Wednesday, November 09, 2005

My Career as a Chinese TV Star

“Ugh. Zhang Zhi En wants me to be at his restaurant at 9:00 tomorrow morning,” Ron said, closing up his cell phone.

“What does he want?” I asked.

“I dunno. Probably to tell someone what a great asset his restaurant is to the jiwuduan (locomotive shop) – I think his contract might be coming up for renewal. I told him I’d do it, but, ugh, the timing isn’t very good.”

Don’t take Ron’s sentiments the wrong way. Zhang Zhi En is his best friend in China and has already become my best friend here. “He’s like Corporal Klinger on M*A*S*H,” Ron told me. “If you need something done, he can either do it, or he has some skeleton buried in the closet that he can dig up on someone who can get it done. He’s helped me out more times than I can count.” He’s a short, pudgy, smiling man with a cute wife and pudgy baby boy who looks just like him. Several of Ron’s photographs are hanging on the walls of his restaurant, where he never accepts our money when we try to pay. He gives us rides around town in his tiny red car with Winnie the Pooh stickers beside the gas cap, and just this week let me ride to Chifeng with him so I could run some errands (or at least try to, more on that later) in the city. We’re both eager to do what we can for him in return, but a 9:00 appointment would seriously cut into our sleep the next day.

The next morning, following an all-night photo session, we showed up Zhang Zhi En’s restaurant shortly after 9:00. He joined us at our table and his wife brought out steaming bowls of noodles, a plate of beef and several of her hard, flaky pastries that are so tasty. At 9:30, three men and a woman arrived carrying one large and one gigantic video cameras, the latter with an equally gigantic tripod. They were an Inner Mongolia film crew shooting a documentary on the Ji-Tong Tielu, and they wanted to interview us and film us camping out along the line and taking a night photo of a train. My, but was the shoe ever on the other foot.

Not only that, but they wanted to leave at 2:00 that afternoon. By that point in the discussion, it was already 10:30, and the only sleep Ron and I had had in the past 24 hours was the four-hour nap we got from 9:30-1:30 that night. He managed to push them back to 3:00, but no more. They also wanted us to return to the Chagganhada bridge where we had already taken several photos, instead of accompanying us to a new spot where we hadn’t photographed yet, effectively killing a night of shooting. More discussion ensued, but eventually we acquiesced.

At 3:20 that afternoon, following a 2-1/2 nap, Ron and I had our equipment loaded into our taxi, which was joined by the silver van carrying Zhang Zhi En and the film, which had grown by a couple more people since the morning. We arrived at the Chagganhada bridge just as the sun set where the crew filmed Ron riding his bicycle and me waving to him. I think they began to get the sense that they might be getting more than had bargained for when we showed them that the photo location was all the way down the hill and across the river, accessible only by foot. This time it was their turn to acquiesce. As I set off down the hill to the river to make camp while Ron began assembling his lights, I was joined by no less than six people, all helping carry our gear.

The river was up and partially frozen along the banks, making crossing it even more treacherous. The American way to solve such problems is to throw enough money at them, but the Chinese way is to throw enough people at them. I got a lesson in that when we arrived at the main channel of the river. My escorts put down their loads and split off in several directions, each returning with a large rock. These we threw into the river until we had a set of stepping stones to the other side. Of course, the stones were slippery and the group ill-prepared, particularly the translator, who wore high-heeled, pointy-toed boots, which she got a little wet on the way across. She wasn’t the only one.

In all my life, I never thought anyone would ever shove a TV camera in my face while I was putting up my tent, but that is exactly what happened next. And then I realized how all those old brakemen and conductors on the remote branchline railroads back in the U.S. must feel the when they’ve been going about their jobs of coupling up cars and making air tests for 27 years, unperturbed, and then this kid from Ohio shows up and starts waving a camera around. So I tried to look natural and let the camera man have his way.

Once the tent was up and the lights and cameras in place, it was time to start the campfire and begin the interviews. Our fuel was local coal, and if the locomotives burn the same stuff, it’s a wonder the railway can move any freight at all. Constant attention and an entire jug of lighter fluid got us only a smoldering glow. Wood is in short supply on the arid plains of Inner Mongolia, so what do you use for kindling when you’re in China? If you said chopsticks, you’re absolutely right! They brought a whole sack of them.

With the fire crackling, the interviewers (a woman and a man) began posing questions to Ron through the translator. I sat by the fire along with him and Zhang Zhi En, and I knew this was his show and that he was the star, but still I thought it would be nice if they asked me at least one question. And while I was thinking these thoughts, I head the translator say, “and tell us something about your friend.”

“This is my good friend Scott Lothes,” Ron replied. “He is a very good photographer and has helped me in many ways on this trip. I am getting better photographs thanks to him.”

Then the camera swung around to me and interviews lobbed several volleys of questions my way through the translator. “Why did you want to travel with Ron? What do you like about steam trains? Are you getting good photographs here? Will you come back to China after the steam trains are gone?”

Then they asked us if we knew any American songs about steam trains. Yes. Can you sing one? We exchanged questioning glances at each other. Okay. Ron came up with the first verse of “Old Train” and I joined him for the chorus. Our audience applauded and asked to hear it again. I believe it was the first time either of us had been asked for an encore. We complied vociferously.

The train came and the shots were taken, both theirs and ours. They packed their gear, thanked us, then left us alone to the cold night.

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