“They don’t belong to real agencies.” says Bonaventura. “The one double from Beijing works alone. They often work in patriotic stage productions with a theater company based in Shaoshan [Mao’s birthplace].” The Mao ersatz also work a lively circuit of banquets, holiday celebrations and weddings, at which they deliver famous Mao speeches in his dialect. He Na, reporting for the China Daily, has described the scene at a wedding in Changchun, Jilin Province: “With his theme tune, ‘East is Red’, [Mao lookalike] Li Shouxin makes his entrance at the wedding banquet dressed in a blue Mao suit.” The appearance makes revelers feel as though they’ve added something very privileged and unique to the occasion ….
Most Mao doubles do not earn a living wage from their acting and appearances and hold down other jobs. Though the hobby is not without its perks. One Mao double, a restaurateur, enjoys a high volume of patrons who dine hoping that the Great Leader might show up and sing Happy Birthday. Bonaventura could not estimate what each Mao double earns.
“They have a very strong competition amongst themselves,” says Bonaventura. “Any one of them thinks that the others are not good enough as Mao doubles.” Select lookalikes do hold the advantage over others. Mao was respected for his calligraphy so lookalike Gu Xiaoyue, renowned as a master calligrapher himself, can boast added value and “authenticity” in his act.
Gu Xiaoyue talked about his craft last year to China Daily:
“The Shaoshan dialect is Chairman Mao’s mother tongue. I believe if I want to become a good impersonator of Chairman Mao, I need to talk like him too. So I started to learn Shaoshan dialect in 2001, spent time living there and asked language specialists for help. It didn’t take me long to master the Shaoshan dialect,” said Gu ….
“To be a good impersonator, it is not enough just to ‘look’ alike. You have to ‘feel’ alike,” said Gu. “I practiced a lot and tried to be like Chairman Mao in all respects. Even in my spare time, I read Mao’s literature. I do think it helps ….”
“I act as Chairman Mao in movies or plays, but even in daily life, I constrain myself to live up to this identity. I live a very low profile life. I don’t go to amusement places. I treasure ‘thinking thoroughly before action’. My kids are very proud of me. I think they respected me even more after I became the double of Chairman Mao,” said Gu.
His work on the Mao doubles won Bonaventura the Professional Portrait prize in this year’s Sony World Photography Awards. He was too late, however, to capture Gu Xaioyue’s mentor, Gu Yue, who played Mao 84 times onscreen between 1978 and his death in 2005.
• See also: David Moser writing about the impersonators for Danwei.