By Allen Wittenborn
Another day, another tour group arriving in China from the US to experience the “oldest civilization on earth.” I had left my room at Hong Kong’s plush Mandarin Hotel for three weeks of the grime and grunge of China travel. Now, I stood in the cavernous waiting room at Beijing’s Capital Airport, packed with shoving hordes, testy and impatient. I held a packet of documents, enough data to identify my group members: names, ages, photos, dietary restrictions if any—always a veggie or two. And medications. I figured most people lied about that, afraid they might not be allowed to go with the group.
I’d been escorting China tours for four years since 1980 and understood all of this. As a tour leader, it was my job to keep everyone satisfied. My MO: size up a group, get a fix on their personalities, and pander to their main interests. Invariably, some individuals forget they can’t always have their own way and make incessant personal demands. Early on I learned to counterbalance the group against them—isolate the bad guys.
With half an hour to go, I reviewed the information packet Lindblad Travel provided its tour leaders. A standard bunch. Of the twenty-eight, six came from Canada, two from Mexico. The twenty Americans divided evenly between New Yorkers, and others. I always had mixed feelings about folks from the Big Apple, not all of them, but some. They weren’t rude, they simply wanted everything right now and the rest be damned. Those were the worst, the best were as much fun as I would learn.
I checked the overhead arrival board. United 761: delayed. I continued to peruse the manifest. The New Yorkers were traveling as a mini group within a group, as close as “lips and teeth,” as the Chinese had it, on a Silk Road tour, advertised to be adventurous and exotic. The promo does not say that it’s also grueling.
United 761 has landed. Here they come, traipsing through the crowds until they all gathered around, dazed and bleary-eyed from their twenty-four-hour flights and airport stopovers. I checked with Tang, our national guide, to account for their luggage, then boarded the bus for the hotel where they could plop and relax.
On this tour, one couple held my interest, Dr. Mortimore Shapiro, 76, neurologist, and Mrs. Anita Ellis Shapiro, 61, vocalist. Mort Shapiro, based on his appearance, hadn’t aged well. He acted robust and energetic, just didn’t look it. His ungainly demeanor and rumpled attire didn’t match my stereotype of a neurosurgeon. Neither did his tired and craggy face, and the sparse head of white hair that seemed permanently uncombed. A future Boris Johnson lookalike.
By contrast, Anita didn’t look or act sixty. She could have been a teenager. Buoyant, affable, lively. Curly black hair. A petite spirited creature. Audrey Hepburn on steroids.
Our five days in Beijing included the regular sites: Great Wall, Forbidden City, Ming Tombs. The day we visited the tombs, the local guide steered the group to Emperor Wan Li’s mausoleum, par for the course. It was the most excavated and often the only one visited. And boring. Nothing significant here. Just a huge vacant dungeon. No stories to tell the grandkids.
One China scholar wrote a book on Wan Li’s reign (1572-1620), titled 1587, a Year of No Significance. That pretty much covered it. Spot on.
As our group exercised the tourist shuffle, dragging feet around the dank, impersonal subterranean vault of Wan Li’s crypt, I noticed that Anita and Mort seldom moved together. His nuts-and-bolts interests wanted to figure out how the tomb was constructed, questions on design and materials. For Anita, the meaning behind it was paramount. Why was it built, what did it signify? The two went their own ways. When I asked them if they’d like to visit a different tomb, Mort begged off, fixated on how Wan Li’s tomb differed from the pyramids. Anita picked up the vibes.
“I’d like you to see a place you might enjoy,” I told her. “Most people miss it.”
“Around here?” she said. “What’s to miss? There’s nothing to see.”
“Not quite. Follow me.”
We walked a few minutes around several outcrops until we found ourselves cut off from the others. Not another soul around. The seldom-visited tomb of the Emperor Yong Lo had yet to be excavated. We approached a vast entry hall that guarded the sepulcher behind it. Like walking into an empty auditorium sans seats, with a silence that demanded awe and respect. The impression you get from entering Notre Dame or Versailles.
“Oh, my God.” Anita remained rooted to the spot. Her gaze swept the expansive courtyard, an enormous, covered terrace supported by gigantic wooden columns.
