Ren Guoping: The importance of creating Screenwriter and language teacher wins Houston award for screenplay
This spring, a team of Chinese filmmakers will come to Houston and put a local writer’s screenplay on the big screen.
“It will be a Western-style movie, with each scene shot twice — once in Chinese and once in English — so that no translation will be needed,” said Ren Guoping, whose China Mary won the Golden Award for screenplay in Western genre at the 49th WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival last April.
Prior to winning the prize, Ren had already enjoyed an extensive career working with languages. For years he had taught English in China and both English and Chinese in the US. He had also written a few screenplays, two of which were made into Chinese TV shows.
Now, for the first time, his work is going to the big screen. Chinese director Wang Ping has signed up to direct the film.
Ren said that he discovered the historical story of China Mary while doing research for his last TV show.
China Mary was a real person dating back to the late 1800s, a time when Americans called all Chinese men John and women Mary, rather than bother to learn their Chinese names.
That’s where this courageous Chinese woman’s name came from and her real name was lost, according to Ren.
The daughter of a Chinese gold miner, China Mary moved to Tombstone, Arizona, from California and opened a restaurant with her husband when the town was booming due to a silver rush. She became a leader among the Chinese, representing their interests in dealing with exploitive mine owners.
Ren went to Tombstone in 2012 to research China Mary’s life. He found that Tombstone had a population of more than 9,000 during the silver rush, with Chinese accounting for more than 800.
Ren found China Mary’s restaurant still standing today in Tombstone and in the storied Boothill Cemetery, a corner for graves of nameless Chinese.
Ren also discovered a 25- page manuscript by a local soldier relating the story of China Mary as told by his grandmother.
“I bought the manuscript and it is part of where my story came from,” said Ren.
China Mary’s life crossed paths with one of the most famous legends of the West, Wyatt Earp, who was deputy town marshal in Tombstone at that time. Earp’s life story was made into a popular US TV series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which ran from 1955 to 1961.
The series, consisting of more than 200 episodes, included one devoted to China Mary. In the story, the typical Hollywood stereotyping of Chinese as subservient was not used. Earp treats China Mary with respect.
Ren is fond of the character China Mary. “During the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, many Chinese were submissive to the privileged white people. China Mary was not. She stood up to those white people and fought for justice and fair treatment of her compatriots. She was a courageous woman,” said Ren.
China Mary’s courage seemed to have earned her respect, Ren said. Looking through the archives of the local newspaper, The Tombstone Epitaph, he found that not only news about China Mary appeared in the paper often, they also covered her funeral.
“Even the whites came out and attended her funeral, according to the paper’s report,” said Ren.
The film will be shot in Texas and Tombstone, according to Ren.
The movie deal marks a big step for Ren, who retired early from a teaching career in Indiana and moved to Houston to focus exclusively on writing.
An English major, he first taught English at Hangzhou University for 10 years. While there, he wrote a dictionary, Medical Classification of Chinese-English Terminology — a much needed tool in China at that time.
After coming to the US, Ren taught English literature and Chinese in middle and high school in Indiana after obtaining a graduate degree.
Teaching English in Indiana’s public schools in the 1990s, Ren sensed the importance of Chinese language. He set up one of the earliest Chinese curriculums in Indiana’s public middle school system.
“I helped the Chinese program to expand to high school and established the very first Confucius classroom in the late 1990s in the school district,” Ren said. “Chinese classrooms expanded from two to six in a few years. One of my students still keeps in touch with me. He’s working in Washington now and his dream is to become US ambassador to China.”
In a way, his students inspired him to embark on a creative path. “When I was teaching, I saw how creative the American students are. I was amazed by my students,” he said. “I realized that being creative is the essence of life. I decided to write.”
While teaching, Ren started writing a story in his spare time. His book Tears Shed in Chicago was adapted into a TV show Bloodshed in Chicago in 2002. It’s about the lives of Chinese intellectuals in the US.
Ren also wrote a screenplay for the 40-episode TV show Yung Wing, about the life and times of Yung Wing, the first Chinese who studied overseas during the Qing Dynasty and his great impact on China’s modern history. According to Ren, the TV show has been sold to CCTV and will be aired soon.
“I discovered that Chinese made great contributions to building America while researching Yung Wing’s life here. In the process, I also discovered China Mary,” said Ren.
Ren said that he will continue to write. “I feel that it’s my mission to write about the history of Chinese in the US,” he said.
Ren Guoping holds his book, translated into Chinese as ChinaMaryinTombstone, and published by Jinan Univerfsity Press. The English version of Ren’s book, ChinaMary, won a screenplay award in Houston and will be made into a film. Ren Guoping, screenwriter