Never-Before-Seen Photos of Warhol in China Show the Artist’s Playful Side

John Alper
Nov 19, 2018 7:42PM

Photo © John Alper.

In 1982, filmmaker John Alper traveled to Communist China with Andy Warhol. There, the pair made a documentary, Andy Warhol: Made in China, which constitutes the megastar Pop icon’s last film. Below, Alper reminisces about the experience and shares some never-before-seen photographs from the trip.

Back in 1982, I was working at an ad agency in New York, taking a break from directing and shooting documentaries because of a knee injury. Lee Caplin called me one day. He said, “I got this wild opportunity.” Lee had learned that Andy Warhol was going to go to China based on his relationship with Alfred Siu, the suave, young scion of a wealthy Hong Kong family. During that period in Warhol’s career, he was making money doing portraits of celebrities and wealthy society people. Alfred bought in; he and his wife were to have their portraits done by Andy. Lee wanted to put a crew together to make a documentary. Technically, Lee’s a lawyer, but he’s really an artist. He was in the art scene in New York to some extent, and he and Jeffrey Deitch became friends, or somehow they had a relationship. Jeffrey was in art acquisition for Citibank then, so Citibank and Alfred were going to finance the film. He said, “It looks like this thing is gonna happen. Can you do it?” That’s how it started.

John Alper filming at the Great Wall. Photo © John Alper.


So how did they get Andy Warhol to go to China? They made it very appealing to him. Alfred was building this downtown club called the I Club in Hong Kong. It was something radically new for the city, a very architecturally interesting, multi-floor club with an art gallery, several restaurants…everything was just beautiful. They were going to have a big opening at the I Club, and Andy was going to be the celebrity artist, with a party in his honor. He was evidently going to be able to get more portraits to do. But the real sweetener was when Alfred guaranteed Andy that he could do Deng Xiaoping’s portrait. Andy had already done the very famous Mao Tse Tung portrait. This was to be the follow up; Deng was going to be the next leader of China.

I got a film crew together, and we went early to get our gear and get everything set up. Then Andy came over with Fred Hughes, who ran Interview magazine and was involved in running Warhol’s business; Hughes’s girlfriend, Natasha Grenfell, the daughter of a wealthy banking family in England; and Christopher Makos, a punk photographer who was big on the Lower East Side. That was their retinue.

Lee’s idea for the film was to basically be a tourist. We were all tourists. Andy was a tourist. So we toured the big landmarks around Beijing, and took a trip to the Great Wall outside of the city. That was the setup: The documentary crew would follow him around. I did camerawork and sound. I was right there with Andy holding up his mic, being a part of the film. We hung out together for 10 days between Hong Kong and Beijing, and became this big, dysfunctional family walking around China trying to get this thing done.

Andy was a peculiar personality. He was very, very quiet. We were all aware that he was kind of introverted. He relied heavily on Chris Makos, who was a funny, energetic guy. This was typical: We were in the middle of Tiananmen Square. We got the mics all set up and said to Andy, “Okay, Andy, what are your impressions of Tiananmen Square?” And he just stood there and turned to Chris. “Christopher, what should I do? What should I say?” Chris looked around and fixated on these huge light arrays, tall poles which are 40 feet up in the air. “Andy, why don’t you say, ‘The big light poles look like giant disco lights’?” And that’s what Andy would say! This happened a lot. We were in the Forbidden City and we asked, “What do you think?” and he said, “Chris, what should I say?” It was just hysterical.

I think Andy was not comfortable having this film crew following him around. Andy was the voyeur—he wasn’t used to being the subject of a film. We were annoying to him. He was trying to see China and we kept shoving microphones in his face, telling him to stand here and there. But he dug it. Of course he liked it. But not visibly. He was a very unusual person, there’s no question about it. You knew you were in the presence of somebody who really saw things differently and behaved differently than the average Joe.

Photo © John Alper.

Photo © John Alper.

Andy was super observant of everything around him, and he was also a prolific photographer. He would just hold his Chinon camera chest-high and snap away in the middle of everything that was going on. He would look at everything and take photographs of everything. I mean constantly. We could be having dinner together at a restaurant and he’d be shooting pictures. In the middle of Tiananmen Square setting up for the interview, he’d just be firing the Chinon away. This was film, not digital photographs. As a photographer and cinematographer, I thought it was unbelievable—this guy was ripping through rolls of film.

He was fascinated by China. It was like the absolute antithesis of the United States. Everyone was on masses of bicycles. People carried things on their heads and stood in line for food. Everyone was burning coal and charcoal to stay warm and cook, so the air was gray and heavy. It was intense. Everywhere you turned, there was something that you had never seen before, something you could only really see in that country, in that city, in that time.

Andy really got animated when we would go to the markets. We all went into this crazy clothing store that had wigs and hats and all kinds of stuff. I got a long, mountain lion fur coat. Andy loved it. When you go to ruins and landmarks it’s being a tourist, it doesn’t evoke a lot of emotion. But the market is where he got visibly excited, and didn’t have to ask Chris what to say or do.

Alfred Siu, Natasha Grenfell, Andy Warhol, and Christopher Makos at the Great Wall. Photo © John Alper.

One of the big deals for the movie was Andy’s meeting with China’s most renowned traditional artist, named Chang Ku-nien. I love filming this sequence in the movie. We all went to this guy’s studio. It was very modest. We captured this moment when the East and the West’s leading artists met one another. Chang was a very sweet guy, polite. He had an interpreter. He showed Andy a bunch of his paintings that he did with a brush. Then he got out a big piece of brown paper. The interpreter explained that he wanted to paint something for Andy as a gift. So he painted something with his brush and handed it to Andy, and then the interpreter said, “Mr. Warhol, would you like to make a piece of art for Dr. Chang?” Here it was again: Andy turned to Chris and said, “What should I paint?” Chris replied, “Why don’t you do the dollar sign?” So Andy did a dollar sign right there and signed it and gave it to this gentleman. Andy was so seer-like in that sense. This was Communist China, and he gave this artist American currency in a really symbolic way. Now trade has opened up, and China has been investing heavily in the dollar. These things were not happening in 1982.

In regard to Andy doing Premier Deng’s portrait…I honestly cannot tell you if that happened or not. I think it happened, but we didn’t film it. Getting to Deng was a super top-secret deal, and we were very aware of being spied on. We had the equivalent of the Chinese KGB with us the entire time, this woman who escorted us everywhere, and we were at a hotel that was notorious for having microphones hidden in the walls of every room. It was a different world over there. But it brought us all together.

John Alper