As a white, suburban American, I enjoy being someplace where I am considered a novelty. Although Beijing has plenty of foreigners, especially in the university district of Haidian, white people are still sometimes greeted with the same shocked amazement also reserved for bearded ladies, elephant men, and other freaks of nature. This is especially true in neighborhoods off the beaten path, and with children, bless their ignorant, rude little hearts.
Being freaky looking creates odd opportunities. That’s why, this week, I was excited to launch a new career as an actor in Chinese television commercials. It is clearly only a matter of time before I am pared with babe-alicious Karen Mok in the next Hong Kong blockbuster.
But first, the details on my big break.
Alright, not that big a break. In payback for all the Chinese people working miserably around the world as nuclear reactor fuel rod polishers, Foreign students in Beijing are often dragooned as cheap labor. China has an entire seedy underworld of young, low-priced English teachers working for meager communist Shekels, kitchen scraps and free lodging in swampy, mosquito ridden apartments. Unusual looks also make foreigners prime targets for recruitment as models and actors, regardless of talent or looks.
A few days ago, on the way to my gym, I was waylaid by a hyperactive, young Chinese man named Andy who explained to me that he was looking for foreigners to appear in a television commercial for “medical equipment”. He staked out the gym on purpose and had approached me because I was “strong looking”. Now, if this come-on doesn’t ring your alarm bells, you need to check your defense mechanisms and send me your credit cards. Being a sucker for new experiences, I told Andy I was interested. He duly took a snapshot of me and scampered off with a promise to call if I was selected.
Well, I say modestly, of course I was selected. Everyone was selected. They were hard up for lao wais. For four hours of filming I would receive three hundred yuan (about S$60). Well, of course, normally I don’t get out of bed for less than $30,000 per day, but I had nothing else planned. Still, I was annoyed that the producers rejected my demands for a forty foot trailer, a private all-female massage team, and a nonstop supply of red M&Ms candies imprinted with Mao Zedong’s likeness on one side and the Chinese flag on the other. Nevertheless, I would have the exquisite pleasure of knowing that millions of Beijing residents would be exposed to my inglorious kisser during their late-night television viewing.
At 7:30AM Saturday morning I arrived at the rendezvous where met my fellow exotics, Stuart (English), Andreas (German), Tony (American), and a Tunisian woman whose name I never got. We were bundled into a van and whisked into the suburban sticks.
Candidly, my fellow thespians and I were a bit nervous on the drive. We had no idea where we were going or what we were supposed to be pitching, and our van was being driven by a beefy, bullet-headed Chinese man who could easily have been sent from central casting to fill the role of Triad Enforcer no. 4. He also sounded exactly like Wolfman Jack would have if he had spoken Mandarin. I kept waiting for him to introduce the Supremes.
Two hours of nasty traffic later, we arrived in the suburb of Huairou, at the Joyful Birth Garden Conference Center. I pulled the name from a posted slogan that translated, “The Joyful Birth Garden faces society and all walks of life earnestly”. An alternate translation replaces “earnestly” with “with sobriety”. Take that as you will.
If you were a recovering alcoholic, prone to DTs, the Joyful Birth Garden would be an unnerving place to spend your time. The main building is a futuristic, angular, concrete megalith with a spooky absence of windows on the second floor. Werner Erhardt would like it. The entrance to the building is reached by a causeway across an artificial lake. The architecture looks crossbred from Logan’s Run, Robocop, and the Road to Wellville.
Across the lake from the main building are guest residences that are even more surreal. Each set of residential buildings followed a different architectural theme. These were, in order: American Suburban Tract House; Pseudo Gothic Cathedral; Ancient Roman Forum; and Midwestern Industrial White Ghetto. The disturbing atmosphere was amplified by near complete desertion, creating an eerie, last-men-on-earth feel.
If we were a bit anxious on the drive, the Joyful Birth Garden had us all but planning escape contingencies. We were escorted into the complex by our Chinese companions, one of whom was ominously cradling an aluminum softball bat. But our anxiety was short-lived. It turned out there was an entire film crew already on site, ready to go. There was a camera, lights, boom mix, sound guy, makeup, the works. We were not, after all, going to be rolled, or turned into cult zombies.
