Mosaic of China Season 03 Episode 17 — The Stunt Man (Frank ABEL, Binhai Aircraft Carrier Theme Park)
Today’s episode is with Frank Abel, who has been coordinating stunts at the 濱海 [Bīnhǎi] Aircraft Carrier Theme Park since 2012, as well as building and maintaining the modified stunt vehicles on display.
FA: And I yelled off the perch “Hey mom I’m up here!”
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.
This is a project which has been designed to showcase a wide array of unique voices, and today’s episode is no exception. Speaking to Frank Abel immediately transported me to an entirely different world, and I’m excited for you to experience the same thing. So let me keep today’s intro short, here’s my conversation with Frank.
OF: Hello there Frank.
OF: I should say straight away that we are doing this recording remotely. I should have been up there with you, but we'll talk about why that wasn't possible. Before we start, where actually are you in China right now?
FA: I'm in the 濱海 [Bīnhǎi] New Area in 天津 [Tiānjīn].
OF: 天津 [Tiānjīn], exactly. I was supposed to be up there in 天津 [Tiānjīn] a few months ago now. I had been on a skiing trip quite nearby in 吉林 [Jílín]. And I was very clever to say “OK, I'm going to be in 吉林 [Jílín], so I will scoot down to 天津 [Tiānjīn] and we can do our recording.” And of course, that was exactly when things started to lock down in 2022 here in China. I can't travel, so unfortunately, this’ll have to do.
FA: Well, we've tried very hard to get together. And our schedules have a little bit to do with it. But I think the virus is the biggest culprit.
OF: Yes. But it's still very nice to see your face over video anyway. And maybe you should, in one sentence, just explain what it is that you do up there in 天津 [Tiānjīn].
FA: In America, I would say I'm a stunt man. But sometimes I tell Chinese people “I'm a stunt man” and they look at me like they're real confused as to what I do. It doesn't really translate well. The most recognised title of what I do is 'action actor’ to the Chinese. Sometimes I'll even say “Like Jackie Chan”, then they kind of understand. But ‘action actor’, and then I also build vehicles for stunts: boats, cars, motorcycles, different action vehicles.
OF: Well, we are going to go into all of that. But before we do, the first question I ask everyone at the beginning of this podcast is: What is the object that you have prepared that in some way represents your life here in China?
FA: It’s a little model of an aircraft carrier.
FA: And it represents the aircraft carrier at the 濱海 [Bīnhǎi] Theme Park, which is an aircraft carrier theme park here in 天津 [Tiānjīn]. It's where I've spent the last ten years doing most of my work, both building vehicles as well as performing stunts. They have a car stunt show and a water stunt show.
OF: Perfect. And it's also making me doubly annoyed that I can't be up there to go to the actual stunt show. That was one of the reasons I really wanted to be in 天津 [Tiānjīn], so I hope that there will be a chance for me to come up at some point in the future. Can you give me a quick rundown as to what that place is? It sounds quite bizarre to have a theme park based on an aircraft carrier.
FA: Well, the aircraft carrier is actually the backdrop of our stunt show. So you couldn't ask for a better stage. And the theme of the show is, the pirates are trying to take over the aircraft carrier. The theme park has not only got the aircraft carrier, but recently they brought in a submarine and some other ships into the lake area. They have tanks, they have fighter jets, as well as this massive retired Russian aircraft carrier. So it's geared more towards Russian history. They also have a replica of an old street in Russia as well. Prior to the virus, there was over a million people a year who came to the park.
OF: Wow. It sounds like you are in some kind of geopolitical nexus there.
FA: You know, we have people from all over the world. We have no discussion of politics, just having a good time enjoying ourselves.
OF: Well, why don't we start straight into what it is that you do, day-in day-out at the theme park?
