China: Ghost World

When Nick Broomfield travelled to China to film 'Ghosts', about the deaths of 18 immigrant cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay, he was surprised at almost every turn. Here, he gives his impressions of a powerful country in a state of flux.
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I thought I was going to find beauty, traditional buildings with pagoda roofs and open landscapes, but what I saw was a country going through massive birth pains, redefining itself, with all the excesses you'd expect: the fastest train you've ever seen from the airport into Shanghai, and then incredible poverty. I suppose it's how the Industrial Revolution was here, but on a much greater scale. What I certainly didn't expect was for China to be quite so blatantly headed for the West. I still thought of it as a socialist economy; in fact, it's more like a capitalist dictatorship.

For example, I imagined there would be lots of bicycles, but the Chinese have graduated to motorbikes, and are about to move on to cars. The country is full of huge freeways with virtually no traffic, but millions of little motorbikes. A whole family gets on one bike, and when it rains they put their umbrellas up.

And I couldn't believe how new it is. Planning seems to be unrestricted and there's a massive urban sprawl that just goes absolutely everywhere. Shanghai still has the old quarters with buildings that were probably built by the British and French, but the rest of the country is astonishing. I spent most of my time in areas where tourists don't go, near Tsiang Lo in Fujian province in the south, but you arrive at the airport and it makes Heathrow look like a bunch of Nissan huts. The train station, too, was totally state-of-the-art and it was already four or five years old. No one outside China has even heard of Tsiang Lo, but the whole infrastructure, in terms of roads, airports, train stations, mobile-phone communication, is far better than we have here.

And the people who live in old houses feel they've somehow failed. Everyone wants to live in these new builds; there's none of that Hampstead feeling of, "I'm going to redo and preserve this old house." One man I met, who was living in my favourite of all the houses I'd seen, told me, "This is the worst house in the village. My son would never get married as long as we lived here, that's why he went away." The young people go abroad to earn money, and when they come back, they build massive five-storey houses that are painted in strange colours and have an odd plastic facing. They look like they're from a Chinese version of Dallas, only they go straight up instead of spreading out, and they move the whole of their extended family in.

In Tsiang Lo, we stayed in a huge hotel with the most amazing food and an incredible dining-room. Outside, everything you could see was new. But there was a statue of Mao and then behind it was a strange, unkempt area of boulders and trees. I went to investigate it and it was a real struggle to get to - you had to run across a main road. It turned out to be the temple complex for whole region. These were the oldest buildings in the city, what in our culture would be the emotional focus of the area and they were abandoned. I'm very much a historian, I'm fascinated by how places are what they are. For them, it's, "Fuck off! We're alive now and we're doing this. What are you going on about?" I think it's very much down to Mao, who eradicated all history prior to him in the Cultural Revolution. It's as if there is no history.

The first time I visited China was with my producer, Jez Lewis, and casting director, Shaheen Baig, in late January 2005. We wanted to get a sense of where these people we planned to make a film about came from, what kind of world they lived in, what it looked like. We'd been sitting in England imagining it and then realised we had to go and find out for ourselves. Most of the cockle-pickers who died in Morecambe Bay in February 2004 came from Fujian province; it's an area where traditionally a lot of the people were fishermen or sailors and there's always been a lot of migration, so we headed there.

We were in the country for just two weeks, tearing around, driving madly backwards and forwards across China making virtually no impression on it at all, just building up a massive petrol bill, and staying in weird hotels in the middle of nowhere. We hired a fixer, Liu Chen, from Beijing and luckily he was super-patient - I think anyone else would have walked out, as we so didn't know what we were doing.

Part of going headlong into it is deliberate: I find that if you think you know what you're doing, then you're probably wrong. But Liu did keep asking, "What's your plan?" and we'd say, "We haven't got one." He was amused, but he did want to do things by the book: if you've grown up in a country with a very authoritarian government and you're not used to saying what you think, you act accordingly. If he was going to be involved, then we had to do it properly. He kept saying, "You have to apply for permission." We did once and got turned down, for which I was quite grateful, because then we could do it how we wanted.

One thing we did have planned was to find a woman to play the lead part in the film. We looked in Fujian, but we also looked in other areas - we were hopelessly trying to cast people all over the place. At one point, Shaheen found someone in central China and we made a massive journey to meet her. We travelled thousands of miles on suicidal Chinese planes, having to take out extra insurance because they had such a terrible crash record, and then even further by bus, only to be met by the sister of (omega) the girl we were after: the girl herself was about to be married and her family wanted her unmarried sister to be in the film instead. That was a high point of frustration.

When we returned a year later, it was with Ai Qin Lin, who we had eventually found in the UK and chosen to play the lead. Ai Qin had travelled to Europe as an illegal immigrant, but had since become legitimate. However, she hadn't seen her son, Bebe, for five years, who had been born in England and then sent back to China. The end sequence of Ghosts is her reunion with Bebe - reality meeting fiction - which we filmed in the airport right in front of two police officers on a little HD camera.

