Beijing or Bust: Documenting China's "Returnees"

In the 1980s-90s, a new phenomenon began to influence China.  Thousands of people who had been born in China or Taiwan (or were born of parents who had been) and grew up or were educated abroad, returned.  Many came to China to experience the Motherland, and found a culture that was familiar and welcoming on the surface, yet fundamentally alien to them in many respects. 

Over the years, as the Chinese economy keeps booming, the number of “returnees” has grown.  At some point, some pundit came up with a name for these people:  haigui 海龟 or “sea turtles.”  The name is actually quite clever, since it works on two levels.  First, it is a pun on the phrase “returning from the sea” 海归 meaning overseas in this case.  Second, adult sea turtles return to the shore from the ocean to give birth to baby sea turtles, who then make their way back into the ocean, only to start the cycle again when they grow up.  Similarly, many of these haigui end up staying in China and raising families.  No doubt many of their children will eventually migrate overseas for their educations as well.

Herein lies the story:  In the 1990s, they came to China to “search for roots” 寻根.  Many of them expected to stay here a year or two and go back.  Some of them did, but others have remained in China despite their expectations.

We can all understand what drew them here:  curiosity, a search for personal identity, family ties.  But what keeps them here?  This is the central question of the film Beijing or Bust (Dir. Hao Wu, 2005, a humble yet surprisingly sophisticated documentary film about several American Chinese who came to Beijing in the 1990s and ended up staying here.

The subjects of the film are Bob Chou, Rania Ho, Kaiser Kuo, Mimi Kuo, Jeffrey Lee, and Ada Shen.  Except for Ada, it’s clear from the surnames that these people were all from Taiwanese or “overseas” Chinese families.  Aside from Kaiser and Mimi, who are brother and sister, the subjects are all unrelated, other than perhaps socially.
Directed by Hao Wu, the film consists of interviews with each of these subjects, who relate their stories.  They tell us when and why they decided to come to Beijing, their initial impressions and experiences, how they and the city changed over the years, and finally, what compelled them to stay.

The director and editor have done a wonderful job of accompanying the subjects’ personal narratives with appropriate footage drawn from the archives of Chinese historical films (including scenes of the C R and the May ‘99 protests) as well as personal films and photographs belonging to the subjects.  

Overall I was greatly impressed by the use of documentary footage in this film to give the viewer a sense of the monumental changes this city and country have undergone in the past 20 years or so.  

My only caveat is that it is not clear enough how representative these people are of the “returnee” experience.  My hunch is that they are rather atypical--especially Kaiser and Mimi, whom the film tends to focus on, simply because they are such interesting and colorful people.  As most Lao Beijingers know, Kaiser played in a band called Tang Dynasty, one of the BIG rock bands to come out of China in the ‘90s.  While he took a break from music for reasons that are made clear in the film, he eventually returned to China and to the rock scene. (You can see his band Chun Qiu on my youtube site: .  His sister Mimi is a photographer and a yoga teacher--interesting career combination I might say, but surely not typical.  The other subjects took somewhat more conventional routes, going into business and the tech world, except for Ada who found work as an art consultant for a local expat mag.
More contextualization would have helped.  Why did the filmmaker choose these particular people?  How many Chinese Americans return to China to live?  How long do they stay?  Is it a different experience for people from Taiwanese or overseas family backgrounds than for people whose families came from the Mainland?  What about Chinese returning from other parts of the world?  Is the Chinese American experience different to other countries, given the particularities of Sino-American relations?  This latter subject is touched upon in the film, particularly in reference to the events of ’99, but it is not dealt with as much as I would have liked.

Finally, there is the question of gender, which again is touched upon but could be developed further.  What are some of the key differences between the male and female haigui experiences?  Apparently the men in the film were all eventually hitched to local wives.  What about the women?  One scene deals with Mimi’s relationship with a local Chinese boyfriend, but it is not long enough to really make sense of it.  Do overseas Chinese women marry local men?  If not, why not?

Otherwise this is a very impressive film, especially given the limited resources and the small number of people working on the production (basically two, judging from the credits).  Kudos to the filmmakers for giving us an authentic portrayal of the haigui experience and of life in Beijing, while avoiding the sorts of cliches that we often see in slicker, better-funded productions.