FA: Normally when I get there, my first priority is to make sure all the vehicles are prepared for the show, operational and also safe. After that, then I assist with the stunt team to make sure all of their preparations are also safe. And in addition to the vehicles, I also am responsible for the rigging of each show. So all of your ropes have to be tied right, and there are daily checks in preparation for each one of those as well. And then during the show, we have backup vehicles for each one of the vehicles in the show. You know, we're doing things that these things are not made to do. We're jumping boats, we're submerging jet skis, we're driving cars on two wheels, crashing motorcycles through fire. And I've done my best to redesign them, to hold up against these things. But anything can go wrong. 'The show must go on’, as the old saying goes. So we have backup vehicles, we can swap the vehicles out, keep the show moving at a steady pace. There are also fire burns going on, there’s acrobatics, there are five people on stage fighting at the same time, there are people jumping off the ship, there are machine gun battles going on. You know, I've seen this show for ten years, I know where to look. And I can sit in the audience and I cannot view everything that's going on at the same time. There's always something to see.
OF: Tell me, at what stage in the creation of that show did you first come in?
FA: I was actually asked to come over in 2012. The show had been in operation for a couple years. They were having trouble with one of the boats, and they found me and asked me if I would come over and design a new boat. We took one of the old boats, and then completely reconfigured it so it could be more dependable. We were supposed to build two of them, but it works so well, we ended up only building one of them. And the thing, still to this day, is used in the shows. I also am able to perform in the show. I don't take on any of the larger roles in the show, because of my responsibility with the vehicles and the rigging. But I've been able to play several different roles in the show. One has a high dive, one has a fire burn, some comedy shows that we do…
OF: Is it normal for a stuntman to also be this expert in vehicles?
FA: I think my situation evolved with my surroundings, you know you’re a product of your environment. But it is very common for a stuntman to have many other occupations. The stunt man is like an actor, and the work is few and far between, especially when all you're doing is movies. So you've got other occupations that you pursue in between. You're basically like a football player that has to stay in condition and train for the next job, as well as in between each job trying to support your family and keep income coming. But also you’re your own booking agent, constantly hustling to try to find the next job as well. I couldn't even list all the different jobs that I've had in between my stunt jobs.
OF: Yes. In which case, a theme park where it's predictable income, is that the ultimate gig for a stuntman?
FA: Actually, throughout the stunt industry, it's kind of looked down upon.
FA: Back in the 80s, if you worked at a live stunt show, they wouldn't even consider you for a movie.
FA: Nowadays, it's the training ground for the movie industry. Because they have the training, they know the safety aspects, and things like that. And it's much more reliable than finding the guy on Facebook looking for a stunt job that has been on a trampoline three times in his life.
OF: Since we're now talking about stunts in the movies versus stunts in live shows, what actually is the difference between the two?
FA: The stunts in the live shows, these are performed sometimes ten times a day. So they really have to be analysed, and blocked, and coordinated, to eliminate any risk of someone getting hurt. We do a lot of rehearsals and practising. All the performers are trained for each particular stunt over and over again. Whereas in a movie, they want to get it on film. So if you're lucky, you get it done one time. Normally there'll be, of course, some preparing for the stunt. You know, all the safety aspects are still there. But once it's performed, it's over, it's done with. They get it on film, it's history. So stunts in the live shows are more dialled back, I want to say.
OF: Right. And we're talking about films versus theme parks through the lens of the U.S. Why don't we then come back to China? Have you worked in both of these areas in China, or have you only been working at the park?
FA: Actually, I've been blessed to be able to work some film work here. A friend of mine asked me to go help with the Jackie Chan film, Kung Fu Yoga.
OF: Oh right.
FA: I got to work in conjunction with Jackie Chan, so it was really cool. I've also been asked to do some commercials and some advertisements and things like that, doing bit-part acting, doing stunts, consulting, things like that for the movie industry.
OF: And so what are the differences between your experiences in the film industry back in the States, versus what you've experienced here?
FA: On set, it's at the directors pace. You know, the director always determines what's going on, how fast. So actually, on set is very similar to the States, from my experiences. Off set is a completely different world. The industry in China is similar to the industry in America 20-30 years ago. Before very strict union rules, very strict contracts, any structure was brought about. For example, the agents. In America, when you want to sign with an agent, you choose one agent, you sign with that agent, and you are not allowed to sign with any other agent.