We took her back to the little fishing village her family came from to film the early scenes of Ghosts. It looks very picturesque on screen, but there was real poverty there. People in the UK expect poverty to look like African famine; China's not like that. You don't see a lot of beggars and people have housing, but it's real subsistence living. The people we met were scratching an income; some of them would catch tiny fish to feed up and sell. The factories that had been set up by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, with the idea of setting up a peasant economy, had all closed down; since joining the World Trade Organisation and preparing for it, China has had a free-market economy and all the subsidies that enabled a peasant economy to exist - like free medicine, free schooling - have gone. That's why so many Chinese people are going abroad, usually illegally. There is a whole generation of older people bringing up the kids because all those of wage-earning age are in Shanghai or Australia or England.

The mantra on 'Ghosts' was "make it as real as possible". That's why we cast real immigrants in the lead roles and also why we wanted to meet the families of the victims of the Morecambe Bay disaster. We had got in touch with them via Hsiao-Hung Pai, the journalist who wrote the articles on which Ghosts is based.

Contrary to what I expected, the Chinese show their grief very openly, so it was emotionally exhausting, both for them and for us. It certainly wasn't a shrugging of the shoulders, a "this is what happens". I felt guilty for reopening wounds, but maybe they wanted to talk about it. It had quite an effect on us, though: after we'd met about four of the victims' families, we just felt we couldn't do any more, and I think we went a bit doolally. We tried to cast a woman in the lead who we met in Shanghai, and who turned out to be totally wrong for the part.

The families' biggest problem was that they had vast debts and were living under constant threat from moneylenders. It costs about £12,000 to get to the UK. It's all done by "snakehead" gangs; the immigrants borrow money from a moneylender to pay the gang, and their family back in China makes the monthly payments after they've gone. Obviously, the lenders charge huge interest, and harass the families - you're almost their property until you pay the money off. In one instance, there was a brother and a sister whose parents had both died at Morecambe Bay and who were now being raised by the village. It looked like the daughter was going to be forced into prostitution to pay off her debt and there was nothing anybody could really do about it.

We didn't talk to the moneylenders or snakeheads directly; since we were doing all this in a rather unofficial way, it didn't seem like a good idea. But the hotel we stayed at in Tsiang Lo was full of them, as they were the only people who could afford to stay there. They look just like gangsters anywhere: they wear suits, drive nice cars, smoke all the time and gamble. The hotel lobby was permanently full of prostitutes going in and out, and they would play mah-jongg till 6am when we were getting up. The hookers would have the most amazing orgasms that would go on for ages - even with toilet paper stuffed in your ears, it was just impossible to sleep through it. Then, when you finally did fall asleep, you'd wake up out of your mind, because the drug fumes would seep in under the doors.

The effect on the families was horrific: we were with them as it was coming up to Chinese New Year, which must have been a time when a big payment was due, and they were literally begging us for money. That's why we decided to set up the Morecambe Victims Fund, to help them. Despite their troubles, however, some of them went to extraordinary lengths to help us. The sister of one of the men who had died even organised a big casting session for us. She knew all the girls in a shoe factory in a nearby town, and organised 90 or 100 people to come to the school where she was teaching to audition - even though she knew she might get into trouble with the authorities.

The girls from the factory were lovely people - Jez and I went dancing with a couple of them, to an amazing place in the middle of nowhere where they had the kind of dancefloor that judders, and karaoke singing. They definitely knew how to have a good time, but we knew we'd have to look elsewhere for a lead. There was a sense that they'd sort of had the stuffing knocked out of them: they'd had such hard lives, working long hours and living in dormitories, that there wasn't really any spark left.

I suppose with my kind of thinking you shouldn't go to China. Jez got a much more positive feeling from it than I did; he was much more interested in what he was seeing, the here and now and connecting with the people. His idea of entertainment was to wander off by himself into this labyrinth of streets, not speaking a word of Chinese, and draw on his Palm Pilot where he was trying to get to - say, a ship if he was trying to get to the seaside - and get people to guide him there. Like him, I found the people nothing but friendly and I hate being so negative; making Ghosts left me with a strong affection for the Chinese.

For me, the most important place for Ghosts to be shown is China, and I hope that my being so horribly negative about the country isn't going to make it impossible. I think the film is very accurate and it would be useful as part of a dialogue between China and the West for them to see it. I think the more interchange there is between China and the West, the more chance there is of things opening up.

I don't suppose areas like Fujian are going to be touched by it for a while yet, though. At the moment, China is preparing for an enormous empire; you get the feeling that it's a country in transition that will come into its own in a few years, and I suppose things are bound to change at that point. The government there is no longer interested in having a peasant economy, the life of scratching a living, having a few goats; those people will have to find a new way of supporting themselves. I don't think there's any means by which those small rural communities, like Ai Qin's village, have any chance of survival.

That kind of change is just massively unsettling. I remember when I left there and went to Vietnam afterwards, there was just an odd certainty, a sense of tradition that you don't get in China. Change is a very disturbing thing - particularly so for an English person, I think. It made me feel very insecure.

'Ghosts' is on general release from 12 January. Donations to The Morecambe Victims Fund can be made at