Wang Yaping likes to take risks.
At 26, he is the youngest member of the prestigious Chinese Writers Association in Peking, a prominent, precocious author and screen writer assured of a comfortable, well-paid career in China. Yet he has come to California to bare America's soul.
Having rattled through the United States this summer in a black, exhaust-belching 1970 Cadillac, Wang has produced the first movie in this country by a recognized Chinese filmmaker. It is a bizarre tale of Chinese innocence and curiosity abroad, "Easy Rider" as it might have been filmed by Deng Xiaoping.
"The film is very true, very natural," said Wang, who raised $32,000 for the project but needs $20,000 more to make a final print. "We didn't know what would happen."
A rough cut of the film shows that after a decade-long invasion of their own country by hundreds of U.S. film and television crews, the Chinese have finally gotten revenge:
Scene: A New York City sidewalk. A filthy, bearded derelict sleeps peacefully on the concrete. Wang and Shanghai actress Ann Yen, portraying two young Chinese in search of America, eagerly approach.
Wang (shouting to wake the man): "Why don't you go home?"
Yen: "Do you have some family? Do you have a daughter?"
Derelict (opening his eyes with a look of bewilderment): "Huh?"
Yen: "Do you have food?"
(Derelict shakes his head).
Wang: "Why doesn't he go home?"
Yen: "Do you want to drink something?"
(Derelict grunts affirmatively).
Scene: A Virginia roadside apple stand. What can our hero and heroine, citizens of a nation desperately in need of birth control, learn from the proprietor?
Proprietor (robust and talkative): "For cider sweet as honey, this is the place to spend your money."
Wang: "Do you have children?"
Proprietor: "Yup, two boys and five girls. Every time I kiss the old lady she has to buy a new pair of shoes."
From eating hot dogs to betting the lottery to learning from midwesterners whom Wang calls "the peasants," the movie tries to tell the Chinese about America, and Americans about themselves. Wang calls it, "From East to West: Chinese Youths Discover America." Once it is finished, he wants to sell it to American television, perhaps PBS, and also dub it in Chinese for release on the mainland.
Formerly an enlisted man in the Chinese Air Force, Wang became almost an overnight sensation when a short story he wrote about injustice during the Cultural Revolution was published nationwide after Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung's death. He sent the story to several editors before it was published. He went on to write the screenplay for a movie made from the story and has since published a best-selling novel.
Wang came to the United States in 1981, with the blessings of his superiors, an invitation to study at UCLA and the help of an American he met in China, Janet Yang. Yang, a writer now at the Columbia University Business School, coproduced, acted in and provided some English dialogue for the movie, but it is Wang's project, made all the more unusual because he enlisted as his technical crew one person from Hong Kong and three originally from Taiwan, that old enemy of the current Chinese government.
The movie takes a distinctly Chinese look at America, focusing on pastimes like gambling and eating that are certain to provoke interest in Peking. Yang said even Wang's purchase of an old black Cadillac to accompany the film crew van through 20 states seemed to reveal his Chinese outlook. The car is the nearest U.S. equivalent to the long black "Shanghai" limousines that carry important officials to meetings in China.
The crew, including film editor and adviser Shu Lea Cheang, cameraman Eric Lau, assistant cameraman Jean Tsien and a Taiwanese soundman who asked not to be identified, got along well with Wang and Yen. Actress Yen worked professionally in Shanghai but now studies film at New York University as an official exchange student. The crew members, originally from Taiwan, Cheang and Tsien, enjoyed calling Yen, "gong fei," which means "Commie bandit."
As Wang describes the movie, "Two young people who come from Mainland China, one from Peking and one from Shanghai . . . drive across the country to see what America is like and what the American people are like, and to see how they react to the Chinese." They begin in New York, with a visit to architect I.M. Pei, who confesses that when he visited China, "I was made aware of the importance of my roots."
But Wang and Yen spend much more time on New York's streets. A steel band plays "Yankee Dollar." A Hari Krishna group sings lustily. A construction worker, wearing T-shirt, jeans and headband, explains his job. An elderly Chinese immigrant explains to Wang in Chinese the intricacies of the New York lottery.
In Knoxville, Tenn., where the movie's protagonists visit the World's Fair, Wang, the director, even experiments with some nudity. The camera shows him, from the waist up, taking a shower in his hotel room, a sensual experience unheard of in most Chinese homes and hotels. The camera also stares transfixed as Wang flips the channels on his motel room television set: an old Elvis Presley movie, a "Lou Grant" rerun, the latest local news, commercial after commercial.
Wang said the people the filmmakers met in small towns they stumbled into often asked what their salaries were in China. It seemed to bring the two cultures closer together, for that is always the first or second question a Chinese worker will ask a visiting American when the official Chinese guide is out of earshot.
To people from a nation where 80 percent of the population lives off the land, the American Midwest was particularly intriguing. "We visited several peasant homes in Iowa," Wang said. "One had six tractors, they were big tractors . . . and they were nice houses, the condition of the houses was no different from those of city people." At a tractor plant, however, Wang said he was stunned to find the workers "only had 20 minutes to eat lunch." In most parts of China, less than an hour for lunch, usually followed by a nap, is inconceivable.
In Chicago, Wang's cameras visited Studs Terkel, and the movie switches from shots of him to pictures of skyscrapers, highways and smoking factories, all signs of a nation that considers itself the richest in the world. China, of course, once held that title and still has some of the pretensions of world leadership that America is prey to.
To that, the movie shows Terkel issuing a warning: "There is no one country, no matter how important that country might be, there is no one country that is the center of the earth."