Becoming Helen

Elyse Ribbons

© Copyright 2022 by Elyse Ribbons

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of
Ooh, I like this title.  As a linguistics nerd and a fan of punnery in general, this title brings me joy because Helen Foster Snow was indeed a very becoming woman; classy, graceful, witty and beautiful.  But also, this is the perfect title because this essay is about my very surreal experience of becoming Helen Foster Snow.  

In 2015 I was presented with the opportunity to take on the role of Helen in the 42 episode biopic TV series, Red Star Over China,and of course I leapt at this chance.  Not just because I got to play the leading lady in a major production, but because of the mystique hanging around her legacy.  As a Sinophile that had been living and working in China for well over a decade when this wonderful opportunity presented itself, I had heard bits and pieces about Helen before.  But still, I didnt know all that much about her.  

I knew that shed been an American journalist in China in the 1930s, though I hadnt personally read anything shed written, or so Id thought.  I also knew that she was an Old Friend of China,which is a vague but important title given to a relative few.  I also knew that she was the wife of Edgar Snow, whose book, “Red Star Over China” I had read in college.  

But what I didnt know, what so many didnt know, is that she was far more than these things.  She wasnt just Edgars wife, she was also co-author of Red Star Over China, editor, and his diehard champion.  She was integral to the book in more ways than one, as it was she that was able to smuggle the precious photos of the Chinese Communists from YanAn back to Beijing.  And it was she who was the powerhouse behind the Gung Ho movement.

Oh, and she was also a queen of the Beijing social scene, a model, an activist, a valued teacher, and an accomplished writer in her own right.  She exemplified so many things that I myself aspired to be, an ideal of the American woman.  And yet, almost no Americans know about her.

Well, my curiosity was beyond piqued, and once I signed the contract for this role of a lifetime, I went straight into research mode.  I read everything I could find about her, even paying to have a horridly dull academic text shipped over to Shanghai from the U.S.  I had to get special permission to access the library at a local university to recover a dusty version of her original English memoir.

Further still, I enjoyed reading about her from other peoples’ perspectives. The other great writers and political figures of her day gave me glimpses of her that she couldn’t reveal herself. I read about her in English. And then I read about her in Chinese. I was fascinated by the different ways she was portrayed.  

In her memoir, I suppose that she was trying to remain humble while still explaining her involvement in the socio-political happenings of 1930s China. However, every person who wrote about her in Chinese couldnt stop singing her praises. Her former students all adored her, and several became future leaders of China.  One of whom, Huang Hua, lived to become a national leader because she had hidden him away from the police in her closet in Beijing.

At a dinner for the Snow Institute at Peking University one night, I got to meet Huang Hua’s widow personally. After a few courses of delicious Beijing cuisine, I moved over to her table and introduced myself. When I asked about closet story, she became very emotional and said that her husband had never for a day forgotten Helen’s quick wit and bravery in the face of extreme danger.

Once filming began, I made use of the opportunity to travel to other cities in China, where Helen herself had traveled, and met with people who had known her, or their relatives, to hear family lore and more intimate stories than the history books contained. It was a treasure trove of memories, and gave me unique insight into her character. I also found myself noticing in particular the reflections of her life into my own.

I too had moved to China on my own as a young woman, and had made my way through the social scene of Beijing and Shanghai, as well as developing a very solid career for myself. She and I had both worked for the US State Department, she as a secretary at the Consulate in Shanghai, and myself as a Virtual Outreach Officer at the Embassy in Beijing. She and I had both been models, though the highlight of my modeling career was when I was chosen to be a spokesmodel for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And she and I were both devoted writers.

Thanks to my semi-celebrity status as a host of one of the most popular news radio programs in China, Laowai Kandian”, I was able to meet with some very impressive people, and hear their personal stories of their interactions with Helen, though often it was only second-hand from her studentschildren and the like.  But still, it painted a very vivid picture of the amazing woman and filled me with an energetic joy when approaching the role.

The more I learned about Helen, the more that I became her.  Almost developing an entirely new personality.  I’m worried that by sharing this here that I perhaps will be admitting that I need to see a psychologist.  But it really was strange, the way her own personality, her own turn of phrase, had begun to supplant my own.