FA: So you're very limited as to your representation. In China, on my WeChat, I've probably got over 200 agents.
OF: Oh my god.
FA: And it's like the cow that fell into the Amazon River, and the piranha are out.
FA: When there's a film, the production company will contact a bunch of agents, and cut them loose. You know, sometimes I'll get called from four or five different agents on the same production. And even sometimes with different price ranges. In America, they would never work again. In China, this is standard. You can't really point fingers at this. Because one, the production has to get the job done. Of course, they're going to call all the agents they can, to find those resources. Now the agents, they have to make money, and they're gonna hire the cheapest person that they can.
FA: They're all making a living. It's just the business.
FA: And in America, it's the same thing, there’s just more control and more restrictions.
FA: As far as pay rate, in the States there's also what they call ‘adjustment fees’. You get a daily rate for showing up to the set, and that includes your basic stunts. If you're going to do something elaborate - as far as a high fall, a fire burn, they want to blow you up - then there's a fee on top of what you're paid for the day. And that is paid each time that you perform the stunt. So, say they do five takes on the stunt, they may end up paying you five times the adjustment fee, plus your daily rate…
FA …In order to perform a stunt.
OF: But hang on then, let me interrupt you there. Because then, doesn't that incentivise the stunt man to make mistakes the first four times?
FA: Not so much. You take four takes, you're not coming back next week.
FA: If you get it done in one take, the director’s happy, he's gonna invite you back. In China, when you negotiate your daily rate, you pretty much are locked in to that fee for anything that you do.
OF: A director can take multiple, multiple, multiple takes with no extra cost, right? So they might put the stunt man through the wringer, and the stunt man would just get paid the same.
FA: Oh yeah. And I worked on a film here, and we did five rehearsals until the director was happy with the action, and nothing was even filmed yet. And then they would film it, and everybody went through the same action. And then they would move one camera, and go through the whole action again. And then move one camera, and do the whole action again. Because those cameras are a huge cost. In America, they'll have seven or ten cameras on set, and do it once. Versus here, you know, you have the director in a tent, nobody sees him, he has an imagination of what he wants to see, and if he doesn't see it we're doing it again.
OF: Gosh, yeah. And of course, in both cases, it's just about budget. But I can see how in the States - with actors being more expensive - then you cut costs on using the actors. Here in China, if the cameras are more expensive, you just have one and make the actors do it again and again. I can see exactly how it works.
OF: Well, how the hell did you become a stunt man in the first place?
FA: I was born. I was born with no fear. What really got me into stunts was, I started springboard diving when I was eight years old.
FA: And, you know, my diving coach would ask me “Can you do a double flip?” And I would say “I don't know, but I'll try.”
FA: And I would go up and do it until I got it right. And if I crashed, if I got hurt, I didn't care, I wanted to get it finished. That switch that tells you “This is crazy, don’t do it" is not in my thought process. It's like “Oh, this is cool, I wanna do it.”
FA: And I took a family vacation to Hawaii. And we went to this place called Waimea Falls, and there's a waterfall that falls over about 45 feet. And next to it is a perch about 65 feet high, which is 90 metres. I was 14 years old at the time: 1978. And I was watching the little native boys from Hawaii jump off this perch into the water. And it was all brown water, you couldn't see what you were jumping into. And I talked my parents into allowing me to climb the waterfalls, that was the first obstacle. But my mom said “Well as long as you go from this side, it's only about 40 feet, I'll take a picture.” And I said “OK well I'll go on up.” Well I climbed the 45 foot side, and I crossed the stream, and I proceeded to climb up to the 65/70 foot perch.
OF: I knew you would say that, yeah.
FA: And I yelled off the perch “Hey mom, I'm up here!” And jumped off the perch. The adrenaline rush was like an addiction to a drug. It's like a tingling sensation throughout your whole body.
OF: So then, from that experience, did you already know that you wanted to gear yourself up for this career? Or did it happen more by chance later on in life?
