The Man Who Would be a Woman Act One, Scene Two: My Law Office, Twenty Years Later

Two decades after the young Frenchman Daniel Bertaux met Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, the real-life couple behind the celebrated Broadway play M. Butterfly and the Jeremy Irons film of the same name, he receives some shocking news, and a request: to help Shi Pei Pu find a lawyer. So, he calls a friend from the old days: me. To catch up on the details of the story up to this point, see the first post.

I first met Bertaux in 1969 when I moved to Paris to research my dissertation. Like me, Bertaux was a graduate student in sociology, and we knew many people in common. Some even said we were destined to become friends, because “Daniel est le plus américan des français, et Terry et le plus français des américans.1 In any case, we spent a great deal of time together during the year and a half I lived in Paris working under the tutelage of the great French sociologist Alain Touraine.

When Bertaux called my law office in the late 1980s, we hadn’t spoken in a year or two. But he had barely said “Bonjour” before he asked if I was interested in providing legal representation to a famous Chinese opera star who had immigrated to France only to be convicted and imprisoned on charges of international espionage. “A Dreyfus case for our times,” he added, with the same infectious laugh I remembered from two decades earlier. How could I say no? 

Bertaux proceeded to describe how he had met Shi Pei Pu and Bernard, as he called his friends, during a champagne-infused Beijing evening. After the three had spent the following week together touring the city, more than a decade had passed before he heard from either man again. Then one evening, completely out of the blue, he received a telephone call from Boursicot. The diplomat, now reassigned to Paris, had called to solicit Bertaux’s help in arranging for the immigration of Shi Pei Pu and their teenage son.

Needless to say, Bertaux was astonished to learn that Shi Pei Pu, who had presented himself as a man in Beijing, was actually a woman, and that the couple had had a son together. Putting aside his surprise, Bertaux gladly used his connections to put his friend Boursicot in touch with a well-respected immigration attorney. After that, he only occasionally heard from Boursicot, and he was only marginally aware that, several years later, Shi Pei Pu and the child were successfully reunited with Boursicot in Paris.

And then one morning everything changed again. On the way to his office, Bertaux stopped for his morning café and croissant and picked up a copy of Le Monde. The paper’s bold headline did more to wake my old friend than did his espresso: Shi Pei Pu and Bernard had been charged with high treason and were to be tried for their alleged international espionage before a special wing of the French Supreme Court.

The charges alone would have been enough to grab Bertaux’s attention, but there was more to the news article. Le Monde reported that after their arrests, Shi Pei Pu, whose identity card listed him as female, had been summarily rejected by the women’s prison to which he had been initially sent. The prison authorities, it seems, had determined him to be irrefutably male. For Bertaux, this was the second reversal of his friend’s known gender.

In the weeks and months that followed, as their treason trial progressed, both lovers the media mercilessly mocked and ridiculed on a daily basis. In the end, both men were convicted of high treason and sentenced to long prison terms, but the conclusion to the legal proceedings did little to silence the press. The story was simply too juicy to relinquish. Finally, just over two years into their sentences, President Francois Mitterrand had had enough of the entire matter: yielding to diplomatic pressure from China and popular sentiment at home, he ordered Shi Pei Pu’s release. Boursicot was set free the following year.

More recently, Bertaux continued, the story of Shi Pei Pu’s life had been turned into a wildly successful Broadway play titled M. Butterfly. The production, he understood, was the hottest show in New York, and tickets were all but impossible to come by. This overwhelming success had recently generated multiple offers to Shi Pei Pu to appear in television interviews, to be interviewed for biographical books, and to consider film deals. To negotiate these potential contracts, Shi Pei Pu, who spoke only Mandarin and French, was looking for a French-speaking American attorney. And as my good luck would have it, Shi Pei Pu had contacted his old friend, Daniel Bertaux, for help in locating counsel who fit the bill. Bertaux, naturally, recommended his old sociologist-friend-turned-attorney—and that would be moi.

 I assured Bertaux that I was entirely interested in taking the case, and pledged to him that I would take good care of his old friend Shi Pei Pu, whatever his gender. Bertaux gave me Shi Pei Pu’s phone number in Paris and emphasized that there was no time to waste: People Magazine had contacted Pei Pu earlier that week about filming a television special and interviewing him for a magazine cover story.

With some trepidation I called Shi Pei Pu in Paris to introduce myself. I told him about my phone call from Bertaux and my willingness to represent him in these business matters. He couldn’t have been nicer to speak to, nor more enthusiastic about his upcoming opportunity to sing opera once again in the television special People had offered. While he was a bit disappointed that I hadn’t yet been down to New York to see M. Butterfly, he retained my services on the spot and asked me to immediately call People to begin work on the contractual details and logistics for the proposed filming and interview. He also requested that I come to Paris as soon as possible to meet with him. This, of course, was music to my ears.

Before I called People, I telephoned the manager of the Broadway theater where M. Butterfly was playing. I used every bit of leverage I could muster as Shi Pei Pu’s personal attorney, and—against all odds—managed to obtain the last two tickets in the house for the following Saturday. Three days later, my wife and I drove to New York City from Boston and, rapt with anticipation and excitement, worked our way through seated patrons to what turned out to be the producer’s fifth-row center seats.

And indeed, just like everyone else who had seen the masterful drama—critic and patron alike—we were absolutely bowled over by the brilliance of the production. The playwright had succeeded in fashioning a script that subtlety combined the similar themes of Puccini’s extraordinary Madame Butterfly—the operatic tale of an American sailor and his Japanese loverwith the real life tale of Bernard Boursicot and his Chinese lover. The marriage of the two plot lines, the artful handling of the complexities of Shi Pei Pu’s devious sexuality, and the inclusion of moments of Puccini’s celestial music made for a remarkable evening of theater. 

The final moments of the production were particularly unforgettable. The play itself had ended, and the curtain had closed. Then it reopened to a partial stage, where actor B.D. Wong, who played Shi Pei Pu, was seated at a makeup table facing away from the audience, looking into its mirror.  He was busy removing the makeup and hairpiece he had worn in the play. Underneath the hairpiece, his head appeared cleanly shaven. But then, to the surprise of the audience, he peeled off a skin-colored, rubber skullcap to reveal long, silken hair, which he proceeded to gently brush out.

The audience realized at this point that they had been watching an actress all evening play the role of the man who takes himself to be a woman. But then, just before the curtains closed for the final time, the actress removed her dressing robe and the bared chest revealed yet one more level of gender reversal: B.D. Wong is in fact a man.

So who would I be meeting when I arrived in Paris, a woman or a man? I was curious as hell to learn, and couldn’t wait to revisit the City of Lights. But first, I needed to deal with People Magazine.

Next up: After agreeing to represent Shi Pei Pu in negotiating the offers rushing in following the success of M. Butterfly, I was almost ready to fly to Paris to meet him. But first, I needed to learn more about his life. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

1(Daniel is the most American of the French, and Terry is the most French of the Americans.)