For ages now I’ve been making notes and occasionally writing for a project on how the West learnt about China. That’s to say how Europe and America built a body of knowledge – correct, incorrect, plain wrong or half right – about China. The idea is to cover not just the sort of Marco Polo-Jesuits-Sinologists route but to look at how we have gained knowledge through trade, war, art, Chinoiserie, the senses and physical contact (i.e. sex). But last night I decided to give it a rest and watch a film.
My local pirate DVD seller, who is also a bit of a film buff, recommended a new western called Appaloosa which seemed fitting as a break from China. No such luck. No sooner had I started watching and half drunk my cup of tea and eaten a couple of biscuits than the lead characters – Ed Harris, Renée Zellweger and Viggo Mortensen – all gather in a restaurant that happens to be run a Chinese guy called Chen’s Café Room.
Naturally I sat up at that point and paid attention. It’s set in 1882 in the New Mexico Territory (New Mexico was yet to be granted formal statehood – that didn’t happen until 1912). 1882 is also interesting as the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in May 1882, a ban that lasted well over 60 years following a couple of re-ratifications. I have no idea how accurate it is that a man called Chen would be running a Café Room in 1882 New Mexico but it’s interesting.
It’s doubly interesting as the film’s producers also put some effort into the decoration of Chen’s Café Room (no idea how much they thought about it as the version of the film with the director’s – also Ed Harris – voiceover was not included on my pirate copy). However you can clearly see a statue of Buddha, an old fashioned monkey tree puzzle, some willow pattern china (pretty common everywhere by then of course), some incense sticks and a portrait of what appears to be the Guangxu Emperor (which would have been right for the year). I only caught the picture on the wall for a minute so it might have been the Kangxi Emperor or someone else admittedly. Chen briefly shouts a bit of Mandarin to someone in the kitchen and has the tradmark queue of the Qing Dynasty.
So, as I say, not sure how accurate any of this is (and it may not be as there's a railway that didn't exist at the time in the movie) but it did mean that my Sunday night ended up, as we say in England, a bit of a ‘busman’s holiday’. Good movie though.