At the beginning of filming with George Tronsrue, the actor who portrayed Edgar Snow, we were great friends and got yelled at by the crew more than once for laughing too much on set. But by the end of filming, I had a hard time not feeling bitter about the way that he (George as Edgar) had treated me (Elyse as Helen) even though George himself had always been a gentleman and is still a dear friend. I constantly had to pull myself away from the pain and bitterness and remind myself that her story was not mine and George had not done those things.

Those five months of filming were some of the hardest of my life.  Wearing a Summer dress for a June scene and filming in the icy winds of February resulted in my catching pneumonia.  I had to take time in between scenes to get my IV antibiotics treatment.  But still I pressed on, almost obsessed beyond healthy measure.  Ha, why am I saying almost? I was definitely obsessed beyond healthy measure.

I had so many adventures while standing in Helen’s shoes, reliving the many experiences of her China life.  Everything from flirting with Edgar in bubbly Shanghai, to running around on chaotic train platforms as bombs went off.  Spending wonderful hours socializing with Beijings literati, the days filming with Lu Xun were particularly fun, and political leaders.  

Wearing glamorous qipaos and fur coats for fashion shows, to teaching lectures at the University.  Working with the activists to hand out fliers to get students to march to prevent General Song Zheyuan from handing over Northern China to the Japanese.  And of course the many days of filming in the caves of YanAn in Northern Shaanxi with the full Communitist regalia.  

I also took many personal lessons as I too ran a philanthropic organization as we filmed the founding, management and fundraising for the Gung Ho coop movement with the support of Song Qingling. She did all of these things, and so much more.  Too much to fit into this brief essay.  But wow, what a wild ride to film it.  Towards the end of the filming process, I too began to tire, and like Helen, was exhausted, mind, body and soul.  Like her, I had to leave, to recompose myself, to reconnect.  It was all so much.  

And by playing that role, by becoming Helen Foster Snow, I didnt just get the chance to connect with her.  But I also got a chance to better connect with myself.  After the filming, I realized that I needed to take better care of my health, and I needed to find a calmer life so that I could settle down and have a family.  Helen never had children, shes not very clear about whether or not she wanted them.  But I knew that I wanted children, and my own baby sleeping at my side now as I write this brings me such a sense of joy and peace.

It is hard for me to write about Helen, as I often feel like I am somehow too personally involved.  Her bravery, her attitude, her feminine strength, these are all qualities that I hope will stay with me after this strange embodying experience.  Sadly, I did not get a chance to ever meet her myself, so many things about her will forever remain a mystery.  But I think there is something about her that is known, and that we can all do in our own lives: to reach our hands across to others, to work hard and share in otherswork, and to try to find understanding.

And it is exactly what I am trying to do now. Act as a cultural bridge between China and the West. Through my Twitter and TikTok feeds, I try to share my own window into the soul of China. My true goal, however, is like Helen, to write. While many others have spent their youth acquiring capital and investing in their retirement, I instead have been collecting stories.

It is easy for me to get on stage in a stadium with a live audience of 80,000 people, and hundreds of millions watching the live TV stream. It is easy for me to go to business meetings and negotiate multi-million yuan deals with government officials over baijiu banquets. It is easy for me to teach an aerial yoga class when nine months pregnant. But it has not been easy for me to sit down and write.

And yet, this is my absolutely favorite thing to do. The joy I feel once my words begin to flow across the page is beyond compare. You know how there’s the runner’s high? Well for me, the best is the writer’s high. But for so long I lacked the confidence to give in to the joy, to do this very thing that makes me so happy.

So I am taking yet another note from Ms. Helen Foster Snow, and I am getting the courage up now. Writing more, submitting more, and hoping some day to get my novels and nonfiction books published. And in the meantime, I will enjoy re-experiencing the world through my daughter’s eyes and adding more stories to my collection.

Elyse Ribbons is a writer, journalist and theater nerd based in Chengdu, China. Born in Detroit and raised in North Carolina, she's lived in China for nearly two decades and along the way has earned degrees and certificates from UNC-Chapel Hill, Communications University of China, Stanford Graduate School of Business and most recently an MFA in Peking Opera from the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing. When she isn't watching Star Trek, playing with pandas or enjoying spicy Sichuanese cuisine, you'll find her on talk shows, podcasts, the stage or sometimes even in a film.

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