Peter Hutchens (PM): I think a lot of people imagine China to be a pretty monolithic country – a place where everyone looks like the majority Han population, speaks Mandarin Chinese, writes characters, and lives either in the booming eastern cities or in the far-flung countryside. In planning the six episodes of Lost in China, Jeff and I set out to travel as well to the unexpected parts of China: the Muslim west, the minority regions to the southwest, and even predominantly Tibetan areas of the country – and to get below the surface of what have become familiar images of China.
You travelled across China to film the series, meeting people from all walks of life. Did you find people to be welcoming of you as outsiders and journalists?
JM: One thing you can always count on in China is a warm reception. People from all walks of life were always incredibly helpful and kind. Even when official relations between the two countries are a bit strained, personal relationships between local Chinese and Americans passing through come easy. Having a genuine curiosity and respect that runs both ways really helps that.
PM: Absolutely. I’ve always found the Chinese to be extremely approachable – especially on a one-to-one basis. It is even better if you can muster up a few words of Mandarin. When we first lived there in the 1980’s; however, China was just beginning to open up and it felt like were much more insulated than we are today. I remember walking around the street and hearing people whisper the word guilo, or “foreign devil,” under their breath as we passed by. At the time, the government discouraged too much interaction between the Chinese population and foreign residents, but I always felt that on an individual level there was a lot of curiosity. As a kid, people would run their hands through my blonde hair or ask to take pictures with Jeff and me as we walked down the street. And I have found that the Chinese seem to be fascinated with how the outside world sees their country, so that is always a good place to start.
You were kicked out of Gansu during the Tibetan protests. Can you share any more details about what exactly happened?
JM: My favourite part of the whole story is that as our local officials were saying ‘bye’ to us outside a guard post they had just escorted us to they told us “Come back in the spring. It is much more pleasant here then,” with big smiles on their faces as if the weather had anything to do with our premature exit from Gansu. We actually felt quite bad for them – they were caught in the middle of decisions they had no control over – but had to be the ones to kick us out.
Basically, protests filtered over from Lhasa into the monastery that we were shooting at in Xiahe – Labrang Monastery— the most influential Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside of the bordering province of Tibet. We did not really have any indications of this coming down the pipe—but one morning we were told that we could not go back to Labrang to film as planned. Instead, the local officials assigned to keep an eye on us told us we needed to go shoot at some grasslands a couple hours outside of the city. They seemed really anxious to get us out of town—and as we were loading up the vans for the day – we saw why.There were huge columns of troops and police in full riot gear marching in sync up the little one-light main street of Xiahe heading straight towards Labrang. You could see the officials sweating – and you knew they had not wanted us to see that.At all.
The frustrating thing was it was absolutely impossible to shoot any of it – I knew if I even tried to pick up my camera we would have most likely not been just kicked out of the province, but probably the whole country as well. And with officials on either side of me, I knew there was no way to even try to shoot discreetly—not even with a camera phone. So they sent us out of town for the day, and then escorted us back into the city after dark. They made us attend a “banquet” in our honour, which was held in a back, back, back room of a hotel off the main road – and which we had no choice in attending. To test the waters, I said I was just going to go back to the hotel, go to bed early—not hungry, but I was told I had to stay for dinner. Then, after they got the all clear, we were taken back to our hotel and told that we could not leave for the rest of the night. And – there was a collection of the largest men I’ve ever seen posted on guard at the end of our hallway as well as guards positioned outside our windows to make sure we did not go for any after dinner strolls through Xiahe’s curfew streets.
The next day, we were kicked out to the grasslands again and then never let back to our hotel. Our bags were packed for us and sent to meet us on the outskirts of town as they escorted us to a couple areas outside of the Xiahe. Apparently, protestors had smashed the entire glass façade of the hotel. It was wild to be reminded of old style communist China. But I have to say, government thugs definitely no how to fold a shirt.