The old, rusty bicycles were actually from Japan, sent in by the dozens from a props shop in Hollywood. Even the banner that stretched across the narrow alley had an authentic political slogan, the latest put out by the Chinese People's Congress.
The scene: uptown Beijing, where bicycles, rickshaws and the street-side flea market overwhelm the senses. While about 300 Asian extras crowded the narrow, roped-off alley, cars sped by outside, most with Utah license plates.Known to the locals as Regent Street, the alley was transformed into a place far from Utah Thursday and Friday for a made-for-television movie based on the CBS drama "Touched by an Angel." The colorful red and yellow signs, all printed with Chinese characters, covered real signs of Salt Lake businesses, which were open throughout the filming and set-up.
Not far from Regent Street was the set designed to re-create a corner of the Tiananmen Square uprising, just behind the Salt Lake County Library.
Filming on Regent Street will make up about one or two minutes of the popular series' first made-for-TV movie, to air May 17, according to Diane Millett, production designer. About $35,000 was spent on the signs, she said, with nearly a month spent researching and preparing the set. Three technical advisers from China, Singapore and Taiwan lent their advice for the set design, which was also researched from books, photos and videos of streets in China and Beijing.
Sometimes, however, the self-named "art department SWAT team" got it wrong. Once, they put up all of the signs only to find out that they had hung the Chinese characters upside down. Then they had to avoid using the color black, since it is considered unlucky.
Chun-hui Yang, a University of Utah instructor, acted as a reality check for the set designers. Yang constantly walked through the alley, changing some details, adding and taking away others.
All of the painted billboards and props looked too new and clean, Yang declared on one occasion. "Beijing is a very windy city," he explained. "In the city, dust is blown in. It would look too weird for it not to look dusty." So a layer of gray paint and water was sprayed over everything.
Why all the trouble to re-create Beijing, right down to the Chinese CDs on sale at the music store? After all, the scene will probably only run for about 11/2 minutes of the two-hour movie.
"It took a lot of respect to present fact over fiction, instead of using fiction to tell the story," said Joe Stetich, a member of the art department SWAT team. Although Stetich said they are still sugar-coating things, he also said they did the best they could to be accurate.
"Like with Disney and Pocahontas. They are not revealing the facts, they just tell a nice story. Instead, they actually omitted things."
The May 17 drama will be about a Chinese woman who lives in the United States for political reasons. She returns to her native country, where she left her husband and child, to do interpreting work for her New York City employer. The Tiananmen Square scene, according to Millett, is a flashback from the woman's life and will be played with actual footage from the 1989 incident.