~by Ernie Diaz, as opposed to “a range of international expats”.
Who’s our big Western-Sino crossover star right now, David Beckham? Still? Oh boy. Well, a grandparent’s life time ago, we had a crossover star almost as silent, and with much more universal appeal. Charlie Chaplin was no blow-dried athlete-cum- spokesmodel, but the first cinematic everyman. His effect on and visit to China speak volumes about how little the China-Western cultural paradigm has changed, and how little it matters. In any real, human terms, we are one.
With more screen presence than a slow-motion car explosion, and more physical talent than the pre-dramatic Jim Carrey, Charlie Chaplin reigned, undisputed king of silent comedy shorts. Comedy shorts, in turn, ruled the film industry world-wide. The opening decades of the 20th century were tough ones, especially in China, and people wanted laughter at the cinema, not poignant life lessons.
As the iconic Little Tramp, Chaplin wordlessly outwitted the cruel forces of modern life: swaggering policemen, factory bosses, all personified injustice. The sight of a waddling little ragamuffin deftly sidestepping the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune gratified Chinese audiences as much as those back west. Such was the appeal of the silent film, and the genius of Charlie Chaplin, granting catharsis to anyone with the ability to laugh.
Twenty-five Chaplin movies made it to China between 1919 and 1924, not nearly enough to sate the Tramp-a-mania running wild through the Middle Kingdom. Nurturing a healthy nascent movie industry of its own, China decided to produce from its own stores what couldn’t be supplied fast enough from abroad. In 1922, Mingxing Film Company made a knockoff Chaplin flick, The King of Comedy Visits Shanghai. To be fair, they could have pulled a reverse-Hollywood maneuver and put a Chinese man in whiteface. Instead, they substituted Richard Bell, an Englishman who made a living imitating Chaplin in China.
Did he do the walk right? Did he wiggle his mustache just so? We’ll never know, for the print has been lost to the ages, God mote it so with Marley and Me. But just as Christian Slater made a living as a poor man’s Nicholson, and Chan and Li made rich livings as poor men’s Bruce Lees, there were other wannabe usurpers to Chaplin’s throne, waiting in rival studios’ wings.
Buster Keaton, Harold Loyd, both managed to mop up a sizeable spill of Chaplin’s China market share as the Hoi palloi from Shanghai to Xigaze clamored for more Little Tramp movies.
Ah, but Loyd, or his writers, reckoned poorly with the Chinese audiences of the day, grown much more tolerant in this age of anti-Asian slaps-to-the-face, ala Rush Hour. Loyd’s thriller-comedy vehicle Welcome Danger featured a gang of ruthless, cowardly San Francisco China Town villains. Unaccustomed as yet to Hollywood portraying them as either emasculated geeks or snake-headed kung fu baddies, Chinese men threatened to burn down the movie theater when the marquee went up in Shanghai.
So big-noses unfamiliar with China may learn from the foregoing account two lessons: the Chinese will proffer their own imitation product when the international market cannot satisfy domestic demand (duh), and that there are limits to Asian males’ willingness to be pop culture fall guys. The more Sino-savvy among you may derive instruction from Charlie Chaplin’s long-awaited visit to Shanghai in 1936, one short day but one long exercise in playing the Chinese press and people like a finely tuned guzheng.
Chaplin had never meant his day in Shanghai to metastasize into a press junket. It had been planned as a mere stopover in a five-month long East Asian luxury cruise, taken to forget the rigors of filming his first “talkie”, Modern Times. In the bright new age of movies with sound, the idea of an actor at his best two decades ago was comparable to that of a Sylvester Stallone or Johnny Depp still sitting astride the box office today. To add fat to the fire, the movie-going public was still sensible to heterosexual scandals, and Chaplin was traveling with a woman not his wife, one Paulette Goddard, who lost her shot at Gone With the Wind for traveling with a world-famous tramp out of wedlock.
However, news in China travels like a new meme on 4Chan, as if by telekinesis, and there were a crowd of journalists waiting at the Shanghai docks. They bum-rushed the boat, turning over first class berths in their passion for a scoop, at last surrounding a startled Chaplin, only to be halted by a stalwart PR flack who commanded them to wait for a so-called press conference.
The rabble dispersed, Chaplin was whisked off to stay in a Shanghai hotel, the Cathay, whose like has been lost to that cancer of the hospitality industry, standardization. The manager arranged a suite done up in exquisite English style, to comfort the native Londoner, while his mistress and her mother pampered themselves at the beauty salon. Then it was off to a royal reception at the International Hotel, where Chaplin caught up with actress Hu Die, whom he had met in LA when she was one of Howard Hughes’ regiment of talent-pool chippies, since cast off.
But Chaplin’s coup, to be expanded on later in the evening, consisted in his warm reunion with Mei Lanfang- Chinese opera’s Chaplin, Gable, Cooper, and Rooney rolled into one. His effusive greeting and warm reminiscing with China’s superstar gave the country enough face by proxy to guarantee a glowing write-up, no matter the questionable nature of the relationship between him and his travel companion. Cynical lesson to learn here? Always, always cotton up to the most important Mandarin in the room.
He erred slightly on his subsequent whirlwind tour of an international art exhibit at the hotel, where Chaplin kept pulling comely young women from the crowd to pose in the incessant photo requests, quipping lamely, “Chinese girls are very cute. I like China.” Really, Charles.
Journalists most likely overlooked his fawning as the peccadillo of yet another sex-obsessed westerner. Besides, they were impatient to pierce the veil of his relationship with Ms Goddard, noted in Chinese press that day repeatedly for her “full, tender lips…”
But Chaplin played the pro at the last-minute conference, turning questions about a conveniently absent Goddard aside. When asked for his opinion on Chinese cinema, a no-win situation, Chaplin did the wise thing and pleaded ignorance, “I couldn’t make an adequate comment.”
But his savviest stroke came from the heart, when later that night he stayed beyond his allotted 15 minutes at the obligatory Chinese opera performance, insisting instead on watching to the very end. Whether professional interest or pure enchantment, Chaplin’s fascination was dutifully reported in every major Chinese daily, a compliment that turned him from superstar import to Chinese blood-brother. Only singing Mice Love Rice on a national KTV radio show could have endeared him more to the public. Modern Times broke all attendance records across China, including Hong Kong. Years later, in 1954, even anti-western stalwart Zhou Enlai could not refuse a banquet at Chaplin’s Geneva chateau, en route to a UN conference. Which leads us to a conclusion that should be, but by experience is not obvious: the Chinese will strive to show you a lot of respect because they hope for some back, not because you necessarily deserve it. In Chaplin’s case, he deserved it, gave it back in spades, and made out like anything but a tramp as a result.