FA: No, actually that was the end of it. When I was 14, I went back to diving, you know, I did my competition diving. And when I was 16 years old, I was invited to go to Nationals. I vividly remember a conversation with my mother. She said “You need to choose, continue and go to the Olympics, or do you want to do this stunt stuff? Either way, I'll support you. But you need to make a decision, pursue it, and never give it up.” I remember saying “Well mom, diving, I go to the Olympics - maybe two Olympics - and then I'm a diving coach for the rest of my life.
FA: And stunts, I really love it, and it's something I want to do the rest of my life. And she did her research prior to this conversation, and said “Well I know of a stunt school you can go to, Kahana Stunt School. I'll pay for the school, but you're on your own after that.” I've got children that are 20 and 25 years old - and a daughter here in China who’s six now - and I think my mom was out of her mind sending me to Hollywood to be a stuntman when I was 16 years old.
FA: But I stuck to it. And here I am, 42 years later, still doing it.
OF: Yeah. You mentioned your family. What does this kind of work do to your relationships, with your family, with your friends?
FA: It absolutely destroys all relationships. You know, in one aspect it develops relationships, because of course, everybody wants to meet the unknown stunt man. But as far as true relationships - your friends, your family - you don't have much time. You've got a production schedule, you’re travelling. Say, my children in the States, I won't say I neglected them, I've provided for them, I've always loved them. But I haven't always been there because I'm on set. It's a love hate relationship.
OF: Yeah. And I'm surprised that you talk about it just in terms of timing. Because for me, I would also imagine this person who likes to take risks. Doesn’t that lend itself to a certain kind of thinking?
FA: Well, that's kind of a prerequisite for my relationships. I'm crazy, I jump off cliffs, I set myself on fire, crash cars. If this is going to worry you, I don't want to have anything to do with you.
FA: As far as my family, they accepted it fifty years ago, when I was seven.
FA: You know, my kids, they didn't really know what I was doing until later in life. But, you know, they all know me. And they know that this is my passion. They know they cannot talk me out of it. If they tell me “This is crazy, you shouldn't do this”, then I'm going to do it even more.
OF: What was the biggest accident or incident that you've been involved in?
FA: In 42 years of doing stunts, I've had one injury that was worth speaking of. When I was in training, I went through my beginning course of stunt school. And during the course, I did a fire stunt for my pictures to do my résumé. And I was burned horrifically. And actually, my brother and my father were present at the filming of the stunt. That was probably the most tragic and actually only time I was injured.
OF: Yeah. And then it's just a testament to your professionalism that you never did that ever again, I suppose. I mean, is there some kind of bravado? You know, you meet up with other stunt people in bars, and compare your accidents? Or actually, is an accident a symbol of how you're not good at your job?
FA: Well yeah, we do compare scars and wounds. And, you know, I call them ‘Frank's tall tales’. You know, experiences that we've had throughout our lives. I was trained by Kahana, a very prominent stunt man in America. And he told me “There's a stunt man, and there's a daredevil.”
FA: A stunt man performs a scientific approach, to create an illusion of a dangerous feat. A daredevil performs a dangerous feat.
FA: And the difference is that the stunt man walks away without injury. You know, you got your Evel Knievel who jumps 27 buses, and crashes, brakes 17 bones, but still made $200,000 performing his ‘stunt’. Well, he's a daredevil. The guy that spends time with the choreographers, the stunt coordinator, and the scientists, to make sure that he can perform the stunt with no risk to getting hurt, and performs it, films it, and presents that to the world for entertainment, that’s a stunt man.
OF: Well said. Well, thank you so much Frank. I am of course, neither of those. So for someone like me, it is really fascinating to talk to you. Not just about your risk appetite, but also the world that you live in, and the skills that you must bring to the table each and every day. I really appreciate you sharing that.
FA: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure.
OF: And now we move on to Part 2.
OF: OK, are you ready? We're gonna do the 10 questions…
FA: Oh yeah! I’ve been dying to do this!
OF: Good! Let's jump straight in. The first question, which comes from Shanghai Daily: What is your favourite China-related fact?
