Sunday, July 29, 2012

55 Days in Peking

I usually never have time to watch an entire movie, but since watching "Notting Hill" on the plane on the way to Tokyo from Manila last week, I've been in a movie mood. And today I spent the afternoon watching a very old movie called "55 Days in Peking."

Since I sailed to China from Japan last April on a 12-night cruise that took me to some pretty interesting port cities along the Chinese coast on board the cruise line Silversea's mid-sized boat, the Silver Shadow, my interest in China has been re-ignited.

It also helped, perhaps, that the international newspapers and news magazines have been full for months of the fascinating story of the fall of the ambitious Chinese warlord Bo Xilai and his family. Bo's political career, full of ups and downs, was jumpstarted by a stint as governor of China's coastal city of Dalian; and Dalian happened to be one the places I visited on this cruise.

I remember being very impressed by the order, construction activity, general prosperity and overall prettiness of Dalian, a city I had almost no expectations about. And I just happened to land in Dalian exactly as the saga of Bo Xilai was unfolding, so it was like seeing everything in real-time and understanding how his success as the local power in Dalian had helped catapult him to greater prominence.


Then last month, I found myself at an intimate dinner for about 14 persons, and at one end of the table was the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines. I would've liked to ask her more about the political upheaval in China as a result of the Bo Xilai scandal, that everyone of consequence in China has been talking -- or rather whispering -- about privately.

But, realizing how inappropriate a dinner topic this might be, I restricted my comments instead to the amazing prosperity and business activity I saw wherever I went in China.

It's pretty natural to see impressive prosperity in showcase cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou, of course; but what convinced me of the future place of China in the world's pecking order was the prosperity and confidence I saw in second- and even third-tier cities like Dalian or Tianjin. Even in places like these, I could literally hear China roaring.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visits to these places, by the way. And as I write this, I'm thinking of reasons to go back for a quick visit, perhaps to more second-tier or third-tier cities that are under the typical tourist radar. I wouldn't mind going on the spur-of-the-moment, even for a long weekend.


And today, I watched 55 Days in Peking again as I'd recently finished a book on the life of China's dragon lady, the Empress Dowager Cixi, who was of relatively modest birth but who clambered her way to the top and basically ruled China for 47 years through sheer will and chutzpah.

It was during her reign that the famous Boxer uprising came about against the foreign legations stationed in Beijing. The foreign legations banded together and then held out admirably for approximately 55 days until reinforcements came by sea and then over land. This was the inspiration for this classic movie, and thus the title "55 Days in Peking."


Interestingly, this movie is quite beautifully done in terms of cinematography, but it was shot thousands of miles away from Beijing. They'd built the sets and filmed in Spain, of all places; and the casting agents apparently searched all over Europe for as many Asians as possible to fill the roles of extras. Thousands of extras were certainly needed for this film of war and violence.

Rumor was that so many Asians in Europe heeded the casting calls for this film that almost all the Chinese restaurants in Europe were closed for that particular summer -- the cooks and waiters were all busy filming 55 Days in Peking.

As for me, today was just another Sunday in a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.


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