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‘All Shook Up’ on a Hong Kong film set


I lied to my boyfriend: I have no idea what he wants you to do; the usual stuff, I guess, standing around in the background, pretending to drink, making chit-chat.

Mohammed, the Hong Kong hostel owner, had lined us both up with a number of TV or movie extra jobs over the past weeks. Along with our fellow backpackers we’d headed out into the dark, small hours of the morning to shut-for-the-night bars, clubs and restaurants. We were in demand as western gweilos, white ghosts that filled the spaces around the home-grown stars and the action, rarely a line of our own to utter.

I’d played a cocktail waitress on a couple of occasions and once a restaurant diner; eating cold spaghetti at 2.00am for 5 takes is not fun. If anyone watching the end result could lip-read English, they’d have known that the woman sat back-to-back with the Canto-pop chantress is having a chat with her dining partner about the likelihood of Hartlepool United being relegated again that season. My boyfriend’s credits included ballroom dancing with a man, despite his protests that this wasn’t really done, and small talk with other hard-at-heel travellers sipping unpractised from empty whisky tumblers, clearly wishing their hands were wrapped around a cold beer instead.

Mohammed’s explanation of the gig he wanted my boyfriend for, was interrupted by his booking in a group of young Swedish girls, who would clearly add a glamorous backdrop to any nightclub scene if they were looking to make the price of a bed and a drink or two. Anyhow, I already knew enough to feel guilty about signing my boyfriend up for the part as

I’d heard stories from other hostel guests who’d previously participated in the weekly TV programme in question. Still, we needed the money so I got the details, passed them on and sent my loved one on his merry way – before he could see through my charade of innocence.

I lay in our tiny hostel room trying to sleep; the noise of the Tsimshatsui streets competed with the scurry of cockroaches to make drifting off impossible, well, that and my troubled conscience. I began to wonder about the sense of what I had done, the future of our relationship. The numbers on the digital clock teased with me with their slowness to change. And then, a heavy, step on the stairwell, a quickly unlocked door and the immediate and forceful accusation from my normally placid, easy-going boyfriend: You knew, didn’t you?

He re-counted his evening. His first instruction from the young and trendy assistant-something-or-other, had been to slip some headphones on and sing. Bear in mind that while his grandfather was a founder member of the Welsh National Opera, his father also a beautiful tenor, I’d actually made it a pre-condition of a second date that my man-to-be never sing in my ear again as we slow-danced, so painful was the experience. He’s also, more introvert than extrovert and while more than happy to join the party he prefers it when the spotlight shines on others. His alarm at this first request was only going to intensify at the second: sing…in Cantonese.

However, then it seemed that hope dawned: clearly, he explained, there’d been some misunderstanding over both his choral and linguistic abilities; Mohammed must have got mixed up in terms of what had been required for the role. No, they assured him, his lack of talent in these areas was kind of the point, and then they coached him for 2 minutes until he emitted a series of noises that attempted to imitate what being played to him through the headphones. His one man audience was satisfied with his performance and deep breaths taken, he’d thought the ordeal was over, probably they’d taped his warbling to use another time, though God only knew for what.  A brusque direction to get into costume made him realise his new career had only just begun…

He walked into that dressing-room full of clothes, make-up and efficient Cantonese women as a scruffy back-packer; he left as Mr Elvis Presley – the Las Vegas years. His rhinestone cat-suit glittered; the quiff of his wig reached the same dizzying height as his platforms; at least the large black glasses hid his acute embarrassment. He’d thought of escaping, running (more likely stumbling) down the street and finding a bus home; a taxi would have been beyond our budget and an Elvis look alike waiting for public transport in Hong Kong wouldn’t attract as much attention as you might think. But, before he could suss out an exit, he was taken by the shoulder and firmly pushed towards a curtain: right, you’re on!

It’s a testimony to his powers of forgiveness that 3 months later my boyfriend proposed to me. He’d walked through the gap in the velvet swathes to find himself in front of a 500 strong, wildly applauding studio audience. He was on stage to play a part in one of the rounds of a long-running pop quiz programme. Well-known, local singers and actors made up the two competing panels. The host sat him in a booth and with heads phones on again, he added his unique style of lyric to 5 popular tunes, one of the teams being awarded points according to how quickly they identified what on earth the wailing gweilo was attempting to sing.

The following week, I got to watch my boyfriend’s performance on the tiny TV in our hostel room; even the cockroaches stopped in their tracks. If the room had been big enough for me to double up in I would have done so; I gasped for breath the tears streaming. I’d never have recognised who this Elvis was hadn’t I already known the story behind the man in the crazy get-out.

More the result of trying to walk in platforms than a studied attempt at theatrics, there was definitely a swagger as Elvis made his entrance; I probably imagined the curl of the lip, but maybe it was a genuine part of his how-did-I-get-here expression. For the first 4 songs he must have approximated either Cantonese, or the right tune, or a bit of both, the panelists guessing the answers quickly, though needing to buzz repeatedly to be heard over the laughter of the audience. The last song however, had them stumped, and his high pitched wail went on for a good minute, several life times from his perspective. Elvis left the building to an ovation.

Through my residual tears, I managed to watch the hostel’s Sri Lankan cleaner aka Michael Jackson take on the same role for the benefit of the second team, also a stellar performance. Elvis was invited back for the following week. He declined, due to a prior engagement; he was starting a bar job. Secretly, I knew the fame was already getting to him.

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