'WINSTON Chao made into ground meat by fans of Joan Chen.' Joan Chen Chong giggles like a schoolgirl at the sound of that, a headline she's been toying with to describe one of her recent nights out on the town. Back home in Shanghai to shoot Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan Gum-pan's feature film, Red Rose, White Rose, Chen has been invited everywhere that's anywhere by everyone who's anyone. 'But the other night the whole cast and crew were forced to go to this KTV place [karaoke bar] because the owners were friends with one of the producers,' Chen says, rolling her eyes. When her car rolled up outside this latest bastion of hip on Shanghai's throbbing Nanjing Lu, she realised it wasn't just the cast and crew who were coming that night. There was a giant neon sign flashing the words 'Welcome Joan Chen!!!', which had attracted thousands of screaming fans. The club manager had taken it upon himself to tell the town: 'Joan Chen, beloved hometown girl turned international star, will appear in all her glamorous flesh!' While the police formed a human Great Wall to protect Chen, yelling, 'Move it! Move it now!' as they escorted her inside, they completely neglected her Red Rose, White Rose co-star, Taiwanese actor Winston Chao who, after his starring role in The Wedding Banquet, had his own ego to protect. Chao finally made it into the club, albeit with perspiration and footprints covering his suit. Chen giggles again at the memory. 'He came up to me and said, 'Thanks a lot, Joan. I was almost trampled to death by your adoring fans'.' Chen is sitting in a coffee shop at the Shanghai Sheraton, where she, Kwan, Chao, Hong Kong actress Veronica Yip Yuk-hing, and the rest of the film crew have been making themselves at home for several months. She is wearing a pink T-shirt that looks as if it would disintegrate in a strong wind, shapeless, sexless jeans and no suggestion that puff has been put to powder and to face this morning. She looks like a woman who is completely comfortable with her looks and her standing in life, either that or one who's about to run to the corner supermarket. It's a delicate time to be a China doll, especially when you're at the age when even the finest porcelain begins to chip. In America and, more importantly, in Hollywood, Chen has cultivated an aura around herself by bringing to life some of the most interesting Asian characters of recent American film history; the opium addicted, bisexual empress in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, the babe-with-a-past Josie Packard in David Lynch's television series Twin Peaks, and the black-toothed mama in Oliver Stone's Heaven And Earth. But Chen has also had to struggle through some terrible roles - like the Cantonese sex slave in Dino De Laurentis' Taipan ('I asked the director, 'do I really have to say aiya! so much?' ') or the Vietnamese prostitute in Stephen Wallace's Turtle Beach who immortalised the line 'Baby wants to f*** you Papa!' ('I don't think I want to work with that director again') or the native American babe in Steven Seagal's On Deadly Ground, an eco-activist who can machine gun an entire town and save the environment at the same time ('I'd rather not talk about that film'). Now nearly 33, Chen is too complicated, too ambitious and, well, too old to play the bimbos of her youth. Which is one of the reasons why America's premier Chinese actress has swallowed a major pay cut and returned to making films in Hong Kong and China. 'It would be almost impossible for me to find a role like Red Rose in America,' Chen says. Based on a novel by Shanghai writer Zhang Ailing, Red Rose, White Rose follows the story of a man, played by Chao, climbing his way up Shanghai society in the 1930s. He falls in love with two women, White Rose (played by Yip) who is respectable and proper, and Red Rose who is passionate, emotional and, in his eyes, unmarriageable. 'I love this character because she is real,' Chen says of her role. 'Red Rose is idealistic. She has such clear growth throughout the film.' Chen and Kwan have been talking about working together for years. In 1992, when Kwan was in Shanghai shooting Centre Stage with Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, Chen was also in town to visit her family. She arranged a lunch at her mother's house for Kwan and invited several of her old friends from acting school. 'Because Centre Stage was about Shanghai people, Stanley was looking for Shanghai faces, to see how we get together, to see how we talk.' Almost every one of those friends ended up working with Kwan on either Centre Stage or Red Rose, White Rose. 'I really wanted to work with Stanley,' Chen says. 'He has a very delicate and sensitive way of handling woman characters and he's a very serious film-maker compared to a lot of others in Hong Kong. So when he offered me the part of Red Rose, I said yes right away.' THIS set looks like it's about to disintegrate into a pile of chopsticks. The floor creaks. The wind howls through the cracks in the walls. There is dust galore. A gang of Shanghainese set technicians haul a faded street scene across a pulley. It squeaks. A grip waves a piece of cardboard above a machine and - hey presto! - smoke floats across the set. The male extras, costumed in floor-length mandarin-collared robes and fedoras, and the female extras in snazzy two-piece suits and permanent waves, stroll in and out of the dappled light. The bespectacled Kwan, director of such modern-day Hong Kong classics as Rouge, fusses with the details: 'More smoke!' he calls in Cantonese. 'Walk slower. Slower!' The scene is reminiscent of Hollywood movie-making circa 1940 but it is actually the Shanghai Film Studios in the cold, early spring of 1994. Many of the scenes for Red Rose, White Rose are being shot here. It has been 18 years since Chen set foot in this studio. As a 14-year-old picking her way through the Cultural Revolution, she was plucked from a competition rifle team to star in a movie sponsored by Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing. The film, tentatively dubbed Jin Jiang Mountain after the place where the Long March ended, was to be shot at the Shanghai Film Studios. After shooting the first few scenes, Jiang fell out of favour with the big Reds and her flick was scrapped. And Chen was back to toting rifles. A year later, she returned to the studio to shoot scenes for her second film. Youth is the improbable, inadvertently comical drama about a deaf and mute girl who is miraculously cured through Chinese acupuncture (the first words she speaks are 