Lisa McClure's China Diary

A traditional Chinese bride and groom
Lisa as a traditional China bride, along with her 23 year old groom, Angus.

LIT foreign teachers
The weiguoren laoshi, as we are called in China. (foreign teachers) Denis is in the back.

March 6, 1999

Let me share a wonderful adventure that we had this evening. Well, actually, it started on Thursday evening (exactly one week after Lara and I first set foot in China) when two women came by the guesthouse with a request. Denis, (a teacher from Canada) translated it to me that they wanted to take a photo of the foreign teachers. I assumed that they were from the school and wanted a group shot of the foreign teachers for some purpose. The women made a point of saying (in Chinese, translated by Denis) that they wanted to include my 3 year old daughter, Lara, in the photo as well, so I told them that we'd have to do it on a Saturday or Sunday, as Lara attends pre-school all day through the week. So, we agreed to meet on Saturday morning at 9am to take the picture.

This morning, as tired as I was, I got Lara and myself up and bathed and clothed, and ready to go at nine, but when 9 o'clock rolled around, nobody was around, and nobody seemed to have any notion of who the women were, or what they wanted. Eventually, they showed up around 10, without a camera, and wanted us to go with them.

But even the foreign affairs officer here, who speaks excellent English, couldn't seem to find out what they wanted us for, and since I already had an engagement to go out with a friend at 11:30, I said, "Forget it. Lara and I aren't going" and went off about my business.

When I returned just before 4pm, there was a note on my door, written by Angus, the teacher from England, asking me to plug my telephone back in so that he could call me at 4, and telling me that we would get paid to have our photos taken, and he'd explain when he called.

Well, I generally don't like to talk on the phone, but I love my e-mail, so nearly all the time, I keep the phone line plugged into my computer and not into the telephone. But I was curious, so I plugged the phone line into the phone, and within a few minutes, Angus called.

It seems that a portrait studio that specializes in wedding photos wanted some foreigners to dress up in traditional Chinese wedding costumes for an advertising photo! Apparently, Angus and Denis had gone over to the studio that morning to discuss the deal with them. Angus, who is about 23 and very tall and thin and blonde and British looking, had been chosen to play the groom in the photo. And guess who they wanted to play the bride!?!?!

I thought the whole idea was ludicrous. I'll be 40 in April, and was never very bridelike at my best. But Jinzhou is running very low in foreign women these days. In truth, as far as I know, I am the only white woman in Jinzhou. (There is a beautiful, young black woman from England teaching at the Medical school, but she had gashed her chin badly only a couple of days before, so was perhaps out of the running for this gig.)

Angus assured me that he wanted to do this, and that we would be paid, so I said that if Denis would come with Lara and me, and Angus would be there to negotiate, I'd go along with the ridiculous thing, just for the adventure of it.

Around 5pm the two women returned. It was bitterly cold, and so we bundled up warmly and at the last minute I grabbed my video camera and we were off. We piled into a taxi just around dusk, and drove downtown, a drive of about 10 minutes. But the photo studio was alive with activity. The sample portraits were very fanciful and romantic, filled with people wearing fancy dress (and period costumes, including WWII stuff) shot with soft focus lenses.

Angus was still involved in the financial negotiations when I arrived. He asked for each of us to receive 300 for the job. Apparently, there was some confusion at the start, because they thought he wanted 300 U.S. dollars, and he meant 300 yuan. (about $37) After that was straightened out, they agreed and we got started.

First, I was taken to get my costume on. To put it delicately, I am not a thin person, so this was the moment of truth, as I worried whether they'd have a costume that would fit me. But not to worry, old fashioned, traditional Chinese wedding dresses are not very form fitting, and the robes fit me just fine.

As I waited for my makeup, several people asked me how old I was, and seemed very surprised when I told them. They assured me that they thought that I look much younger. By this time, Angus was also wearing his outfit, and looked quite elegant, I thought.

I had handed over my video camera to Denis right after we arrived, and he managed to shoot video of this entire episode, smoke his cigarettes, flirt with the girls, and watch Lara, all at the same time.

My makeup turned out to be very beautifully done, with lavish attention paid to my eyes. I don't think I've ever looked quite so glamorous before. Then, my hair was pulled back away from my face and a very elaborate headdress attached.

While my makeup was being applied, I noticed a small camera crew with a large video camera and lights taking some shots, but I assumed that it might be some sort of local news crew getting a human interest story. Then, right after I was dressed up, 3 seats were set up next to the makeup counter, and I was seated right in the center, with Angus on my left and a young, lovely TV anchor woman type seated on my right, holding a microphone.

I had no idea what was going on, and assumed that this was also for the news story. But then, somebody said something to me in Chinese, and discerned from my blank look that I understood none of it. At this point, I was asked to 'learn my line' and I realized that I was going to be part of a TV commercial. I practiced my line, 'mei cuo!' several times until it met with satisfaction, then we did a couple of takes. (Mei cuo apparently means, 'I agree completely'. The anchor woman asked Angus a question. He said something nice about the studio, then I said my line.)

In just a few minutes, it was all over. In fact, I only said my line one time, and they all agreed that it was a wrap. I could hardly believe that without even realizing what was going on, I had somehow become a professional television actress!

Of course, inside, I was laughing to myself, because I was having such a good time, I'd have done the thing for nothing! But I was thrilled to actually be paid to do something so fun! (300 yuan is a lot of money here.)

Next, Angus and I were taken up stairs to the photo studio, and we posed for a couple of portraits. I have no doubt that they'll be displayed in a large size in the shop windows for months to come. Somebody told me that our TV commercial will run on local Jinzhou television, and I hope that I'll get a chance to see it. What a kick!

After the official portrait, the studio then took a couple of photos of Lara and me, and one of our entire group. After we returned downstairs and removed our fancy dress, Angus handed 'round the pay. Denis was very pleased to have been paid 300 yuan as well, and I consider him to have been our business manager in the whole affair. The video he took is priceless to me.

So, we were all in very high spirits, and we set out to visit a nearby cake shop that Angus knew. Inside the shop, we indulged in slices of beautifully decorated cake, and planned how to spend our windfall. Actually, I haven't spent mine yet, but think that I'll use it to purchase one of the small electronic translating dictionaries (English-Chinese, Chinese-English) that some of my students have.

Interestingly enough, Angus had also made a television commercial for this cake shop. He told me that in the cake shop commercial, he had to dip his entire face into a cake, then rise up, covered in icing and deliver his line about how great the cake shop is. (in Chinese, of course!) He hadn't charged for that commercial, because the cake shop owner was his friend, but after we had eaten our cake, the owner told us that there would be no charge for us.

Angus was kicking himself for not having asked 500. He feels sure we would have gotten it, and perhaps we would have. As for myself, I kept thinking that it will make a wonderful story for my friends back home, and I can't wait to see the photos!

Lisa and Lara

Who'd have thought that coming to Jinzhou would give me the opportunity to become a TV star!

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