SHANGHAI — Mike Medavoy and his parents stand together on the deck of a cruise ship floating down the Huangpu River, using memories to re-create their old hometown. The majestic waterfront banks and hotels provide a familiar facade from the time when his parents--Michael and Dora Medavoy--and the city were in their prime.
But since Shanghai fell under Communist rule in 1949, neglect has chipped away at the once-dazzling metropolis, and a recent construction boom threatens to do even more harm. The river, though, is the same one that carried them away from Shanghai in 1947, a journey that took them from China to Chile and, ultimately, to Hollywood. Now, Hollywood has brought them back home.
Medavoy persuaded his parents to come along on his recent trip to attend a Shanghai film festival and plan a movie set here in what was once China's most cosmopolitan city. It is not a movie based on his family's life in Shanghai--but it could be.
This is the place, after all, where in its heyday, identities and fortunes could change in a night. Michael senior recalls how an heirless Chinese warlord tried to buy him from his mother. Dora tells of an Iraqi millionaire named Silas Hardoon who married a Chinese stocking mender he met on the street, then adopted a dozen children. They describe how wealthy gentlemen were ruined in casinos and opium dens and Russian refugees fleeing the Bolsheviks reinvented themselves as exiled royalty, or the unlucky ones as taxi dancers.
Michael and Dora Medavoy grew up in Shanghai, children of Russian emigres who fled the pogroms of World War I. They were among the thousands of foreigners who arrived to make their fortune in the booming Chinese port city--and the prime of their lives coincided with Shanghai's golden age.
"I left behind a place that was very important to me," says father Michael, a tall, thin 77-year-old with dark hair and a slight mustache. "It represents the best years of my life--my youth, my money. I almost didn't want to come back because the memory was so good. But when I stepped off the plane I was crying."
From the deck of the riverboat, Michael senior points to where foreign gunboats dropped anchor to protect their treaty port. Just up the river is the apartment where Mike, who was known before Hollywood as "Morris," was born. And in front of Shanghai's majestic embankment is the tree-lined promenade where Michael used to court Dora.
In a burst of gaiety between World Wars I and II, the Medavoys, like thousands of other expatriates, danced till dawn at the famous nightclubs--Ciro's, Farren's and the Paramount Ballroom. Dora owned a dress boutique, and her tailor made her a new gown every week for Saturday night on the town. "Shanghai was heaven for foreigners then," Michael says.
The high life continued, though with a quietly growing desperation, as Japanese forces occupied the city in 1937. For the most part, foreigners were left alone. But in an attempt to smoke out Chinese snipers hiding on the rooftops, Japanese soldiers burned out the entire riverside section of town where Michael's family lived.
Arriving on the same river were the victims of another war, boatloads of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism in Europe. The Medavoys endured World War II, helping the new arrivals settle in Shanghai as others had helped their parents two decades before. But soon after the war was over, it became clear to Michael that though the Japanese army was gone, the Communist army of Mao Tse-tung would soon take their place.
"I knew they were coming, so we sold out and got out, just as my family did before from Russia. We sold all our furniture and my 1940 Plymouth, and got on a Norwegian steamer headed for South America," Michael says. They chose to go to Chile, he says, because "the consulate had the shortest visa line in town."
Mike Medavoy says that starting from scratch again gave him the perspective and toughness of an outsider who has had to win his way into the innermost circles, and gave his parents the sanguine calm of those who have not only survived but succeeded.
It wasn't an easy journey for Mike, though the process of reinvention may have been the perfect training for Hollywood. "I too had to learn a new language, a new way of life. When I first got to America, I wasn't an American. When I first got to Chile, I was a gringo," he says, recalling his transition from mail-room clerk to studio head. "Knowing how to get beyond that has its advantages."
The movie mogul was 7 when he left China and doesn't remember much about it, except that he was teased for his red hair, preferred playing marbles to doing homework and loved the movies. The first movie he saw was in Shanghai, he says--a wartime Russian propaganda film about the Nazis.
"I remember the image of a woman jumping under a German tank, holding two hand grenades to blow it up," he says. "For a 6-year-old, it was devastating."