FA: The fact that China has been here so long. I went to work on a project in Taishan, and it was at a theme park. And I was walking through this tunnel that had a 3D animation, and I'm asking “What is this all about?” And he says “Well, this explains the 6,000 years of history of Taishan." And I'm like "So this city has been here for 6,000 years?” “Well yeah!” And the fact that China has been in existence - keeping records in history - for thousands and thousands of years, it's just phenomenal.
OF: Well said. Next question, which comes from Rosetta Stone: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
FA: 一笑解千愁 [Yīxiào jiě qiān chóu]. My Chinese pronunciation sucks so… The meaning is "A smile that solves a thousand worries.”
OF: 一笑解千愁 [Yīxiào jiě qiān chóu]. Yes.
FA: Even in English, one of my favourite sayings is “Keep smiling and no-one knows what you're up to.” You know, whether you're depressed - you’ve got family problems, no matter what is going on in your life - if you're smiling, it actually works. You know, being happy and trying to smile, it does solve a thousand worries.
FA: Besides “你好美女 [nǐ hǎo měinǚ], that's my favourite.
OF: Oh dear. Next question - and this one comes from naked Retreats - what is your favourite destination within China?
FA: 西双版纳 [Xīshuāngbǎnnà].
OF: Oh nice.
FA: I was invited to go do a show in 西双版纳 [Xīshuāngbǎnnà]. And it's just totally jungle, and more jungle.
FA: It’s like Tarzan in the Jungle, you know, just another world compared to the concrete jungle that I've spent most of my life in China in.
OF: Yes. Of course, they're on opposite sides of the country, with 天津 [Tiānjīn] up in the Northeast, and 西双版纳 [Xīshuāngbǎnnà] down in the southwest. Let's move on. Question 4, if you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
FA: Missing the most is relationships. Whether I worked with them, or met them at the store - the guy that runs the little store where I buy my water bottles from - the relationships is what it's all about here in China.
FA: And I think that's what I'll miss the most.
OF: Got it. And how about the least?
FA: The horns.
FA: The car horns! It's a courtesy to blow your horn. If someone's in your way, you blow your horn just to let them know you're there, because it's a polite thing to do.
FA: And that's culture. But I look forward to the day of being home and not hearing the car horns outside.
OF: Next question, is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
FA: My air conditioning is broken in my house. And in America, if you call the air conditioner guy, he wouldn't leave until it was fixed. And he would look for the opportunity to make as much money as he could, resolving your problem.
FA: The guy who came the other day, he shows up on a moped, he comes in and he says “Well, what air conditioner's not working?” I said “The one in the bedroom.” And he goes over and looks at it. And he grabbed the remote control and turned it on, and he says “OK, yeah, it doesn't work. I'll be back tomorrow with my tools.”
FA: Then next day, he comes back. And he brought his tools. So he took it apart, and he says “I need a part. It's gonna be two or three days.” So he came back two or three days later. And he puts it together. And he says “We'll try this. If it works, we'll be OK. If not, I'll be back in a couple of days.”
OF: OK I can relate to the story now. Because I do have this handyman who came three times to fix one small problem with a sink. And firstly, there was a leak. And then secondly, he put the tubes in the wrong way, so hot was cold and cold was hot. I mean, there was a different issue each time. I think what you're talking about is this handyman ‘师傅 Shīfù’ culture. He’s playing the odds, because out of all the call-outs he has, there might be three or four that he can do just by himself, just twiddling this knob, twiddling that knob. Maybe that's what's happening.
FA: Yeah, he's scheduled his day to analyse three jobs, and to complete two or three.
OF: Yeah. It reminds me of the story about the director on the set. You know, you're gonna do what makes you the most money at the least cost. Boom.
FA: Yes, yes. Absolutely.
OF: OK next question, which comes from SmartShanghai: Where is your favourite place to go out, to eat or drink or just hang out?
FA: There is a pub called Jacky’s that resides right across the street from me. I've been going there since the first night that I arrived in China. They've been called me ‘Frank’ since the day I walked in. The waitstaff and the owners, they’re all just very professional, very friendly.
OF: Very nice. It reminds me of Norm from Cheers, right? You walk in there, and everyone says “Frank!”
