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New sitcom depicts expat life in Beijing

Beijing-based sitcom, No Pets or Foreigners, tackles 'expat problems' and the culture gap

Cast (from left to right) Scotty Bob Cox, Kara Wang, Victor Muh, Murray Clive Walker
No Pets or Foreigners is a Beijing-based sitcom written by Johannesburg-born actor Murray Clive Walker (穆雷克), a resident of China for the past seven years. The pilot episode is an intriguing mix of dialogue in both English and Mandarin and is currently in post-production (check out a preview for the show below). As the show attracts interest from several potential distributors, Time Out catches up with its creator and star to talk about what it’s like to write and film a comedy set in our fair city.

Hi Murray. So what’s the central concept of your show?

The misadventures of two foreigners and a Chinese landlord and his daughter as they attempt, and mostly fail, to bridge the cultural gap. It’s also about cherishing the similarities and relishing the differences between people. That’s something to be explored and ultimately understood and enjoyed.

Could this be your personal life philosophy?

Yeah, sure! That’s the beautiful thing about travel - seeing all these quirks and idiosyncrasies. Learning how other people can be and how you can be as well.

Tell us about the main characters. I know the clueless laowai are Larry and Melvin.

Larry is a little bit stupider than Melvin. He’s a bit of a womaniser. Melvin is the lovable loser character who doesn’t have confidence with women. Mr Li [their Chinese landlord] is bad tempered. Lingling [Mr Li’s daughter] is slightly materialistic and willing to use people for her cause.

What kind of jokes can we expect to see?

It’s mostly about taking the piss out of two foreigners. I’m aware of the whole mianzi thing with the Chinese so I won’t be making any digs at them and their culture. There’s a lot of toilet humour as well because I think that’s something we all wrestle with here what with the squat toilets. It’s not meant to be sophisticated but I do want to imbue the show with an emotional content. I’d like to find that balance between humour and emotion.

Did you feel much pressure to explicate China’s 5,000 years of history and culture?

No, not at all. It’s not supposed to be informative at all. It’s supposed to be entertaining.

So why make the show bilingual?

At the beginning we wanted it to be all in Chinese. But after showing it to some Chinese friends they didn’t like it that way. In order to enhance the stupidity of the foreigners they had to be speaking in English. I just think it’s more representational of how life is in Beijing anyway: bilingual.

"no pets or foreigners"What were your influences and inspirations?

I wanted to come in with the Hollywood sitcom format because basically it works. It’s been tried and tested ever since I Love Lucy in the 50s. I also tried watching the American shows that are popular here because everyone knows Friends.

Do you think the China expat lifestyle is fertile ground for comedy?

Sure. I think we all have some great stories to tell - that’s why I like being here. I feel you live life a little bit more. You’re thrown into the melting pot because there’s so much going on. Just by going outside you’ll see something worth relaying to a family member back home.

But what about all those tired expat clichés? Is there a danger of trotting those out?

I think the clichés are there. Whenever somebody writes something the first idea that pops into their head is a cliché. You have to keep working and find the less obvious ideas that exist. I do think about cliché and I’m hoping I’ve been able to avoid it for the most part.

So what’s the audience you are aiming at and how will they see the finished show?

We met up with [online video platform] Youku on Friday. They liked the concept but worry it might be a bit long. We always thought it would be for a Chinese audience but we kept flipping back and forth. We met an executive from NBC, who scours the globe looking for foreign content, who liked it a lot. We’ve sent him a trailer. But we’ve now gone back to thinking it’s for the Chinese audience. Though whenever I show it to foreign friends they always find it funnier than Chinese people so…

Tell me about the production side with your director and co-producer Victor Muh

Victor has been working as a director since seven or eight years ago and has awesome guanxi. He works as a DJ as well so he’s often playing at different events and knows loads of venues. We checked out that whole Gulou area trying to find an ideal location. I’m an actor for the most part so this is my first foray into producing. Without Victor there’s no way I could’ve done anything really.

Were there any big problems with the filming?

We had problems with continuity. At the end of act two [of the pilot episode] Melvin’s been holding in this giant dump for two days and [spoilers removed]. We should have shot them on the first day when Melvin was wearing his apartment clothing. But we shot it on the second day and forgot to change his frigging shirt. So we had to reshoot that afterwards. The funny thing is I didn’t realise till a month in.

And finally, do you have any advice for would-be filmmakers in China?

Just do it man. I don’t know much about filmmaking, I’m learning as I go. Just get a camera and do it. Even if it’s crap at least you’re doing it and learning about it. For me buying a camera was super important. Just to have a camera in your house and not have to worry about renting one or borrowing it.

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