So far, I’ve discussed two types of Shanghai locations that we used prominently in SHANGHAI CALLING: the steel-and-glass skyscrapers of “New Shanghai” and the warm colonial neighborhoods of “Old Shanghai.” But there’s a third, rarely filmed side of Shanghai also featured prominently in the film, and that is…
Part 3: Expat Shanghai
Anyone who lives in a major American city has probably been to Little Italy, or Chinatown, or maybe even Little Ethiopia. Wherever immigrant populations gather, they create enclaves and homes that remind them of life where they came from.
The same is true of American immigrants living in China.
On my first research trip to Shanghai, I made a point of visiting the homes of a few American expats. I was surprised by what I saw: cul-de-sacs, rows of identical-looking, suburban houses, jungle gyms for kids.
These homes felt even more “American” on the inside.
Whenever I show these photos to someone, the first response is: “That doesn’t look like China.” That’s because this isn’t just anyplace in China — it’s Americatown. And like all immigrants, the residents of Americatown prefer to live in places that look and feel like America.
In SHANGHAI CALLING, there were two key locations that I wanted to be distinctly “American.” The first was the house where Amanda (ELIZA COUPE) lives. The second was the bar owned by Donald (BILL PAXTON). Finding and filming in both of these locations led to complications that I found surprising and revealing.
Let’s start with Amanda’s house. Our locations team had done such a fantastic job finding us the law office, Sam’s apartment, and alleyways, that I figured Amanda’s house would be a cakewalk. I showed them the photos above and asked them to find me an American-looking house just like that.
A few days later, the locations team took me to scout a series of… mansions. You heard me. MANSIONS. The most gaudy, blinged-out, expensive houses I’ve ever seen in my life.
Nothing like what I wanted. I pulled out my iPad and, once again, showed the locations team the first set of photos above. (Note: We didn’t try to film in that house because my contact there had moved back to the U.S.; also, I felt that the exterior looked too “European” as the neighborhood was built by German developers.) After carefully reviewing my photos, the locations team nodded again and went off to find a more suitable “Amanda’s house.”
A few days later, they showed me yet more photos of crazy-looking mansions. I started getting exasperated. “No, this isn’t what I want,” I told them. “Amanda isn’t rich. She doesn’t live in a mansion. She lives in a typical American house.”
There was clearly a disconnect here, and it took me a while to understand what the problem was: The locations team consisted entirely of Chinese crew. They spoke only Chinese. They had no idea what an American expat’s house looked like because they didn’t know any Americans.
In his book Oracle Bones, author Peter Hessler (former correspondent for The New Yorker, renown China expat, and remarkably friendly guy) observes that in China, there is a peculiar but distinct lack of curiosity about foreign people and cultures. Hessler lays out a compelling argument for this being the underlying cause of ethnic strife in the remote western region of China. When I’d read this particular passage months earlier, it struck me as a pretty broad generalization of Chinese culture. Being of Chinese descent and having a ravenous curiosity about the world, I was living proof that this wasn’t true. But here I was, dealing with a locations team who had found us fantastic Chinese offices, Chinese houses, Chinese stores, and Chinese restaurants to film in, but were now completely baffled by my request for one American house — even though there are hundreds of thousands of American expats living in Shanghai, many of whom are fluent Chinese and would be more than happy to speak with them.
A similar problem came up when filming in Donald’s bar. Finding the bar was a challenge in the first place — the most well-known Shanghai expat bars like O’Malleys or Big Bamboo would be too expensive to shut down for two days, and the closest approximation our locations crew gave me was a French cafe. Luckily, my wife did a Google search for expat bars and found us Southern Belle, a relatively new, cozier, and far more beautiful expat bar that was within our budget and worked perfectly for us. (This would not be the last time that Mary saved the movie. Love you, babe!)
So there we were, about to film a scene with American expats hanging out in this American bar, and our prop department begins setting bar snacks on the table:
Dried sour plums. Spicy peas. Shrimp chips.
After some yelling, the prop guys dumped all of this and obtained potato chips, but I was still troubled by the mistake. They had known for months that we were filming scenes in an American bar. There are dozens of American bars in Shanghai. But at no point did any of them visit one of those bars to find out what snacks were served there.
I’m not necessarily agreeing with Hessler’s theory. Thoughout production I was continually amazed by our young Chinese crew members, many of whom had never lived outside of China but still spoke fluent English and were up-to-date on pop culture from around the world. But I do think Hessler was onto something, and here’s why: Americans have been living in China for years. Major cities like Shanghai and Beijing are crawling with foreigners, many of whom are the bosses, spouses, friends, and co-workers of everyday Chinese people. Yet, SHANGHAI CALLING is the first Chinese co-produced film to delve into the lives of foreigners in China — and it was written by an American.
Don’t get me wrong. Working in China was one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences of my life. Sure, there were frustrations. But young Chinese people are incredibly bright, intensely curious, and eager to push China forward and erase antiquated views of their country. If we’d shot this film in 2021 instead of 2011, we might not have had any of the problems described above.
Oh, and we did finally find a very “American” location for Amanda’s house. We reached out to the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai (AmCham) and through their newsletter, we found a lovely and warm suburban home owned by a family from… Australia. They were wonderful to us. And I think you’ll agree that the house looks pretty American on camera.
Next week: The process of cutting the SHANGHAI CALLING movie trailer! (It posts here tomorrow!)american, bill paxton, eliza coupe, expat, expats, house, locations, peter hessler