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A first-time modelling assignment in China


Yesterday I had a very unusual experience, possibly the most unusual experience I’ve had in my life so far. It started on Thursday night when I received an email from a guy called Lane Oatey asking if I was free the next day to be a model for a photo shoot his company was doing. A short while ago I had replied to lots of different job adverts in desperation because I was running out of money, jobs like teaching kindergarten, acting, even being a male masseur but nobody had replied at the time so I  was surprised to get this email. The theme was East meets West, Old versus new and I was apparently to represent the West in the form of a businessman and three chinese opera singers were to represent the Old East.

I somewhat recklessly replied to the email immediately agreeing to do it, perhaps because I’d had a few beers. So on Friday night I found myself rushing through my English lesson and shoving my 13 year old student Jim and his mother out of the door as quickly as possible and jumping on the subway to get to the eastern part of town.  I arrived half an hour late due to Beijings awful traffic, so it wasn’t a great start.

Lane came down to the street to meet me and we went up some stairs into a fairly messy, dim and cramped office, with only a few people hanging around. One of the people after looking at me briefly deemed make-up unnecessary, and then another spoke rapidly to me in Chinese, until it became obvious due to my vacant expression that I didn’t understand a word she was saying.  I was handed a suit and some big, pointy black shoes to wear and a quite awful bright orange tie. Then we headed out into the street to catch a cab to the on street location where the shoot would take place.

We arrived to see in the distance a crowd of people on a dimly lit and deserted road in the shadow of a big flyover. The flyover was under construction and the workers temporary housing stood at the side of the road. The fancy costumes of the opera singers could just be made out. The crowd consisted of the construction workers who were obviously enjoying the excitement and entertainment. The crew consisted of about five people, two photographers, both men, one manager, an efficient looking woman, the stylist and Lane.

I was intrigued as to why people were standing around and discussing the manhole cover in the middle of the road, they even seemed to be trying to open it. Then Lane made some offhand remark to me about a joke he’d made earlier about digging to China and it transpired that I was expected to climb into this manhole cover for the shoot, while the opera singers hovered over me. Not exactly the glamorous start to my modeling career I’d envisaged. I climbed down into the darkness, gingerly placing my feet on the metal footholds on the side of the wall whilst trying not to think about the twenty foot drop below me never mind the fact that it would be full of shit. My grip wasn’t improved by the huge black pointy shoes they’d given me. After I’d got my position with my upper body out of the manhole, we started taking shots. I was told to look surprised, which wasn’t particularly difficult given the present situation.

The audience was quite big now and were all thoroughly enjoying themselves, there was even the obligatory stray dog. The opera singers, who were all professional actors, were playing up to the crowd which made it even more of a spectacle. In terms of the themes East meets West or old versus new, I’m not sure where the sewer came in, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and Lane seemed very happy, which was the main thing. After about 20 minutes and a severe leg cramp I climbed out of the manhole to be pampered like the true star that I was, despite not having really done anything except stand there and hang on for dear life. In fact I’m sure as well as looking surprised in the photo’s I also had an expression of terror in my eyes as I contemplated the effluence of China racing past beneath me and the painful and ignominious end which falling into it would bring to my first photo shoot.

After the shoot we had a coffee in Starbucks as Lane chatted excitedly, he seemed really pleased and I tried to act as if this wasn’t a complete surprise to me. After I’d been paid I walked back home because I was still trying to comprehend and digest what had just happened. However, in the end I just gave up and realized once again that it all boils down to the fact that TIC (This is China) and all you can do is accept it and go with the flow. 

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