Joseph Stilwell

General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell was a four star American general who was appointed as Chief of Staff to Chiang Kai-shek, Stilwell became more and more disenchanted with Chiang, whom he referred to as “the peanut”.

I played Stilwell a couple of times, this clip is from a TV play called “Zhou Enlai in Chongqing” (周恩来在重庆). This play falls under the category of “propaganda”, but it was very well made propaganda. My neighbours told me it won a prize, though I’m not sure what prize it was exactly. It covered all kinds of things that films don’t usually cover, such as how political committees work and what people do if their newspapers are closed down by the government, etc. The play was filmed by the August First Army Film Studio. I worked for them several times. It’s quite strange working with a company where half the assistant directors are wearing army uniform, but they are an excellent company and universally acknowledged as expert film makes throughout the film industry in China. I often used to meet their personnel on hire to civilian film companies.

In this clip I am playing Stilwell in a dialogue with Chiang Kai-shek, Song Meiling is present and interpreting for Chiang. We filmed this scene in Chongqing actually in Song Meiling’s house where she lived with Chiang Kai-shek. The house is now a museum.

James Cantlie and Sun Yatsen

Talk to people about the Chinese revolution and they immediately think of Mao, but Sun Yatsen was a more important figure, he did the spadework for modern China and worked at great risk to himself for the overthrow of the Qing.

Sun was a true internationalist, he lived in Japan and England and Hong Kong and had contact with intellectuals and revolutionaries all over the world. A couple of years ago I attended a lecture given by his great grandson in Beijing. He produced a book that Sun had written outlining plans for the development of modern China, including where the main rail lines should be, the most useful areas of the coast for building industrial ports and many other details. He told us that Deng Xiaoping’s ideas were closely based on the outlines that Sun had laid down. Sun was a lot more than a rabble-rouser.

I got interested in Sun when I was making a TV play about Chinese boys working in tin mines in Malaysia (下南洋). We were staying in Cui Heng, the place of Sun’s birth, and my hotel was right across the road from the Sun Yatsen museum. It rained a lot, and every day when I had no scenes I went over the road and browsed the museum. It was there, in the photographs lining the walls, that I first discovered Song Qingling (宋庆龄).

In 2011 I took a small part in a TV play commemorating the original 2011 Xinhai Revolution. I played James Cantlie, a medic and teacher who had been one of Sun’s first teachers when he was studying medicine in Hong Kong. Later when Sun was in England working in the British Museum he was kidnapped by the Qing and imprisoned in the Chinese embassy in London. Cantlie waged a press campaign and obtained Sun’s release. If he had been sent back to China the Qing would have tortured him to death.

Elgin and Yuanmingyuan

Yuanmingyuan (圆明园), otherwise known as the Old Summer Palace, was a magnificent park and set of palaces built by the Qing emperors on the outskirts of Beijing. The court spent most of the year there, only coming to the Forbidden City when protocol demanded that the Emperor gave audience.

In 1860 this magnificent garden was invaded by the Anglo-French forces who burned the palaces to the ground and took many priceless artifacts as booty.

In 2005 CCTV10, which is the educational channel of China Central Television, made a documentary about Yuanmingyuan. In order to give the viewer an impression of what the gardens were like in their heyday, significant use was made of expensive CGI technology, which was a first for a Chinese documentary. I played Lord Elgin, the leader of the expedition and the man who ordered the burning of the gardens.

More information about Yuanmingyuan and Elgin’s role can be found here

The film had a grand premier at the Great Hall of the People, which I attended with some of the other foreign actors.

Wu Lian De

In 2010 I worked on 16 projects. I think they were all TV shows. One of the most interesting historically was a play about the outbreak of bubonic plague in Harbin in 1911. A Chinese Malaysian called Wu Lian De (伍连德) was appointed by the court to deal with this plague. He discovered that unlike the Black Death the plague in Harbin was transmitted via people’s airways and not via rats.

The play adds a lot of fancy details about Japanese and Russian conspiracies which reflects the territorial tensions that were working themselves out in that part of China at the time. Harbin has always had a strong Russian presence, even now there are lots of Russian souvenir shops and good vodka is easy to find.

It was a pretty stressful shoot because a lot of it was shot in Harbin and some of it even further north, almost as far as the Russian border in Mudanjiang.

I play an imaginary character, the father of a Russian doctor. In this clip my daughter (the doctor) has discovered she has caught the plague and has voluntarily entered the isolation zone.