Character building

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 October, 2009, 12:00am

Even without a mole on his chin, Gu Xiaoyue bears an uncanny resemblance to Mao Zedong. So when he walks into a mall in Tseung Kwan O with his hair combed back and dressed in a charcoal-grey Mao suit, Gu is soon mobbed by the lunchtime crowds. Many can't help marvelling at the 'historical' figure in their midst and seize the chance to take photos.

Gu is used to the attention; he's a professional Mao impersonator. 'It's just part of my job and I enjoy it,' he says.

Thanks to a nostalgic interest in the Mao era, the number of people who make a living playing the Great Helmsman has proliferated over the past decade. Only a handful such as Gu are recognised by state authorities, but there are many more unofficial ones who are hired to spice up functions from shop openings to conferences. Last year, more than 130 impersonators auditioned to play Mao in a show aimed at tourists visiting his hometown of Shaoshan in Hunan.

Some are talented mimics of Mao's speech patterns and mannerisms, but few have mastered the chairman's calligraphic style as skilfully as Gu.

The 44-year-old, himself an established calligrapher, was in town last week to promote an exhibition of his brush work to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Gu was working as a publicity officer in a state-owned enterprise more than 10 years ago when friends drew attention to his resemblance to the chairman, inspiring him to embark on a new career as a Mao impersonator.

He began studying Mao's gait and posture in documentaries and photos and also familiarised himself with the leader's writing. A Hubei native, Gu also spent considerable time in Hunan mastering the Shaoshan dialect that Mao spoke.

'It took me a long time to speak it like a native rather than just do a lifeless imitation,' he says.

However, Gu admits he cheats when required to portray Mao's fondness for chilli peppers (the leader reportedly once joked, 'You can't be a revolutionary if you don't eat chilies'). 'I can't tolerate spicy stuff, so I eat red peppers instead,' he says.

Later, he was fortunate to be taken under the wing of veteran actor Gu Yue, who was known for his portrayals of the Great Helmsman. In fact, Gu Xiaoyue (roughly meaning Gu Yue junior) is a stage name he adopted in honour of his late mentor (he refuses to give his real name).

Having taken up calligraphy when he was 11, Gu spent a decade polishing his skills in Mao-style calligraphy and has since won awards for his work, some of which are displayed at important venues such as the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

'I specialised in writing grass script; that laid a good foundation for me to learn Mao-style calligraphy, which is more challenging because of its powerful yet fluid, free-style brushstrokes. It took me eight years of practice to achieve a level of mastery, but there's still much to learn,' he says.

His hard work didn't go unrecognised and in 2001 he was officially granted permission to operate as a Mao impersonator.

Although not a trained actor, Gu has performed across the mainland in plays such as Chongqing Negotiations and Mao Zedong in Henan and appeared in films such as Founding Leader Mao Zedong.

He has enjoyed portraying Mao in middle age, when the chairman was steering the Chinese Communist Party to power - 'In China, he still enjoys a God-like status like no other leader', he says - but Gu is looking forward to playing Mao in his senior years.

'This is my lifelong career and I hope to keep up this act until I die. There's always much to learn. I am also working on a book on Mao-style calligraphy.'

Gu will make his television debut next month when shooting begins for a CCTV series due out next year about General Su Yu, one of the top military leaders in the Communist army.

Now based in Beijing, Gu says the line between his private and professional self is increasingly blurred. Even his home is decorated with the chairman's portraits and calligraphy. 'I wear the same clothes and have my hair like this even if I am off duty,' he says.

Inevitably, that means he attracts attention wherever he goes, but Gu doesn't resent the loss of privacy. 'I try to set a good example and help people whenever possible because I want to maintain a positive image of Mao,' he says.

Married with three children, Gu says he tries to be a good husband and father because he was given to foster parents when he was a baby.

'I give my children all my love, but I don't encourage them to follow in my footsteps [impersonating revolutionary leaders]. It'd be hard for them to do a good job because they are too young to give a good sense of the history.'

Gu's calligraphy exhibition. L1 Atrium, MetroCity Phase II, The Metropolis, Tseung Kwan O. Until Oct 8. Inquiries: 2750 0031