“How big is this…this galaxy?” she asked, barely able to catch her breath.
I laughed. “You got that right. Over 45,000 square feet.”
“What does that mean? Tell me in a way I can understand.”
“Think of a football field.”
“Oh my God.”
She walked to the center and swiveled three-sixty, viewing the area where thirty-two colossal pillars of camphor trees, each forty feet high, supported the roof of yellow-glazed tiles. No nails or screws or brackets. A giant Lego set.
“Each one of these columns comes from a single trunk about five feet thick at the base. It takes three people, arms outstretched, to envelop the entire pillar.”
Anita stood as if petrified, then took a few steps to enter the expanse. She reached the nearest column, ran her hands over its polished sheen, as if embracing it.
“What do you think?” I asked.
She didn’t hear me, ambling through the courtyard, gazing upward at the powerful beams lying horizontal on the pillars, commanding their own domain. Holding her arms wide, she closed her eyes in a pose that reminded me of an evangelical prophet, in tune with the rhythm of the ages, connecting with the past.
“Why this, when the other tombs seem so rigid, so ignoble?” she asked.
“Hard to say, but here’s a thought. Every emperor of China of every dynasty, not just the Ming, personally approved and signed off on his own tomb’s design and construction. He had to put his imprimatur onto the architecture down to the finest detail. In a way, his tomb reflected his personality. Consider this,” I said, gazing upward. “The Yongle emperor had a vision, you might even call it a poetic insight. The world was his to capture. Not militarily, but with an outreach to the peoples of the world.”
Anita stood, silent. Captured in awe.
“Maybe you’ve never heard of the great admiral, Cheng Ho. In the early fifteenth century, nearly a hundred years before Columbus, the Emperor Yong Lo ordered him to launch seven naval expeditions to sail the world. It was all so unChinese, to explore the unknown world. Sail the Seven Seas to use a Western reference. This pavilion reflects Yongle’s ambition and grandiosity. See for yourself.”
In time, Anita came back to the now. “It’s magnificent. I love it.” She came over to me, gave me a modest hug. “Thank you so much.”
After the standard three days of seeing China’s capital, we departed by train and passed miles of paddies, ubiquitous peasants bent over, methodically placing rice shoots into slurpy mud in the second phase of replanting, the first being to grow the shoots from seed. The inevitable question came up from the gaggle of curious tourists.
“Oh, look at all those people. What are they doing?”
A legitimate question, but after hundreds of them I couldn’t keep from giving my now stock sarcastic answer. “They’re tying their shoelaces.”
“Really? I thought they wore sandals.”
The train to Xian took the better part of a day. I ended up sitting next to Elizabeth Channing, a close friend of Anita’s, who explained to me Anita’s professional career.
“She’s quite a respected singer in New York. She’s played the West Coast, but people outside her circle know her primarily for her dubbing in movies.”
“You mean the lip sync business?”
“That’s right.” She hesitated. “Unfortunately, her inhibitions prevented her from being a super star.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“You might talk to her, although she can be touchy about it.”
That pretty much put a kibosh on learning anything more.
When we reached China’s most popular city, Xian, famous worldwide for its ancient sites, in particular the fabled terracotta army, I was curious to see how Anita would react to it. Standing on the viewing platform at the head of the massive, enclosed pit, reminiscent of a Boeing hangar, the first sight of this awesome spectacle left a person speechless. Words didn’t work. One could only stand and marvel.
I explained some of the particulars to Anita and Mort. “Eight thousand clay soldiers, originally in color, all life-sized. What’s more remarkable, each one was individually crafted, including distinct facial features, hairdos, and postures. Fingernails, eyelashes, and ear and nose hairs were brushed on. They were produced in parts, head, arms, torso, legs. Same with the horses, though that created a special problem. The body cavities were so large that they couldn’t be moved into the kiln to dry. They had to assemble the horse inside the oven or build the kiln around it in order to bake the piece.”
That got Mort really going. He took off, his four cameras dangling from shoulders and around his neck, wanting to capture everything on film, and then some.
Anita exemplified the feeling and emotional side of life. Gazing over the spectacle left her short of words.
“Oh, my God.” It had become a refrain.
