Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Shi Pei Pu

I first heard the story from a friend at a los Angeles party in 1986. "This French diplomat had a 20-year affair with a Chinese actress, who turned out to be both a spy and a man in drag. The diplomat claims not to have known that his lover was actually a man." I used the bones of this story as the basis for my play (and later film) M. Butterfly. Since then, the facts I have learned about Shi Pei Pu have done little to dispel his mystery.

Shi was a Chinese opera performer who met Bernard Boursicot, a French embassy accountant, in Beijing in 1964. They always made love in the dark, which Boursicot attributed to Chinese modesty. Shi even produced a child, whom he claimed was their offspring. To improve Shi's position with the Chinese Communist Party, Boursicot began passing embassy documents to Chinese officials. In 1983, the two were arrested in Paris and later convicted of espionage. Over the following 26 years, the two rarely spoke, even as Shi was ailing in Paris. When I offered a percentage of the play's royalties to its real-life inspirations, Shi instead demanded a recital at Carnegie Hall, a wish as grand as it was unfeasible. Perhaps this comes closest to the truth about Shi Pei Pu: he was, above all, a performer.

David Henry Hwang

Hwang is a Tony Award-winning playwright