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Manoa 15.2 (2003) 135-142

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The Death of an Artist

Wang Anyi

Maohan had an accident on Highway 213. Witnesses saw his motorcycle dart like an arrow into the side of a freight truck. Then they bounced off the truck—man and bike in different directions.

Maohan crashed while rushing to Suzhou to shoot a scene. He was what we call a performance entrepreneur. Maohan was not his real name but his—how should we put it?—stage name, perhaps, which he used professionally. When the credits rolled after the soap operas, the name Maohan often appeared. That was him.

He was not from this city but came from a town of middling size in the northeast. During high school, he trained with a provincial opera troupe until it was about to fold. Then he came to this city and enrolled in a performance class at an art school. After two years, he graduated. While still in school, he cultivated professional connections. Many students worked outside class: dubbing foreign films, doing commercials, filling in as extras in films and TV movies. At first, Maohan was just a sub, that is to say, a stand-in for someone who secured an engagement but couldn't make it at the last minute or who had booked two engagements and had a scheduling conflict. Eventually, he landed his own engagements through connections with people on TVcrews, who all knew one another, so knowing one was the same as knowing all. He was hard working, didn't mind the low pay, and, because he had been in an opera troupe—never mind the talent bit—did have some experience. Because he was also versatile, he was well regarded by the crews. By the time he got his diploma, he was already quite busy. But no matter how many engagements he managed to get, he tried his hardest to fit them all into his crowded schedule rather than share them with others. In this respect, he was stingy for a northerner.

So that he could get quickly from one shooting location to another, he bought a motorcycle; then he got a beeper and a cell phone so he could keep in constant contact with the crews. Fast communication and fast travel were necessities of his trade. At first, he played only bit parts—no more than the lead sheep in a flock of extras. Later on, characters with names came. This was when he took for himself the stage name Maohan ("blood clam," after a dish he first tasted in this city). He chose it for no [End Page 135] other reason than its oddity. However, han is a homonym for a northern word used affectionately for someone dumb or slow. To his northerner's ear, the name sounded good, and he thought that it would make a distinct impression.

By this time, he couldn't do without this city. He was familiar with all the local crews and constantly in demand. As soon as he graduated, he rented a room and settled down. Rooms are expensive here. A room that was about eight feet by eight feet with a northern exposure and neither kitchen nor bathroom commanded a good four or five hundred yuan. Food, on the other hand, was not a problem because box meals were often provided on the sets. As for going to the bathroom, that was not too difficult because Maohan always had his motorcycle and could ride to nearby hotels to use the facilities there. Summers were pretty tough, though. Summer days in this city tend to be rainy and humid, and Maohan's little room grew hot and stuffy. As a northerner, he felt as if he was constantly immersed in a bathtub. He bought a portable air-conditioner, but his landlord wouldn't let him use it because his room didn't have a separate electric meter; if a line was spliced from a five-ampere meter, the overload, however small, would cause an outage. When the conflicts with his landlords meant he had to move out, the disputes were invariably...


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