I watched her taking it all in. Not thinking as her husband did, but feeling, absorbing this immensity of human vision and creation.
“Why did they do this?” she asked. Again, the why.
“No one’s quite sure. What do you think?”
I could see her working to gain an understanding. “I think whoever made this happen either had a great vision, or a great ego.”
“Probably both. Or a great fear.”
Continuing to gaze at the scene, she asked, “Fear of what? This doesn’t look like anything done by a person who’s afraid.”
“Of uncertainty. Of the future. Of life after death. Some scholars say it was to assure the emperor a safe journey into the afterlife. Kind of an insurance policy into the unknown. He wanted to command not only all under heaven, as the Chinese put it, meaning the entire world as they saw it, but heaven itself.” I stopped to consider Anita’s reasoning. “I can also accept he was a visionary. And we know through historical records, an egotistical monster.”
“Who is ‘he’?”
“His birth name was Ying Jeng, but the Chinese refer to him as the First Emperor, the first person to unify a dozen squabbling states into an empire, in the third century BC. He called his empire Chin. That’s where the word ‘China’ comes from.”
“Incredible,” she said, turning to walk around the entire pit.
Following the singular experiences of Yung Lo’s tomb in Beijing and the First Emperor’s army, we headed due west, giving up trains for buses when scrub gave way to desert dunes. We lumbered along two-lane roads, fifty miles between towns, forcing us to make unscheduled pit stops. Since the only thing in sight was a vast desert, all we could do was separate men and women to either side of the road and turn our backs.
Our destination this time was Dunhuang, the major outpost along the old Silk Road, over a thousand years ago. An oasis-turned-entrepot in ancient China filled with itinerants of every sort: traders, merchants, pilgrims, mercenaries, imperial troops—and the women who accompanied them. We’d reached the outer fringe of cosmopolitan China, where local minorities—Uyghurs, Kazaks, Kirgiz, Tatars, and other Turkic-speaking peoples—outnumbered the Han Chinese. Demographically, we were no longer in China.
The highlight here was the Mogao grottoes, a Buddhist homeland. A series of over seven hundred caves, two thousand statues, and tens of thousands of square feet of murals. We had two days to take in what would require months to see everything, which would turn to complete boredom for all but the most fervent specialist. After a couple of hours, I asked Anita if she’d like to check out a different venue.
She laughed. “You know me by now. Let’s go.”
I took her past the long line of caverns and queued-up tourists until we reached the last cave, then continued for several minutes along a path that most people didn’t know about, circling around until we climbed to a higher level well above the grotto complex. We scrambled up a steep rise and found ourselves standing on top of the world.
Anita: “Oh, my God.”
We stepped forward, toward the distant mountains a million miles off, shimmering from heat distortions created by rising hot air. A few hundred yards out, we stopped. contemplating the immensity around us. I don’t know if “absolute silence” is possible, but we were close.
We stood for a few minutes, choosing not to say anything. Finally, without looking at her, I asked, “What are you thinking?”
She hesitated. “I feel so insignificant. I wonder if it makes any sense to say that everything is nothing. I can’t describe it, it’s mystical. Makes me want to sing.”
“Do it. No one’s around.”
She shook her head. “I can’t. It doesn’t seem right.”
I forced myself not to ask why.
We drank in the immensity until I heard our guide call the group to return to the bus. Aboard, he reminded us of our early morning departure for the all-day ride to Urumchi. The next day, rambling through the desert of the Gansu Corridor—an extension of the Gobi—I sat with Anita, wanting to learn more about her professional life.
“How many times have people asked about your ghost singing for movies?”
She smiled. “So, you talked to Elizabeth.”
“She did mention it.”
“That’s okay, she means well. My problem is that once the information gets out, everyone wants me to sing. They’ve kept after me for most of the trip. But I just can’t do it. Elizabeth must have mentioned my limitation.”
“Very briefly. She really didn’t say much.”
She paused, as if pondering what to reply. “You know, I’m plagued with stage fright, I’ve never been able to get past it. I can’t perform in front of an audience.”
“I’ve heard of stage fright, but that sounds pretty severe.”