FA: Oh, yeah, yeah.
OF: Excellent. Next question. What is the best or worst purchase you've made in China?
FA: Best purchase I made is, I want to say, my motorcycle. I struggled between a Harley-Davidson and a Chinese motorcycle. But I found a nice Chinese replica at 10% of the price of a Harley-Davidson. Being a stunt man, and with my background, I enjoy motorcycles. That's my escape.
OF: How did I know that you would have a motorcycle?
FA: Of course. Now getting the licence - the two years it took to get my motorcycle licence, and all the **** that went into being able to drive that motorcycle - was not the best experience.
OF: Oooh. Well maybe that's why it also counts as your best purchase, because of the investment you had to do to actually make it.
FA: Absolutely, it was definitely a big investment.
OF: Wow. Next question, what is your favourite WeChat sticker?
FA: I’ll send you my monkey stickers.
OF: OK. Ah yes.
FA: The monkey is my character. You know, I'm the clown, I'm the goofball, I'm the guy that does anything. I came across these stickers, and every one of them has a different point of my perspective.
OF: I can see you doing all of these things in real life. It's not much difference to the real Frank. I actually haven't seen that set, they look pretty fun. OK, next question. What is your go-to song to sing at KTV.
FA: That’s limited by the availability of the songs here.
FA: Since I come from a country music background. But Alan Jackson, ‘Good Time’. It’s pretty reliable that I can find that at almost any KTV.
OF: Is one of those sad country songs, where you've lost your wife or your dog has run away, and…
FA: No, ‘Good Time’, of course, is about partying and having a good time, being with friends and barbecues and things like that.
OF: Very nice. And finally, and this question comes from JustPod: Who or what is your biggest source of inspiration in China?
FA: Being a stuntman, Jackie Chan has been a huge inspiration. What he has accomplished here - you know, I think he's 67 years old, and started, as I did, when he was a young boy - is just a true inspiration. My first inspiration in America is, of course, my teacher Kahana.
FA: He’s 93 years old, and he still performs in movies, and runs his stunt school.
OF: Oh wow.
FA: Both of their accomplishments, and the drive to never give up. I have both their pictures on my wall, and when I'm not feeling good in the morning, and I've gotta get up and do something, there’s nothing more inspirational than to look up at someone who far surpasses my years, and still gets up every morning and goes out and works his ass off.
OF: Wow. You are someone who obviously puts your body through a lot, and you still maintain an active lifestyle, and obviously a very good sense of humour. So it's really great to hear that last answer. And, of course, to hear your whole story. Thank you so much for your time today, Frank.
FA: Well, thank you. It's been an honour to be a guests on your show. And I've thoroughly enjoyed it.
OF: Me too. Tell me, out of everyone you know in China, who would you recommend that I interview for the next season of Mosaic of China?
FA: A friend of mine, Justin Muller, he's an international director of a studio down in 宁波 [Níngbō]. He also worked closely with several different movie studios throughout the country. And I believe he would be a perfect candidate for this.
OF: Great, I really appreciate that, I look forward to meeting with Justin. Thank you so much again for your time Frank.
FA: Well thank you, I appreciate it.
OF: It’s been a good few months since Frank and I did that recording, and we have still not been able to meet up face to face. But I promise it will happen! That may or may not end up being in 天津 [Tiānjīn], because these days Frank is actually doing more work in 大连 [Dàlián], at a theme park there called Discovery Kingdom. I’m sure he’s still adding to his collection of ‘Frank’s tall tales’, so I’m already looking forward to recording a catch-up with him next season.
As you can imagine, there were many many more stories that we couldn’t quite fit into the time limit of the episode. So as always there’s a longer version of this interview available on the PREMIUM version, on Patreon or Apple Podcasts Subscriptions internationally, or on 爱发电 [Àifādiàn] in China. Just search for mosaicofchina on those platforms. Here are some clips:
FA: I guess the most famous one that I worked on was Rain Man, with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.
OF: Oh wow.
FA: I’ve been told my accent is kind of screwed up.
FA: They can make it look like the guy falls for three seconds, versus the one second that he actually fell.
