Juliette Binoche. Like Julia Roberts, she's won an Academy Award (English Patient)and they probably could swap dental records, but ... no.