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The Meaning of Lao Tong

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WENDI MURDOCH
AP

"Lao tong" is an ancient Chinese phrase meaning "friends for life," and it's the secret formula that turned all the challenges of producing my first film, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan into occasions for grateful celebration. When I set out to make this bestselling book into a movie, I knew the risks. Here was a story adored by people around the world who each had their own conceptions of how it ought to appear on the big screen. Moreover, the story concerned a secret lifelong friendship between two girls in 19th century China. Not your automatic blockbuster topic! Finally, I knew that by deciding the film should be shot in China itself -- where I'd lived until I was 19 years old -- I was setting the biggest hurdle of all. But the universal theme of intense, fearless friendship resonated so strongly with me that I felt confident my dreams for the film would come true.

The word "lao tong," once holding a historic meaning, now had a modern and relevant definition for me. In fact, even before we launched the production process, I found my amazing family of lao tongs rallying around me. These connections kept me feeling brave. The wonderful writer Amy Tan introduced me to Lisa See's novel. Without Amy's friendship, I would never have been inspired to start this project. My great friend Florence Sloan joined as my supportive and strong producing partner and together we found ourselves lucky enough to have a director of the caliber of Wayne Wang sign on to work with us. Everyone involved with the production wanted to live up to this good fortune. All the people who dedicated themselves to helping us throughout the filming and after are my lao tongs, whether or not I knew them before we began working together. How appropriate that in creating a film with a tale of powerful friendship at its core, I should feel myself embraced by so many supportive friends!

This feeling has continued building momentum since the shooting. We had a series of lao tong screenings all around the country. In San Francisco, we met a host of impressive figures from Silicon Valley, along with the mayor of San Francisco. In Los Angeles, I had the privilege of watching my good friend Willow Bay interview Wayne along with actress Bing Bing Li and Lisa See. When we screened the film in New York City, everyone from Diane von Furstenberg, Nicole Kidman, Diana Taylor, Ivanka Trump, Ben Kingsley and Deb Lee Jackman came out to support us. Senator Chris Dodd welcomed me at the Motion Picture Association of America to help celebrate 10 years of co-productions with China. Standing between Senator Dodd and Zhang Yesui, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, I know I am not alone. Many people have created their own lao tongs fostering better relationships between China and the United States.

Today I'm still getting a kick out of the unexpected connections being forged through this film. Just last week, I had one of the most poignant encounters I've experienced since the release of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I was attending a screening at Stanford University. The auditorium was packed with 450 people. After it was over, a student made her way up to me, said how much she enjoyed the film and told me it reminded me of her own closest friendship. Recently, she and her childhood friend have had some misunderstanding and fallen out of touch. But she told me that after watching this film, "I've made up my mind to call her and reconnect. She is my lao tong."