FA: We have 19 performers for each show.
FA: That's the redneck in me.
FA: We have three kung fu guys who actually studied at the 少林 [Shàolín] Temple.
FA: Modifying the electronics, installing special braking systems, it's very intense.
FA: Hustling the studios, we used to climb fences dressed up as Pizza Hut delivery guys carrying pizza boxes and a change of clothes.
FA: I not only returned the following season, you know, I haven't left since.
FA: I went to a waterfall…
OF: Did you jump off it?
FA: No, the puddle wasn't big enough.
[End of Audio Clips]
OF: Be sure to go to the Mosaic of China website or social media, to see all the images associated with today’s episode. And yes, that includes some photos of Frank with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman from the set of Rain Man. Even though that story only appeared in the PREMIUM version of the show, you can’t blame me for including those online now, can you?
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. I have a couple of catch-ups with previous guests from the show coming up now after the music, and they represent the perfect accompaniments to Frank’s episode. The first is with Murray King from the Shanghai Disney Resort, who first appeared in Season 02 Episode 29; followed by a quick chat with Emily Madge from Sea World, who first appeared in Season 01 Episode 14. Please enjoy listening to those, and I’ll see you back here next time.
[Catch-Up Interview 1]
OF: Hey Murray!
OF: We are doing this electronically rather than face-to-face because I'm on the 浦西 [Pǔxī] side of Shanghai, and you're on the 浦东 [Pǔdōng] side of Shanghai. We always joke about how there's two different sides of Shanghai, but recently there were some times where you really couldn't even go from one side to the other, right?
MK: Well, I think a lot of people in the city have learned a lot more about the different layers of jurisdictional governments. Your room, or your home, or your community, or your township, or your district. But it's certainly nice to be able to travel.
OF: It's nice to see you in person. I have bumped into you from time to time since our original recording. And I think the last time that I saw you in person was at one of the final get-togethers at M on the Bund, which you had previously nominated as your favourite place to eat or drink or hang out in Shanghai.
MK: That's right. Isn't it amazing how life comes full circle. Which is too bad.
OF: Yeah. It just goes to show that things are a-changing. But you've been around for over 20 years - I can't even remember how many years now - so you've seen these cycles go up and down. There's always someone who says “Oh, it's not like it used to be” or “You should have been here before X and Y.” These cycles are always there. But I guess they're very vivid right now. You know, everyone in China will be the ones who future foreigners in China will roll their eyes at.
MK: I remember when I was working at the Canadian Consulate General in Shanghai in the early 2000s. We had quite a few visitors actually who were quite advanced in age, who had lived in Shanghai in the 1930s. I guess one day maybe I'll be like them, I'll be visiting again in the future and reminiscing about our own collective experience of Shanghai.
OF: Well just to jump in and interrupt you, for people who did not hear your original episode in Season 02, you are in charge of Public Affairs and Communications at Disney, at the Disney Resort here in Shanghai. And Disney has become a bellwether for what's happening in Shanghai, whether you like it or not. You know, when the resort gets shut, that makes world news; when the resort reopens, that makes world news. In fact, anything vaguely unusual happening - or even the faintest whiff of something unusual happening - that makes news. So I can really see how you're in the nexus of things.
MK: Yes. But if we're the bellwether, I hope that the prognosis is looking a little bit more optimistic. Being a symbol of optimism and hope; bringing joy and magic into people's lives; creating memories with friends and family that last a lifetime; being a showcase of responsibility.
MK: So even when I go back to May of 2020 when we reopened, we were the first major global tourism destination worldwide to reopen, and maybe be a little bit of a beacon of light to people all around the world who were in different stages of the pandemic.
MK: I have to say, your end of Season 02 Mosaic of China party was probably one of the social highlights of the last few years in Shanghai. What a wonderful collection of people. Honestly, it was great to see you, great to see all of your different guests, and to celebrate together.
OF: Well, I am very flattered. I don't know what to do when people compliment me, but I will accept it graciously.
MK: You should. Honestly. Honestly, you brought the community together in a way that I hadn't seen in 24 years.
