Hengdian is home to the world's largest outdoor film studios but Charles Miller finds few locals with illusions of making it big
In the middle of the Zhejiang countryside, a Qing dynasty concubine wipes the sweat from her brow, pulls up a chair and slumps into it before popping a lollipop in her mouth and unlocking her iPhone to check her Weibo. Next to her, a male servant pulls out a packet of Double Happiness cigarettes and lights up beneath the wooden eaves. A few minutes’ walk away, a young servant girl strolls down a 1930s Guangzhou street, past rifle-toting soldiers before kicking off her rough cotton shoes in favour of a pair of bright blue Crocs. Such scenes are common in Hengdian, home to the largest outdoor film studios in the world.
An hour outside Yiwu, Hengdian World Studios is in many respects a staggering place. Construction of the 2,500 acre site began back in 1996 and to date has cost over 7 billion USD. New plots of land are still being developed, including a highly controversial replica of Beijing’s Summer Palace. The studios have already hosted over 800 films and television shows. This formidable quantity of projects earns the Hengdian Group an annual turnover of more than 1 billion USD. They also have a nice not-so-little sideline in tourism, with over seven million visitors passing through the town each year.
The area is the brainchild of Xu Wenrong, a former farmer now well into his 70s who made a multi-million dollar fortune selling textiles and chemicals. After constructing the studios in his hometown and enticing film companies to the lot with the sheer scale of facilities on offer, Xu’s project has inevitably been dubbed ‘the Hollywood of the East’ and, more succinctly, ‘Chinawood’.
Yet such tag lines give a misleading impression of the real Hengdian. Instead of Cadillac-driving film moguls, the streets are full of stray dogs and pedicab drivers. The walk of fame and upmarket eateries are here replaced by pot-holed streets and drab tucai restaurants. On the hills behind Hengdian the only signs are billboards for door manufacturers.
In many ways, it’s a grimy township much like any other in rural China. But it’s a grimy township with a full-scale replica of the Forbidden City.
Seeing the orange eaves and red walls of one of China’s most famous landmarks rising up from behind rows of shabby residential buildings is a deeply bizarre experience. Based on the Qing and Ming dynasty era palace, the structure is undeniably impressive, but awe at the scale and audacity of the project soon evaporates when you realise that the building is completely empty.
Perhaps that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise - this Forbidden City is, like most film sets, essentially a facade. Yet given the scale of the project and the 95RMB entry price, 35RMB more than the actual Forbidden City’s peak price, you expect something more than a few tourists lazily pedalling tandem bikes down the stone paths.
The same pattern of expectation and disappointment recurs all over Hengdian. ‘I was an extra in a couple of TV series,’ sniffs our taxi driver as he drives us from the Forbidden City to 1930s Hong Kong, ‘but it’s not really worth it. I make more money driving this taxi.’
It’s not an exaggeration. At the dismal Hong Kong and Guangdong Old Street, a pitiful attempt to emulate the Universal Studios theme park, we meet Xiao Liu, a 21-year-old extra in the TV series Black Fox. ‘I get around 40RMB a day as an extra,’ she says. ‘It’s hard work too – doing the same thing over and over again. Often I’m just walking in the background or doing something inconsequential, but if the actors get a line wrong or the director isn’t happy with something, I have to do it again.’
Liu left her native Guangdong for Hengdian a little over a month ago with a group of friends because, she says, ‘it seemed like more fun than home’. She says that work is regular, but doesn’t offer many thrills or opportunities. ‘It’s all been extra work so far. If you have good guanxi you might be able to get a line or be put on a retainer by a production company to earn more money, but I don’t have any contacts who can help me get more significant parts.’
Her words bring to mind Ricky Gervais’ character in Extras, but Liu says that she doesn’t have her heart set on getting a line in a major film. ‘I’d rather be an assistant to a famous actress rather than a star myself,’ she says. ‘Some of them shout at you sometimes, but I think in general it’d be easier and the money would be better than working as an extra.’
Hengdian has played host to scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hero (2002) and, more recently, Wayne Wang’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2011), but when the major productions move on there’s little glamour left in the town and its usual, factory-like production of period soaps. Hengdian may be called the Hollywood of the East, but it’s not just geography that distinguishes it from Tinseltown.