The year is 1937 and washed-up American singer John Ramsey has just arrived for a one-month stint as a lounge singer in Beijing.

He falls in love with Mei, a porcelain-skinned girl selling cigarettes in the bar. Hot on her trail, Ramsey follows her across the capital and the two fall in love amid a background of escalating tension.

This is the plot for The Marco Polo Bridge, a pre-production film created by legendary US singer Bertie Higgins, who has just arrived in the capital to research his role by working as a lounge singer.

Higgins, who will write, produce, star and compose the film's score, said fronting a band for a two-month gig at the Renaissance Hotel's R Lounge is only part of his preparation. He will also use any spare time available to record songs for the soundtrack.

Higgins is the epitome of a lounge singer. He is the creator of original music and re-energizer of cover songs with a loud personality and even louder suits (including one in a bold banana-yellow).

His southern-fried voice is directed at rowdy audience members between songs and long, feathered hair with gold hoop earrings can create the sensation of a singing pirate.

His backing band is assembled in the convoluted way only a lounge act can function – there is Higgins' long-time friend and keyboardist, Mark Halisky, two members of Beijing's internationally-acclaimed punk band Brain Failure (Xu Lin on drums and Dee Dee Wang Jian on lead guitar), bassist Neil Jofre from Argentina and Cuban Conga drummer Jorge David Juarez.

Westerners, Americans in particular, might remember Higgins from his 1982 song Key Largo, which reached No 8 on the US Billboard Top 100 chart. And those from the Pacific Rim will know him best as the singer behind Casablanca, a perennial KTV favorite from the album Just Another Day in Paradise, recorded in 1982.

Though he spent some part of his early 20s working as a sponge diver in Tarpon Springs, Florida, Higgins has mostly been a performer, a storyteller and a personality since seeing a ventriloquist act at age 12.

"He was just a little guy with a wooden puppet on his knee, but he made me want to do it," Higgins said.

In high school, Higgins played drums in a band. Then, in his early 20s, "the poet inside bloomed" and he picked up a guitar and began writing and performing songs in a small-town in Florida.

A move to Atlanta and a chance meeting with producer Sonny Limbo propelled Higgins to the big leagues almost overnight.

"He ripped the arms off my babies, my songs," Higgins said. "Key Largo took 10 re-writes. Casablanca took 15 before we got it right."

While he can't explain how he made the move from pre-pubescent ventriloquist to sponge diver to budding storyteller to hit romance balladeer to Beijing lounge singer/filmmaker, he did summarize it as "a comedy of errors".

"I get up in the morning, look in the mirror and go, 'who are we today?'" he said.

His present gig is also the result of a chance meeting in an airport with John Probandt, a low-key US businessman in Beijing.

"It's all a gamble and I'm a gambler," Higgins said.

Probandt, who is organizing the live entertainment at The Renaissance's R Lounge, plans to include foreign acts championed by local Chinese options.

"Bertie is a good guy to start it off with and he's working well with the punk rockers from Brain Failure," said Probandt.

The pair are planning to record a live album at R Lounge, including a new song by Higgins that Probandt said is "for Beijing, about Beijing".

But Higgins is not new to China. In June 2010 he did a tour with his US band Bertie Higgins and his Band of Pirates. "We did major cities and sold them out," he said.

Two of his sons, Julian and Aaron Higgins, came along to document the tour and Higgins even participated in a TV show to promote tourism in Sanya with former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

This year is already filling up for Higgins – he's got a Cannes-bound film in post-production in the US (Through The Eye), his movie in Beijing and a live album from R Lounge (to be announced).

SOURCE: China Daily

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