“It’s not just stage fright, it’s more than that. It’s crippling. It kept me from exercising my own gifts, stopped me cold. A total lack of control in front of people, even on a movie set. Not only can I not sing, I can’t find the words. I freeze, turn into a statue.”
“What about your recordings?”
“I can sing with technicians around, it’s the room full of people staring at me that I can’t take. For instance, I never sang with a band. Thinking about a crowd puts me in traction.”
“Did you get any help, or just gut it out?”
She stopped to open a bottle of water and drank several gulps. “I get so dry out here,” she said, wiping her lips. “For a while I did try to brave myself through. Dug in my heels, all that sort of thing. Nothing worked. When I was in my mid-30s, I went with my mother to a psychiatrist. My mother, you know, was a beautiful singer of popular songs, but only at home. My father didn’t think it right for a woman to sing in public, so he didn’t allow my mother to perform. The doctor said, because of my father’s domineering behavior, I must have told myself, if I sing in public, I’ll lose a man’s love, and I’ll lose my parents’ love.”
That pushed me back. “Pretty heavy diagnosis. Once you learned the reason for your problem, what happened?”
She shook her head. “Even with that insight, I couldn’t overcome what I call my paralysis.”
“What did you do then?”
“I love to sing, I feel like I want to pay homage to song. That’s when I turned to dubbing for others, in the movies.”
“Do you know the picture ‘Gilda,’ with Rita Hayworth?”
“One of my favorites. Her torch song, ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ brought the house down. You sang that?”
She nodded. “That wasn’t Rita singing, it was me.”
“It’s hard to believe it wasn’t Rita. Was her voice that bad?”
“In fact, she had a very nice voice. She wanted to do the song herself. But Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, always dubbed her because it was cheaper. He’d have to pay her ten times what he paid me. Rita was such a good lip syncer, nobody knew it wasn’t her voice until many years later. In fact, I dubbed for her in four other films, including “Pal Joey.”
“Did you dub for anyone else?”
“A few. Vera Ellen, Shelly Winters, Joan Caulfield, Jeanne Crain, among others.”
“That’s amazing. When you work with them, how do you approach the song? I mean, do you study the woman on the screen, say Rita in her nightclub act? Or do you think about what the movie’s about, or what the song is about? There must be a lot of psychology in it.”
She thought for a moment. “Something like that. I work on my interpretations by considering the subtext that’s related to the lyric. I look for what the scene calls for, and what the lyricist and composer want. You can call it a single-handed collaboration. I’ll compare notes with the actor, but in the end it’s my call.”
“That’s a lot of work,” I said.
Our guide interrupted to tell us we’d arrive at the hotel in a few minutes.
“Okay, thanks Tang.” I looked at Anita. “I hope to hear from you someday.”
She squeezed my hand. “Come to New York.”
“I’ll be there.” I excused myself to check our group into the hotel.
After so many magnificent and inspiring sights, Urumchi was a letdown. The sole reason for going there was to catch one of the three-a-week return flights to Shanghai. Due to scheduling, we had to stay in Urumchi for two nights, one too many. Then I checked my passenger docs and found that the second and final night was Anita’s birthday.
Lindblad had a standing practice to observe people’s birth dates. So, to liven things up, I ordered a gala bash for Anita’s. In fact, it would be simple, a special dinner and cake, a gift, and a hail-and-hearty send-off. There was no way in Urumchi to do much more than that.
After eighteen days on the move without a break, people were run-down. Cranky. Short-tempered. Impatient. It was especially hard on Anita who had continuously to fend off requests for her to perform. The more they kept at it, the more she resisted, trying to say a nice “no,” and not always so nice.
Our last day, nothing was scheduled except the farewell dinner so everyone visited the local bazaar for its tourist trinkets. I found a shop with some decent jewelry. I picked a pendant and had her name inscribed in Chinese. The group came together and contributed a generous present of over $500 and wondered what to do with it. Some didn’t like the idea of giving money, so in the end, Tang and I negotiated a colorful hand-woven silk carpet, including the postage to send it to the Shapiro’s home in New York.
