The late screenwriter and director Nora Ephron influenced many people with movies like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. Some critics went so far as to say she singlehandedly redefined the modern romantic comedy genre.
As it turns out, her influence was so far-reaching that more than two decades on, Chinese filmmaker Xue Xiaolu has written and directed a new film that not only sounds familiar – it’s titled Beijing Meets Seattle – the plot also has a few key characteristics that reminds moviegoers of Ephron’s most famous works.
The Chinese version is (no surprise) set in Seattle. The story also centres around a single father and his child. But this time, the female protagonist is not drawn into their orbit by his heartbreak. In fact, Wen Jiajia (played by Tang Wei) travels to the US from Beijing not to find love but to deliver a baby, whose father is a wealthy tycoon in China.
In one of the early scenes in the Beijing Meets Seattle, Wen is confronted by an immigration office on why is she coming to Seattle, she replies in broken English: “Sleepless in Seattle… You know that? I love that movie! I love it!”
When she finally arrives in Seattle Wen meets Frank, a quiet doctor played by Wu Xiubo, who works at the maternity clinic. They don’t like each other at first but an unlikely friendship blossoms and they become good friends and something more. And if the trailer is anything to go by, there’s also a graphic monologue about sex, reminiscent of the fake climax scene in When Harry Met Sally. The film hits Chinese cinemas on March 7.
But comedy aside, Beijing Meets Seattle also deals with a serious social issue. It taps a growing trend: China’s “maternity tourists”. These are women who specifically travel to the US to give birth. Like the character Wen in the film, many pregnant mothers from China go on a tourist visa hoping to give birth to American citizens (children born in the US automatically become citizens).
Not only will the child receive a US passport, once they reach 21, their parents will also be able to apply for green cards and emigrate. In other cases, some parents do it not just for the passport, but to skirt China’s strict one-child law, which doesn’t apply if a child is born to Chinese parents outside China.
How it works is that most pregnant mothers will usually check into a maternity clinic upon arrival. The process can be costly – TIME magazine reckons that airplane tickets, fees for labour, pre- and post-delivery care add up to roughly $20,000.
But that hasn’t deterred pregnant Chinese mothers from flocking to the US. In fact, the growing number of “maternity tourists” has even triggered debates around the country with some politicians calling for an end to the 14th Amendment, which gives automatic citizenship to any baby born on American soil.
A similar debate is also raging in Hong Kong, where nearly half of the babies born in 2010 were born to mainland women who crossed the border just to deliver their babies, according to the territory’s immigration officials. Hong Kong residents, meanwhile, were outraged that local pregnant women are being shut out of maternity wards because mainlanders have snapped up the beds in public hospitals.
Why has Hong Kong been such a popular place to give birth? Like the US there is the citizenship issue. The kids get the right of abode if they are born in Hong Kong. Plus there’s superior healthcare: the maternal mortality rate is 15 times higher on the mainland than in Hong Kong. Infant mortality is 13 times higher.
But while the US will struggle to change the 14th amendment, Hong Kong has already taken action. A new measure was introduced at the start of this year that prevents pregnant mainlanders from giving birth in the territory unless their husbands are Hong Kong residents.
Still, many “maternity tourists” soon find out that having a foreign birth certificate also comes with a lot of hassle. That’s because Chinese law does not allow the holder of a foreign passport to be registered with the same hukou (household registration) as the parents’, which means a child with a US passport will not be automatically admitted to Chinese schools. As a result, parents often have to register them as a foreigner, and pay an extra fee. The child’s access to education and healthcare also faces a lot of constraints. Similarly, a child born in Hong Kong doesn’t get their Hong Kong resident identity card right away, but has to go back to Hong Kong regularly — every year or two until they are 18 — in order to register as a ‘returned resident’, and keep their nationality.
Clearly happily-ever-after only exists in the movies.
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