Kung Fu Lighting

by Chris Lose
in LD at Large
Illustration by Andy Au
Illustration by Andy Au

A Tale of Lighting, Confusion and Pandas in the Land of the Red Dragon

Lighting direction has taken me all over the world for some extravagant gigs in far-off lands. I have been asked what it’s like to travel for work in so many foreign countries. I can tell you that, for the most part, it is similar to what you are used to. It’s just the same loading dock in a different country. The food is a little different, the money is a different color and the stagehands speak only slightly less English than at home.

Except for China. China is a different world altogether. China’s booming economy has made it one of the most candidate-short markets in Asia. This is forcing Chinese companies to look abroad for skilled technicians and programmers.

I was lucky enough to get a last-second call to be one of those skilled laborers. I had been there plenty of times before as a tourist and as lighting tech, but this time was different. I learned things that I never thought I would have to learn. Did you know that in China, you are not supposed to wash your socks and underwear with your other laundry?

‡‡         Getting Oriented

Please take the time to read this article before you embark on a similar journey to the land of 1.4 billion. If nothing else, you will at least know what questions you need to ask before you accept the gig.

A visa is not just a credit card. You need a visa to work in China. If you already know this, congratulations, you know one thing that our media server programmer didn’t know a month ago. He flew from Nashville to Los Angeles to board his flight to Shanghai, only to be told that he did not have the proper visa. (Or any visa at all.) Therefore, he spent three additional days while his visa was (very expensively) expedited to his unexpected hotel in L.A. The Chinese government has made travel and working in China far easier than it used to be, but to qualify for an employment visa (Z visa), you need to fulfill several requirements. You must obtain an official invitation to the country, together with an employment license or special status as a “Foreign Expert.” You will need to coordinate all of this with the company hiring your services before you sign a contract and long before your flight.

Get a VPN on your phone and computer. The Great Wall of China may have kept some of the northern invaders out, but the Great Firewall of China will keep you out of your Gmail. Google and Facebook are both blocked by Chinese internet providers. If you plan on keeping in contact at all, take the time to invest in a VPN. Our media server programmer thought that his hotel Wi-Fi was broken for three days before he thought to ask about why he couldn’t check his Gmail. You will definitely need to Google all of the missing profiles for the Chinese Knock off fixtures that will round out your rig. Speaking of…

Get the fixture profiles that you need as soon as possible. As a programmer, this was my first concern. I have heard too many horror stories of people arriving in a foreign country only to encounter what was supposed to be a MAC Viper is actually a Whack Wiper. It looks just like a Viper, but the control channel is mapped backwards and the beam channel has the color wheel in it. Little things like this can turn a simple gig into a nightmare. Do everything in your power to collect all of the data and PDFs that you can as soon as you can. You will save yourself countless hours of discovering little quirks like the fact that you can only get fixture 105 to output if you have fixture 103 in highlight mode and then next through the rig to fixture 105. Knock-off fixtures are a fad that won’t be going away soon. In the U.S., we have certain measures that can be taken to avoid them, but in China, those measures have been eliminated.

Do not allow knock-off consoles or control. A few knock-off fixtures is bad enough — it’s an inconvenience, but not enough to ring the bell. However, a knock-off console is a deal-breaker. Knock-off consoles cannot handle the same conditions that a genuine product can. You can be in the middle of saving hours worth of work and just lose it faster than a Kung Fu kick. Knock off control nodes, modules or NPUs can look very similar to the real thing, but they will fail you at the least convenient time. I cannot stress this enough. If you find a knock-off control system, please report it to the nearest distributor, vendor or manufacturer. There are laws in place to support you if you do.

Get Google Translate. Technology is working wonders in bringing us closer together as a human species. Even though we may not speak the same language, we can use technology to arrive at an agreeable outcome. Even with a provided personal translator, I used Google Translate at least five times a day. I used it mostly for business reasons, but a few times to decode Chinese curse words. I also used it to learn that “Captain Morgan and Coke” doesn’t translate very well. (Caution: The Translate app may or may not help you translate what the show designer actually wants you to do when he asks you to make the lighting look “more splendid” and yet “less marvelous.”)

‡‡         Infrequently Asked Questions

If you have learned nothing else from this article, please remember to at least ask the following questions before you accept a gig in the Jade Palace:

How and when do I get paid? China has currency controls in place, and the RMB is not fully convertible. This means that upon receiving an invoice from an overseas service provider, the Chinese company must go through several approval processes in order to effect payment to you. Because of this, delays can occur in getting payment made. The sooner you know about the individual roadblocks, the sooner you can avoid them.

What are the food and hotel conditions like? The food is different in China from wherever you live in the world. Some of it may look the same, but it’s not the same. The beer is warm, the meat is greasy and the vegetables are harder to find than you might be accustomed to. The hotels are smaller, in most cases, and the Wi-Fi can be difficult.

What are the working conditions like? Be sure to ask if you will be getting paid per ten hours or per week, and base your payment accordingly in your contract. Entitlement is low in China, with either 5 or 10 days paid annual leave, depending on length of service, in addition to only 11 national holidays. It is not uncommon for workers to be expected to work nonstop until the job is done. Do not be taken advantage of in the same way.

Will I have at least one day off to go see pandas, and how many will I get to see? Taking the gig in China was a huge step in my career. I got to meet a lot of people who are at the top of our industry, and I was able to manage a rig larger than I have ever programmed. I don’t regret it for a second. But I sure wish that I had known to ask a few of these questions before I left. I hope this helps you to avoid some of the same headaches that I encountered.