I asked Tang about a special restaurant where we could enjoy a party. He told me the hotel had the best in town. When he took me to the dining hall, my heart sank. It reminded me of an empty ballroom, as exciting as an art gallery without the art. It had all the cachet of a prison. Still, the hotel staff was good enough to string up banners and bunting, hoping to create a festive atmosphere.
The combination of tired camaraderie, end-of-tour relief, and endless bottles of Wild Goose Beer—one wag wondered if that was a noun or a verb—put us all in a good mood. China’s infamous Maotai white lightning made from sorghum ratcheted it up. Anita didn’t drink, but she fell into the usual hail-fellow-well-met atmosphere.
After some of the group gave her small mementos like mine, Mort complied when I asked him to present the silk carpet to his wife. This had an enormous impression on her. She sat dumbfounded. “Oh, my God!”
Anita’s reaction left a feel-good atmosphere over the group.
I knew everyone would sit back for one last round, then head for their quarters to prepare for the next morning’s flight to Shanghai, and homeward. I glanced at Anita who wore an odd expression. She seemed in a fog, as if she wasn’t with us anymore. I started to worry.
I was on the point of asking if she felt all right when she stood, almost zombie-like, and walked off about twenty feet toward the center of the hall. People fell silent, watching.
Not a sound, the Chinese attendants shushed.
Anita stood quiet and still, eyes closed. Then, in the center of a cavernous room with the acoustics of an echo chamber, she eased into an a cappella rendition of Rogers and Hart’s “Wait Till You See Him.” Hard to describe, a cross between honey and silk, a clear-as-a bell sexy purr. Like an endless sonic carpet. Her vibrato caromed off the walls.
When she finished, all fifty or so people in the room, Chinese and foreigners alike, jumped up and broke out in a crescendo of applause. I heard Elizabeth, sitting next to me, “Oh, my God.”
When the clapping eased up, Anita/Rita launched into Rita’s signature song, “Put the Blame on Mame.” This pint-sized powerhouse of vocal dynamite swam through the stanzas, her voice undulating to create and sustain the energetic, sensuous, voluptuous mood the song demands. I swear I felt Rita in the room with us.
For a second time, Anita brought the house down.
In Shanghai, I accompanied the group to Capital Airport. Tang stayed with the majority, while I went with Mortimore and Anita to the Pan Am counter to check them into their first-class seats. They grabbed their carry-ons and headed for immigration. Mort moved ahead, yacking with others from our group, probably wondering how the airport was built. Anita held back, and we chatted for a couple of minutes. She said what a wonderful experience she and Mort had had. Then, she reached into her bag and pulled out an LP album, her latest release, “A Legend Sings,” hugged me and bussed me on the cheek.
“With this, maybe you’ll remember our special time. It’s been wonderful. I’ll never forget it. Take care.”
She turned and walked away. Once I lost sight of her, I looked at the album cover where she’d inscribed the following:
My soulmate in adventure
and love of nature.
All my love,
Anita Kert Ellis died in October, 2015, at the age of 95.
Allen Wittenborn taught Asian, primarily Chinese, history and culture for twenty years at San Diego State University. He also escorted some forty tours to China and Southeast Asia.
Wittenborn’s self-publications include three novels: Kokang (2012) about Southeast Asia, primarily Burma and Laos; The Defiance of Reiko Murata (2018), in Japan; and Uprooted (2021) that takes place in the Middle East. He has written but not yet published fifteen short pieces (under 7000 words).
5 thoughts on “Soulmate”
It was as if I travelled with the troupe you arranged to China. Your vivid description is commendable.
Expecting more works from your side
Dear Vanaja, it is always welcome to received positive comments such as yours for which I thank you. The Silk Road tour offers numerous memorable sites and sights. It is definitely my favor area to travel in. But it can also be grueling, hot and dusty and strenuous. But on this particular trip I was energized by Anita’s spirited love of nature and adventure. She was quite a small woman, almost pixish, but a dynamo as a traveler. It was my favorite tour ever, thanks to her effervescence. Allen
Great story. I will remember that Anita is a hw voice behind Rita in Gilda.
Thank you for your comment. I must admit one of the easiest stories I’ve written. With Anita, it almost wrote itself. I never did get to New York to see here again, though we did share a couple of cards. What a loss.
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