SHANGHAI MOURNING

He said his name was Roy O’Bannon.

The first time I saw him was the spring of 2013. The Blockbusters at the end of Byres Road was closing down. I was in to pick up some cheap DVDs. It was a different era. I bought Brick which was directed by Rian Johnson. On my way out of the shop there was a man, stinking of whiskey, arguing with one of the shop attendants. He was offering to sign copies of Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights –of which there were half-a-dozen of each on the shelves- in order to increase their value, claiming he had co-written the screenplays for both. It stuck in my mind both because of the oddness of it and because I remembered the Shanghai films as being solid, enjoyable, action comedies, I remember telling myself I should watch them that night. I didn’t, I watched Brick instead, there’s a really good scene in it of a man running.

The anecdote of the drunken man in Blockbusters got a lot of mileage that summer as the city council introduced the ‘People Make Glasgow’ campaign.

The second time I saw him was the first time I met him. There’s a bench in Kelvingrove Park I like to sit on. It’s halfway up a hill but rather than facing South-West to a majestic view of the university and art gallery it looks North-East toward a grassy slope, you can just about see the roofs of Park Circus. It’s a good place to go and indulge in some cheap symbolism. Anyway, September 2016, on what at the time felt like the last sunny day of the year though I’m sure it wasn’t, I was sat on that bench and the scruffy, whiskey-stinking man was sat opposite me. We must have started talking about something and I must have told him, cruelly, about seeing him years ago in Blockbuster and, generously, how I thought the Shanghai movies were somewhat underrated. He smiled at that. He said his name was Roy O’Bannon.

Shanghai Dawning

For Roy I think that was supposed to be a far more dramatic moment. Naturally, the name meant fuck-all to me; I hadn’t actually watched either of the Shanghai films in at least a decade. So the revelation failed to be revelatory. We’d actually hung out three or four times more before I realised the significance. I finally twigged after Roy told a story about Chon Wang and I remembered that being a joke from the films. Chon Wang sounds like John Wayne. John Wayne was famous for playing cowboys in films. According to Roy, Chon Wang was a famous cowboy way before that.

I liked hanging out with Roy because he would drink all the time and tell fantastic stories. My anecdotes had very much dried up after summer 2013 so it was nice to have someone to take the heat off me. I also like to drink all the time.

It’s probably worth saying for my benefit that, while I generally trust people to tell the truth, I was not unsceptical of Roy’s claim. I was eventually convinced by the way he told his stories, they always felt very sincere. It boiled down to Roy either being a time travelling, screenplay writing cowboy or a terrific liar and I really don’t think he was a liar. Also, I re-watched the Shanghai films and I think if you were going to pretend to be a character from any film it wouldn’t be one from those films.

The Life & Times

So, it’s 1887 Roy and Chon Wang had just finished up their adventure in London, which was essentially though not exactly what happened in Shanghai Knights, and they were heading to California, to Los Angeles. Then they fell through a wormhole to 1998.

Apparently, falling through a wormhole is not like falling at all, it’s more like absent-mindedly wandering around and jolting to awareness when you reach somewhere unfamiliar. There are no flashing lights or fractured dimensions or obelisks. One moment you’re walking across Utah and the next you’re in the offices of Spyglass Entertainment, 111 years later.

It seems that maybe a lot of wormholes lead to the offices of Spyglass Entertainment because Roy and Chon were greeted there with very little commotion, much less than could be reasonably expected for two cowboys materialising in the middle of an office. Roy said he remembered the carpet being absolutely lovely and feeling very guilty about getting dirt all over it. They were sat down and offered a selection of drinks then asked a series of questions about their lives up until that point. Roy and Chon had lived pretty interesting lives so were asked if they wanted to turn these experiences into a film franchise. If you remember the end of Shanghai Knights, Chon and Roy had actually been heading to L.A. to make it big in the movies anyway so this suited them perfectly. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.

From the sound of it, Spyglass entertainment got a decent chunk of their working staff from the wormholes. They set up Chon and Roy with all the essentials they’d need to survive –cash, IDs, histories, etc.- in a manner that suggested it was not their first time. I wonder sometimes if Spyglass entertainment knew about the wormholes when they bought the office or if it was just luck that the universe kept dumping interesting people there.

It is, to me, quintessentially American to find a wonder of modern science and use it to get cheap labour and ideas for films. Not that I’ve ever been to America or met many Americans or really had any experience of America beyond some samey riffs from Oxbridge-educated English comedians.