OF: Oh, that's so nice to hear. Well then, thank you for that. And thank you for the encouragement, thank you for your participation, and I hope to continue to stay in touch with you Murray.
MK: My pleasure Oscar.
[Catch-Up Interview 2]
OF: You look amazing.
EM: Thank you! Do I? It's the glow, you know.
OF: What do you mean ‘glow’?
EM: So my new news is that I'm pregnant.
OF: I knew it, as soon as you said that. How funny. Congratulations.
EM: Thank you.
OF: It’s making me go back to our original recording. For those who didn't listen, Emily was at that time working for Sea Life in Shanghai. As part of our conversation, I was shouting “Fish Fact!” at you, and you were coming up with random fish facts. But all of them had to do with either sex or childbirth. And now I'm thinking “All right, well what's your story this time?”
EM: So I moved to Thailand - based in Sea Life Bangkok for two and a half years now - had a great time, last year met my now partner, and yeah recently found out we're expecting a little girl.
OF: I'm very happy for you.
EM: Thank you.
OF: At the same time, I'm quite sad because it means that there's less and less likelihood that I'm ever going to have the chance to appear on your doorstep, and crash on your couch.
EM: That’s true.
OF: Couldn’t you have waited?
EM: I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't think of you when I was thinking about it.
OF: Exactly, it’s so selfish.
EM: Unless you want to come to Copenhagen. So I am moving to Copenhagen in a few weeks.
OF: Oh my word!
EM: Yeah. So it's all change again. My partner's Danish, so we're going to be going back to Denmark for the duration of my maternity leave, and have the baby there. So I've got to get used to the cold weather again.
OF: Well, well. It's so funny, because of course you are one of the people from Season 01, and by the time it was Season 02 you were in a different country, and then now that it's Season 03 it's gonna be a third country. Believe it or not, you're not the only one in that position, it’s so crazy.
EM: Really? Yeah. Obviously I was in Shanghai, which is where we met. And I have two Sea Life centres in China that I was hoping I could go and visit before I go on maternity leave. But unfortunately, it'll have to be when I come back now. So we'll have to meet up for a beer when I'm back.
OF: Yes. Well what we talked a lot about in our original episode was, of course, how you had spent an entire year organising the paperwork to transport two beluga whales from Shanghai to their ‘forever home’ in Iceland. What is the update this time? And have you been to Europe to actually see them in person at this point?
EM: So the whales are doing fantastically, making a lot of progress. We've got a great team there who are working on a lot of their training behaviours. They're now learning to go out into the bay, and being recalled back for things like bad weather. It's still a big focus for Sea Life, there's still a lot of things we need to do, and a lot of progress to make, but we're heading in the right direction. And the whales are loving their new life, making lots of friends with the other sea creatures that they're finding, discovering the sea anemones and the starfish and things like that that they never encountered in captivity. So yeah, very humbling. And I didn't manage to get over to Iceland, we were planning on going last Christmas to go and see the whales, but bad weather stopped it. There was a lot of work that went into that - which we discussed on the podcast - and it'd be really nice to actually see the final part. So I'm really looking forward to being able to do that.
OF: Yes. There are just a few loose ends hanging around the world for many people.
OF: And we haven't quite gotten around to tying them off, right?
EM: Yeah, correct, correct. But we all will, I'm sure.
OF: Yeah. This is the last time that I will speak to you in Bangkok. And I'm also thinking about our original episode, about the things that you would miss when you left Shanghai. Things like the food, I think hotpot was one of the things that you mentioned.
OF: What about now that you're leaving Bangkok, and leaving Asia, at least for the time being? Do you know what you're gonna miss the most and miss the least this time around?
EM: Definitely the food, the food is fantastic in Thailand, as everyone knows. And the prices. And the beaches and the weather are just paradise here.
OF: Well, good luck with everything; good luck with the maternity leave; good luck with Denmark. Thank you very much for giving me a few minutes of your time, and I hope that we will continue to keep in touch as part of this project, but also personally as well.
EM: Definitely. Thank you for having me, it was great to catch up.