The ‘Drifters’ Dreaming of Stardom

‘Hengdian drifters’ are not known for their performances. They are aspiring actors from all over China who have come to the world’s largest film and television shooting base, Hengdian World Studios, mostly working as extras or as crew. While they are mostly uncredited, rarely have lines and are paid little for spending long hours on set, many of them dream of stardom.

Hengdian World Studios is located in East China’s Zhejiang province. It is home to 13 shooting bases, a replica of the Forbidden City and an Imperial Palace in the style of the Qin and Han dynasties. It also has a theme park with attractions such as “Guangzhou Street” and “Hong Kong Street” and a Buddhist temple.

But it is also the home to thousands of extras, the so-called drifters, filling the background in scenes of films of all budgets. This Caixin special report features a handful of the so-called drifters who dream of hitting the big time. Each morning, many of them wake up with the sun to check the notice boards for work opportunities — as extras, as set workers, as assistants. Some of them graduate to become credited extras and earn a higher daily rate.

The rest must make the most of every opportunity they get to be on set, either as an extra or working behind-the-scenes. To make a good impression and more connections, they try to be seen working hard and are polite to everyone. Some choose to make an impression by dressing well.

Many are martial artists, filling the background of massive fight scenes in martial arts films, a popular genre in China. They have been seen in the background of fight scenes in big-budget martial arts films like 2001’s “Hero,” 2011’s “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate,” and “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai.”

The drifters often work grueling shifts. One martial arts extra, Zhou Peng, told stories of acting out a battle scene for 24 hours. During the shooting of one film, he and three others had to jump off a tall platform. Two of them suffered bone fractures and one was too afraid to jump. Zhou Peng was the only one to successfully finish filming the scene.

As “web films,” feature-length movies only posted on streaming websites like iQiyi, YouKu and Tencent Video, gather steam, many of the drifters have begun to write and fund their own films. In 2018, screenwriter Wang Hailin and other film and television professionals reflected that due to the fallout of the Fan Bingbing tax scandal, some large investment projects were affected this year, and more funds flowed to the Internet and online dramas with lower risks and costs.

Jia Changdao goes to check the job noticeboard less and less now. For the last two years he has worked in the hall of the Emperor Qin Palace, wearing costumes and taking photos with tourists. In 2001, he also worked as an extra in Zhang Yimou’s film “Hero,” also shot in Hengdian. Photo: Liang Yingfei/Caixin
At the Hengdian Louyuan Hotel Number 1, Fan Qi from northeastern China has photos taken for the web film in which she stars. Not long after she graduated from Sichuan Communications College, she went to Hengdian with a few friends. In recent years, more and more online games and web dramas have been launched in Hengdian, attracting many recent graduates to join the drifters. Here, they are more likely to land important roles. Photo: Liang Yingfei/Caixin
Zhou Peng plays a detective in the series he is currently filming. One scene where he rides a horse had to be shot five or six times as it had to be filmed on the ground and in the air. Once, he lost control of the horse and fell off. Because he has so much experience with martial arts, such minor injuries are common for him. Photo: Liang Yingfei/Caixin
Li Xiangxin accompanies his friend to shoot model cards. His friend is wearing a costume of a female military officer. Before shooting, Li threw himself on the ground in front of his friend, pretending to look under her skirt. Photo: Liang Yingfei/Caixin
Li Xiangxin strolls in the rain at Hengdian’s riverside park, singing the song “Singin’ in the Rain.” From the time he could first read, he fell in love with films and novels, and for a long time dreamed of being in a film like “Casablanca.” After he graduated from college, he changed jobs monthly, from salesman to delivering packages to delivering food, and says he has tried every job once. While working on an assembly line in a Foxconn factory, he often contemplated the meaning of life, and finally quit to come to Hengdian. Photo: Liang Yingfei/Caixin
No matter how tired she is after work, A Lan goes to Wansheng Street to sing and dance whenever she can. After being photographed by other people, A Lan got angry. Some people yelled that she was crazy, but she didn’t care. “I just want them to see me, I live in the moment.” Photo: Liang Yingfei/Caixin
Most of the extras only receive 50 yuan ($7.20) to 100 yuan for a day of work, and once they are selected to become contributing actors they receive 150 yuan to 300 yuan. A Lan has always been an extra, and as she gets older she is rarely asked to audition for a contributing actor role. When she is rejected for a role or isn’t filming anything, she finds other work, such as handing out flyers, to earn money. Photo: Liang Yingfei/Caixin
Zhu Xiaobing, an Anhui province native who has practiced martial arts from an early age, practices “flying skills” in a small apartment. He read in a book that if he reached a certain speed and height, he could jump up and break through the ceiling of the apartment. He came to Hengdian in 2016 after studying in Beijing, and now works in a nearby mahogany furniture factory while filming. Photo: Liang Yingfei/Caixin
On Oct. 20, the Hengdian Film and Television Festival holds a parade. An actor holding an axe helps an elderly actor cross the street. Photo: Liang Yingfei/Caixin
On Oct. 21, tourists play on the beacon terraces of the Emperor Qin Palace replica at Hengdian. This was used in Chen Kaige’s 1997 film “The Emperor and the Assassin.” Photo: Liang Yingfei/Caixin
Xiao Cong, 17, came to Hengdian to pursue her dream of becoming a musician after leaving home because of discord with her family. Over one month in Hengdian, she was an extra three times. She usually stayed at a friend’s house but occasionally feels embarrassed and sleeps alone in an Internet cafe. Photo: Liang Yingfei/Caixin
Jiao Changdao wrote a script and designed a large variety show to select actors. He took the plans for the show with him to four different places to find people to work with him. He said it was his lifelong dream, and if he finished it, he would leave Hengdian, buy some land and become a farmer. Photo: Liang Yingfei/Caixin
Mr. Tu, in charge of lighting, stands in a corner and guards lights for the crew. Most crews have limited funding. Overtime and overwork are common. Tu earns 300 yuan per day, the same as the cost of renting the movie light in his hand. Photo: Liang Yingfei/Caixin

Translated by Ren Qiuyu (

–This article originally appeared on Caixin