It was 1988. I was in Shanghai talking with university presidents about placing American English teachers in their schools. This was new then and I had already placed teachers in schools in Beijing, Yantai, Shanghai and far-away Urumqi in west China.
I was visiting with a choir member and soloist in the Muen Christian Church. Out of the blue she asked me if I would be willing to appear in a 12-episode drama about to begin production. The Shanghai Television Company was just down the block. We walked over and I met the director.
Guo Xinling, the female director, told me the title “Oriental Hotel” (Da Jiudian in Chinese) and what was expected. My lines were all in Mandarin and shot in Shenzhen City and Shanghai. Ms. Guo liked me, my Mandarin was passable and she immediately handed me a script for six episodes. What I had been told was a walk-on bit part turned out to be a major role, appearing in half of the 12 episodes.
The costume department tried to make me a white suit but could never get it big enough, so I wore my own suits and jackets. I was playing the foreign owner of a famous old Shanghai Hotel. With the opening of China I had returned to re-claim ownership. The hotels had belonged to my father before the 1949 Communist take-over of China.
So it was a modern drama without politics (that was my boss’ only question, “was it political?”) and showing life in a changing China. Many of the scenes were shot in the lobby, dining room and rooms of the Peace Hotel overlooking the Huangpu River and the famous Bund (waterfront). In the 1930s Noel Coward wrote his play “Separate Tables” at this hotel.
Now my study of the Chinese language had been mostly religious language, with a little newspaper reading and lot of Bible reading. I did not know business lingo and certainly never memorized a role in a television drama.
All my previous acting had been in English, from Mr. Fletcher’s Brownwood High School plays to Gregory Walcott’s film on missionary Bill Wallace. I had studied in New York University one summer and taught television production at the Hong Kong Baptist University, but had never taken instructions in the Shanghai dialect from a nationally known woman director–nor had to try to act while remembering my lines in Mandarin.
My scenes were finished in June and the production was released over the entire country the following February, 1989.
The fall of 1988 I saw the gist of my book, The Churches of China, filmed as a documentary in China. I was a consultant on that ABC-TV production with then-Southern Baptist Convention president Jimmy Allen in the production of the hour- long documentary, “China: Walls and Bridges.”
I mention the documentary because in 1989, “China: Walls and Bridges” was released and won an Emmy. That was the same year the “The Oriental Hotel” (won the Golden Eagle for best television series in China. Having a part in two national winners (China and U.S.A.) in the same year was a milestone in my aborted stage and screen career.
But after seeing the results of my acting I was convinced to keep my day job. The camera loves some people, and the rest of us need to avoid the embarrassment of turning out the way we do on film.
Britt Towery spent his time in missionary work, when not moonlighting in films, in Asia. He now write a column for the Brownwood Bulletin in Brownwood, Texas.