Chasing celluloid dreams at China's Tinseltown


Hengdian, China — Fed up with the drudgery of his sales job in southern China, Lu Qi quit and traveled a thousand kilometers north to one of the country's biggest film studios with hopes of making it in movies.

That dream remains a work in progress for Lu and thousands like him who eke out a precarious living as extras at Hengdian World Studios.

Just as movie-goers use film to escape reality, so too do many of Hengdian's army of more than 6,000 extras.

"I failed so many times (in sales) and haven't made much progress," said Lu, his head shaved bald save for a knit cap keeping it warm.

"Most people here have no degrees, skills or relations. (We) can't do any business either, so we are just here to escape the reality and the competition out there," the 24-year-old added.

Hengdian, in eastern China's Zhejiang province, was once a poverty-stricken town amid rugged hills. But in the mid-1990s the investment firm Hengdian Group expanded into movies.

It bulldozed the landscape and erected the mammoth studio complex, which now claims to be the world's largest film and TV shooting base.

Sometimes dubbed the "Hollywood of the East" or simply "Chinawood", local media reported more than 70 percent of China's films and TV shows have been at least partly shot on a 330-hectare (1.3 sq mile) site.

Sets range from ancient palace complexes that can accommodate casts of thousands to contemporary mansions and modern green screens.

"You can complete a Beijing-Hong Kong trip in one day," Hengdian tour guide Wu Rongrong declared as she stood before a life-sized reproduction of Beijing's Forbidden City while gesturing toward a replica of an old Hong Kong street complete with opium bars.

The studio has been the backdrop for Chinese blockbusters like "Hero" (2002) and has been graced by A-listers like Jackie Chan and Fan Bingbing.

Its growth has outrun the local supply of manpower.

"At first, we recruited mostly locals as extras. Now the majority of them come from out of town," said Zhou Fenglai, a Hengdian official who deals with performer management.

An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people are on hand daily to serve as extras at Hengdian. — AFP