'Long Live Chairman Mao!') It was Chen's third film, Little Flower, which won her China's Golden Rooster award for best actress and an international audience. Today, she is a big international star with leading roles in Hollywood and now Hong Kong; her first was Clara Law's 1993 feature, Temptation Of A Monk; Red Rose, White Rose is her second. But instead of playing the Hollywood actress on set, with the name-bearing director's chair and catered arugula and goat's cheese salad that are de rigueur on American sets, Chen is doing it Chinese style: she pulls up a wooden crate to sit on while she eats a faan hap (rice box). Activity seems to revolve around Chen, who is dressed as Red Rose in her later years in a tight, two-piece suit with pale make-up and blood-red lips. She dominates the stage. And you can certainly hear her. She sounds like a mainland Chinese version of a Valley girl. Between takes she speaks in English, every sentence punctuated by 'you know' and 'um, like'. Coming back to the Shanghai Film Studios has been like coming home. 'I haven't been this happy working for years,' Chen says. Although a star by the age of 16, she still felt uncomfortable around the adults on the set, the producers, the directors, the older actors. 'So the grips [set technicians] became my best friends,' Chen says. Some of the same grips are working on the set of Red Rose, White Rose. 'So we were talking about the old times,' she giggles. 'When I did some really awful things!' The grips reminded Chen about the time they bought a chicken from the market. When they found one they liked, they began haggling over the price. But the farmer didn't want to give in. 'It's a very good chicken,' he said. 'Look at it, it's so healthy.' Chen took some medicinal oil and wiped it on the chicken's eye. It began to behave strangely, shaking its head and twitching. 'And so we said, 'See! Look how your chicken is behaving. There's something wrong with it. You're lucky we want to buy it all',' she recalls. Not only did the farmer agree to the lower price, he took off a few yuan. 'We went up to the grips' room and set up a fire and ate it!' They also reminded her about the time they bought a watermelon from the market. There were two competing stands, but one stand had superior melons with higher prices to match. 'So we slowly kicked the watermelon,' Chen says, making a kicking gesture and pulling a sly face. 'We slowly kicked it all the way over to the cheaper stand!' Chen has been in Shanghai for two months, the longest visit she has made since she left China for the United States in 1981. She spends her days off with her mother, at the house where her mother was born in what used to be the French concession. 'When I go back, I chat with my mother. Sometimes we cook together. She's also teaching me to play the piano because Red Rose plays the piano in some scenes.' She adds: 'For the first time since I left, Shanghai has become a real place for me again. Before, Shanghai was only a memory, nostalgia. It never felt completely real. 'For my first 10 years in the States, I kind of cut off my memory. I was trying so hard to establish myself, to concentrate on establishing a new career, a new identity. Now I feel secure enough to collect my old self as well.' Another day, another set. Chen, off the shooting roster, has gone to see her mother. Kwan and company are shooting at White Rose's place, a beautiful old colonial house with freshly painted butter yellow walls and elaborate friezes of white roses and green vines. But this is Shanghai in the spring and there is no central heating. Chao and Yip are huddled in the makeshift make-up room with all the lights on. They look like little mice sitting there, cuddling for warmth. It's hard not to wonder how each of them, Chao still not a marquee name even in his hometown of Taipei, and Yip, the former Category III Hong Kong actress who is now working hard at establishing a legitimate career, comes off on camera next to Chen. But Chen has only good things to say about her co-stars. Well, sort of. Of Chao, she says 'he has made progress.' Of Yip, she says 'this is a good opportunity for her. A veeeerrry good opportunity.' When I ask Yip about her career, whether she prefers film roles in comedies or dramas, she answers with a shrug: 'Whatever comes my way. Hong Kong people feel you have to do all the roles you can before it all goes away.' When I ask her if she'd like to act in the US, she lifts her hands and says, 'No roles.' 'But Joan Chen finds plenty of work.' 'But Joan is so special,' Yip replies. 'How many people can be as special as Joan? Joan can work in Hong Kong, in America, anywhere.' 'DID I tell you I bought a house here?' Chen asks as she sips on a mug of warm milk. Soon to be the new home of her doctor parents, the house is on the street where Mao stayed whenever he was in Shanghai. Shanghai carries mixed memories for Chen. It is the city where her grandfather, a renowned pharmacologist, swallowed cyanide on a public stage in protest at the Government just before the Cultural Revolution. It is the place where the five-year-old Chen gazed from her bedroom window and saw her best friend's grandmother crawl on to her window-sill and jump. Although the woman had hoped to die, she only succeeded in breaking her legs and ribs: the grandmother was rich and her wealth had turned her into 'an enemy of the proletariat'. Modern Shanghai, says Chen, 'is no longer a city of nostalgia, a place to rest and recover one's dreams'. She rants on about the city's new institution: karaoke girls. 'It is terrible how obsequious these girls are. I believe in the spirit of service but it should be done with dignity and pride. These girls are made to kneel in front of us - it's a company rule! 'I think I was part of the last generation to be raised with Mao's doctrine 'Women hold up half the sky',' Chen adds. 'But I guess they have no idea who Mao is.' Still, Shanghai remains in Chen's heart. 'I come back to China and I see what I have left behind,' Chen says. 'The people here still have time for each other, just to chat and to be with each other. That's what human beings are meant to be. 'Even though Shanghai living is tough - everything is worn and dilapidated - it's in the blood. I am Chinese. I love Shanghai,' she says. 'Now that I've bought a house, people keep asking me, 'Are you going to come back?' And I suddenly realised, I don't have to come back because I've always been here. In Shanghai I have friends and family. In Shanghai, I have a home and it will always be the most special place.'