So Roy and Chon got to work bashing out a rough autobiography which then got turned into Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights. They worked on the sets as consultants. There were a few minor changes, to zhoosh it up, make it a bit more Hollywood. Apparently Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson are lovely, which is always nice to hear. The movies were fun, they did alright at the box office

It all started going wrong when the third film was going into development. Roy and Chon were adamant that the story be true, that the third instalment be about them falling through the wormhole and adapting to modern life. The studio was adamant that there was no appetite for the trilogy to morph into a time-travel meta-comedy and suggested they instead imagine themselves an adventure in Africa.

At this point Roy and Chon figured they no longer had a meaningful future with the studio and decided to skip town. Over a couple of weeks they withdrew all their money from their bank accounts, bought a car and left in the middle of the night. That was March 19th, 2003.

They headed to Carson City first, back to Nevada, back to where it started. Turns out Carson City is really shit now so they quickly moved on. They spent the next few years moving around the country, doing odd-jobs, living day to day. Chon was not a spiritual man but was more than happy to take advantage of people’s love of orientalist, mystic bullshit, he’d teach acupuncture, kung-fu and zen Buddhism despite knowing basically nothing about any of those things. Roy was a pretty decent barber; he said he’d started doing it to keep a low profile while an outlaw. It doesn’t matter where you go, people will always need haircuts. I would have let him cut my hair but in the time I knew him I had been shaving my head in a failed attempt to cure my anxiety.

In 2008 Chon started to get sick. Sick as fuck. Sick as cancer, specifically. Medicine’s pretty dear in America, Roy and Chon still had some of their Spyglass money left over but that got burnt through pretty quickly. Chon Wang died in Minnesota on May 15th, 2010. Roy buried him in the woods and then lost his mind for a while. Watching someone die is the absolute fucking worst and watching someone die slowly over a year and a half is even worse than that.

Roy drifted around the US and Canada, drinking and shagging and getting into fights. Then he made his way to Europe so he could do some drinking and shagging and fighting with a different backdrop. I think there are maybe healthier ways to deal with loss but who am I to tell anyone how to grieve?

The reason Roy came to Glasgow is because he wanted to get involved in the Old Firm, he’d heard about all the violence and was eager to try it out. He arrived in Glasgow in July, 2012, just before Rangers went into administration. Despite this somewhat limiting his scope for fighting he felt at home in Glasgow, he felt some kind of peace for the first time in a while, though he kept up the drinking and the shagging as best he could. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.

Shanghai Dusk

I met Roy at an incredibly uninteresting juncture of my life. I was working in a call centre and had a severe case of writer’s block. Roy really brought me out of that, he had a shine to him, a dust of the fantastical that made me feel like Pretty Woman, I stopped shaving my head after I met him. I like to think that I also helped Roy through a difficult point in his life. Around the time we became friends MGM announced they were pushing ahead with Shanghai Dawn. That can’t have been easy for Roy, it must have brought up a lot of memories, a lot of what-ifs. I kind of think if he was still in Hollywood now he might have a bit more luck with a time-travel meta-comedy, perhaps get a Wes Anderson sort to direct it, I’d watch that. At the very least you could get a TV show out of it, maybe on FX or Netflix. Obviously, I didn’t say this to him. But yeah, I think Roy wanted someone to tell his stories to, someone he could tell his truth to, who would believe him. I’m happy that I got to be that person.

After the New Year, Roy and I started drifting apart, I think I knew he was getting ready to move on. On March 1st, 2017 he posted his journal through my letter box and that was the last I heard of him. On March 15th my flat was broken in to, Roy’s journal was the only thing taken. I suspect it was someone involved in Shanghai Dawn, I can’t think of any reason other than a cover up that someone would take the journal. But, also, maybe that’s ridiculous. I don’t know.

I don’t know where Roy is. I think he might be dead. I’m pretty sure he wanted to dead, I’m pretty sure he’d wanted that for a long while. I’m glad I got to meet him. I don’t really believe in heaven but I believe in it enough that I hope Roy’s there, and Chon too.

Shanghai Mourning

Before meeting Roy I had a severe case of writers block. Over the time I knew him I broke that block and wrote the five pieces of music presented here. Although I didn’t realise it at the time I wrote these songs for Roy, inspired by his stories and his life. I hope they are a worthwhile tribute to him. They are as follows:

1. Arriving In Los Angeles

2. Carson City Is Worse Now Than When It Was Full Of People Trying To Kill Me

3. Drinking And Shagging And Fighting

4. Some Kind Of Peace

5. Heaven Exists And It’s Full Of Bordellos And Bathtubs And Chon Wang

https://soundcloud.com/a_v_e_r_y_p_o_e_t/sets/shanghai-mourning

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