Chasing a dream in Chinawood
Hopefuls come from across the country, trying to become stars in China's answer to Hollywood
Summer at "Chinawood," the world's largest outdoor film studio, does not feature an idyllic coastline mere miles away. There is no iconic sign perched precariously in the foothills. Extras do not spend their days without gigs working as baristas or temps.
But the dream that sends thousands of hopefuls to California courses just as strongly through the young travelers that arrive at Hengdian World Studios each year.
They want to make it. They want to be stars.
A five-hour drive from Shanghai, Hengdian the town was originally an agricultural hub with about 19,000 residents. But since the studio was created in 1996, tens of thousands of new residents have been lured by the glamour of show business. Many of these residents, known as "hengpiao," or Hingdian drifters, become extras. Now the town holds 70,000 people and the studios have become a major tourist destination in their own right, drawing about seven million visitors a year.
Photographer Darcy Holdorf, 31, visited the site while on assignment for NetEase, a large Chinese news organization. There, she found three types of extras in Chinawood: Young college students, eager for life experiences, adventure, and perhaps 15 minutes of fame; locals, who had worked as farmers but found they could make more money as extras; and dreamers, the ones who truly believed they might make it as actors.
Holdorf remembers one dreamer, Tan Qing Long, in particular.
"I found (Tan Qing Long) a particularly tragic character because he honestly and entirely believed in the dream of becoming a star," Holdorf says. "He decided to give up hope for a wife and a family in order to pursue his career. He hopes to make it to Hollywood to prove it was worth the sacrifice."
Nearly two years later, the aspiring actor still contacts Holdorf occasionally, passing along writing and poetry, as well as updates on his career. He is still trying to make it past extra-status in Chinawood.
As for Holdorf, arriving at the studio as a Western woman capable of speaking Mandarin, she herself quickly became something of a star with her subjects. Extras peppered Holdorf, originally from California, with questions about Hollywood, what the industry was like, whether she thought they could make it as actors in the United States.
"I always factor in some time for the initial shock (photographing in China), and I know it takes longer for people to get used to me than it might in the U.S.," she says. "This makes for a more collaborative, shared experience, and in some ways it feels more fair because I'm forced to give as much as I take — if not more."
But, "it can also be very exhausting," she adds.
For extras, the pay is low (a mid-range extra makes about $9 per day) and the chances of ever landing a starring role in a film are slim. But they still occasionally take time for more social experiences, like swimming in a nearby reservoir or heading out for dumplings in the town's main square.
"[One of the extras] invited me to the new disco that had recently opened on the main street," Holdorf says. "He and his friends dragged me onto the dance floor, which was buoyant like a bouncy horse. The basement room was filled with teenagers with gelled peacock hair checking each other out through neon flashing lights and fog machine clouds. At that moment, I was reminded that I absolutely love how surprising my job is."
Holdorf is preparing to shoot a short film about a shadow puppet master in China's Hubei province; back in Chinawood, her former subjects wait for the cameras to roll and their dreams to be realized.