The Shanzhai Girl
China is well-known for its shanzhai – copycat – culture, from knockoff designer goods to countless items like the cutting edge "aPad" phone and websites such as "Goojje" and "Baigou." But shanzhai celebrities – except for a few Chinese Michael Jacksons and a handful of state-approved Chairman Mao Zedongs – are not as plentiful.
It's hard work if you can get it. I know because I was a shanzhai Li Bingbing, one of China's most famous actresses. And now, if you're going to see director Hark Tsui's newest martial arts blockbuster "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame," which opened recently in China and Hong Kong, that's me (occasionally) standing in and spinning swords for Li, who stars as Shangguan Jing'er, bodyguard to Empress Wu Zetian. .
The Real Thing But while Li was off the set filming another movie elsewhere, I was paying my beginner movie dues sweating in long red robes and a rubber suit in the "Ghost City" trying to not fall off "rolling" logs in a cave packed with mosquitoes and fetid water, exchanging plastic sword blows with a villain who was trying to thwart Andy Lau, the Hong Kong Cantopop singer, actor and producer who stars as the Tong Dynasty detective, brought out of exile to solve a series deaths that threaten to halt Empress Wu's inauguration.
And while Li Bingbing may have been enjoying finer dining, my food on the set at the sprawling outlands Hengdian World Studios in Chinawood, as it's called, in Zhejiang Province were more like school canteen fare; rice and meat with a lot of bones, pork probably, but I'm not sure.. Li's trailer was on the set, complete with bed and personal toilet. But.that's not for stunt doubles. I was sharing a 2 or 3-star hotel room with another woman working on the movie. I'm not a trained actor or stunt person. In real life I'm a magazine editor. But in my fantasy life I've been Li Bingbing, ever since friends noted my resemblance to her in while I was a university student and she was starring in a TV soap. She slowly became more famous. People started to mistake me for her in about 2003 when she was in a romantic comedy with Andy Lau called No Thief in the World. When I would be in a shopping center wearing sunglasses, I'd hear salesclerks whispering, "Is that Li Bingbing?" and I'd smile and move on thinking, "No, I don't have assistants and ride in a limo. When was the last time you saw a movie star walking around a shopping mall by herself?"
The first time it paid off in a very small way was at a Shenzhen bar on a slow night where I went with an American friend. The bar staff began asking if I was she and we told them, "Yes, please don't tell anyone." I told them the guy I was with was a screenwriter doing research on Chinese nightlife for a movie I was filming. They began buying us free drinks and asking me to pose for photos and sign autographs, which I did while answering as much Li Bingbing trivia as I could think of. Things began to get out of control, though, when it became clear they wanted the famous movie star to buy a round for the bar. They didn't know that Li Bingbing and her "screenwriter" friend had about 200 yuan between them. Fortunately my cell phone rang. It was our cue to leave. "Tell them it's your agent. You have to go!" he whispered. Several years later I thought it might pay off in more than two drinks and some flattering attention. I met a woman who worked for a provincial chamber of commerce who thought I looked enough like Li Bingbing to put my face (minus her name) on packages and containers of dozens of products from cereals and cooking oils to silk and cotton textiles.
She told me I would be the "famous face person" for the merchandise. It ultimately came to nothing, no fake famous face, no deal but I did get dozens of free meals and a great glamour photo shoot courtesy of the chamber.
Then in 2006 I had a role in a TV program for Germans trying to learn Chinese. We shot three shows and then it ended. I've never seen it. I don't think anyone has. But the assistant director on the TV show called me last year to ask if I wanted to be a stand-in for Ms. Li in a new movie with Andy Lau. With thoughts of fame and finally meeting my famous double, I flew to Chinawood – only to find Li Bingbing had flown out several hours before I arrived. I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. It was a one-hour shuttle bus ride to get to set and in the beginning I didn't know what to do. There were just a lot of people running around. I did one scene first day and it wasn't much. I stared at the camera for 10 seconds and it was edited to one second. The second day I started to learn kung fu actions. Even though it was plastic swords and flags they were very heavy and it was very hot. I hit the stunt coordinator, Da Hai, several times because usually he works with people who know how to do it. I was supposed to hit left, on the top and the right in that order, but when he expected me to hit from the left, I forgot and hit from the right. He was okay with it because he's a professional but when it happened again he was a little pissed off. In the end, after six weeks of ping-ponging going back and forth from Shenzhen I never got to meet my famous double. She would leave. I would arrive; sometimes only hours apart.
A few times people on the set would mistake us when they saw me and say, "Bingbing, welcome back. I thought you'd left." She had, but I was grateful, though. I learned more about the difficulties of making movies and also met talented famous people and of what they had gone through to be where they are now.
I also discovered that movie sets look better on the screen than in real life.
But it was still nice to be walking to the public toilet on the set to have people stop me to take photos with them, even though they knew the real Li Bingbing wouldn't be caught using a public loo. I wouldn't trade anything for the experience. I made good friends, worked hard and learned some kick ass kung fu moves but most of all know how Li Bingbing and others like her and Andy Lau had to struggle to get where they are before they gained their fame.
It's a long march to the red carpets at film festivals all over the world. I'm happy to have even taken a baby step.