We were, however, going to flog…Hotpop™.
It took us a while to figure out what Hotpop was. What was immediately clear from the props was that it was not medical equipment, but medicine. At first we were convinced it was a Viagra-like virility pill. After interrogating the crew we then concluded that it was either a muscle-growth promoter or a stimulant of some kind. I have little doubt that its sale would be prohibited or at least heavily regulated in most developed countries. But it’s over-the-counter in China.
Our attempts to divine the nature of Hotpop were complicated by the bizarre, out of context lines that we had to deliver. Like the translators working on Monty Python’s “funniest joke in history”, each of us had only a piece of the puzzle. We even received our lines on separate little strips of paper.
I can think of no better way to capture the strangeness of what we were filming than to walk you through the vignettes and lines. (See the photos in the Hotpop! Gallery.) First, Tony and the nameless Tunisian girl, who had vanished for an hour to be put through hair and makeup, pretend to be a married couple. They push an empty baby stroller (the frame will be cropped) down a shaded path. Tony gazes down at Ms. Tunisia adoringly and says,
“18 Hotpop a day and my performance has never been better, wouldn’t you say, dear?”
She gazes up at him serenely and nods knowingly. You can see where the Viagra theory came from. It took a few takes to get this one right.
I’m next. Wardrobe dresses me in the ghastliest Hawaiian shirt imaginable and makes me wear my sunglasses on my forehead. If Magnum P.I. had a pimp cousin named Lyle, he would have looked just like I did. I am seated at a table with a coffee cup, and I say to the camera, as I positively radiate avuncular, yet pimplike sincerity,
“Now, almost no Americans don’t know hotpop!”
When I explained to the director that this sentence was ungrammatical in English, he dismissed my concerns, explaining (I think) that it would all be dubbed into Mandarin anyway.
Later, I embellish my original line by holding up a Hotpop box and proclaiming to the camera, “Hotpop is great!” (Thrusts box at camera.) “I love Hotpop!” I still have no fucking idea what Hotpop is. But I am sure Lyle Magnum would love it.
Stuart is next. His wardrobe consists of a fantastically nerdy “Lee Jeans” baseball cap and the softball bat. All of China will soon think that “Lee Jeans” is a Major League team, and start looking for Stuart’s rookie card. Stuart, bat menacingly on shoulder, delivers a vaguely psychotic, “Wow, Hotpop!” for the camera, looking like a high school nerd who has finally been pushed too far.
The final performer in our group was Andreas. His priceless line, delivered with a deadpan, German lilt, is,
“Hotpop is great. I can’t live without Hoptpop!”
Throughout our performances we were patiently coached and cajoled by the director. However, in a true Lost in Translation Moment, all direction was in Mandarin, so we spent a lot of time using our psychic powers to discern exactly how he wanted us to nuance our shillery. At one point, as they attempted to coach the desired incandesce out of Stuart, we were treated to the spectacle of several Chinese crew members delivering an emphatic chorus of, “Wow, Hotpop!” I’ll never need to take drugs again.
Eventually, it was all in the can. A second crew of foreign actors had shown up to do the afternoon filming of athletic vignettes, and we lounged on the lawn while they worked. I will forever be grateful that I was not tapped for one of the shirtless segments, or the dreaded Speedo appearance. If there is one thing Beijing doesn’t need, it is a broadcast of me, all hairy paleness, dressed in nothing but a postage-stamp sized swimsuit and a bathing cap. Hotpop this, baby!
At the end of the day the four hour shoot had turned into a twelve-hour full day. I didn’t mind. I was 300 yuan richer; a good payday in a town where a draft Beijing Beer is only 3 yuan. Plus I had been treated to one of the most pricelessly bizarre experiences of my life.
And, of course, I launched my career in Chinese showbiz. I don’t know when the Hotpop ad will hit the airwaves, but I am already looking forward to my imminent Ringo Starr moment, when I sprint down Sanlitun pursued by legions of lust-maddened Chinese women all dying to sample my staglike, Hotpop-enhanced powers.