Shelley WARNER and Sam VOUTAS

About This Project

Shelley WARNER

Former diplomat and cross-cultural consultant



Actor and independent filmmaker


Shelley Warner: I’ve spent thirty years in China, spanning five decades. It has been a colourful journey and I have been a privileged observer: as a student traveller in the 60s, a diplomat in the advance party to open the Australian Embassy in Beijing in 1973, again as a diplomat in the 80s, and now as a development assistance consultant, a company owner and a cross-cultural trainer and coach.


In the 70s, meat, cotton and even cooking oil were fiercely rationed, and any personal contact between Chinese people and foreigners was forbidden. I even recall my bell-bottom trousers attracted a crowd of thousands in Nanchang, jostling and whispering.


In the 80s, China was working at resolving its relations with its neighbours. I recall meetings with Chinese academics struggling to open official links with South Korea, others trying to achieve resolution of the split with the USSR. In the 90s, I worked as a consultant in villages, in ministries, with officials focused on resolving the dilemmas thrown up by China’s rapid transition to a market economy. I worked with China’s ethnic minority communities, striving to maintain their language and culture.


As foreign investment poured into China from the 90s, I observed the pressures and dilemmas faced by expatriate managers learning to deal with their Chinese joint-venture partners.


Working with Chinese consultants reduced the complexity of China and showed me the essential nature of building trust with Chinese colleagues − a form of trust that has no time limit. I was also fortunate to have several Chinese mentors whose advice has lifted many veils about Chinese society and saved me from making embarrassing mistakes.


I have had the privilege of meeting and befriending people pushing creative boundaries too: inspiring Chinese intellectuals, playwrights and artists.


It has been a colourful, exciting and meaningful journey shared with my intrepid husband, Tony Voutas. Last but not least, we raised two children in China, Sam and Xian, whose interest and connections to China remain deep.



Sam Voutas: In the 90s, growing up in Beijing, we watched a lot of movies. Sometimes we saw Chinese films in Beijing’s old Soviet-style cinemas, where packed houses screened to a boisterous but happy audience. And when we moved to Yanjiao, on weekends I would watch old Hollywood movies played outdoors in the village: dubbed movies projected against a bed sheet.


When we wanted to stay home, we’d rent movies from a video store, either one in the Lido Hotel, or one inside an apartment in the Qijiayuan diplomatic compound. In 1997, I met Quentin Tarantino, who was in town for a Sundance China event. It was these varied experiences that got me interested in cinema. Two Chinese language feature films and many shorter works now behind me, most in Chinese language with Chinese actors and crews, my latest movie is King of Peking.


All these years in China greatly affected the professional careers of our whole family. And none of it would have been possible if, in January 1973 my mother, Shelley Warner, hadn’t stepped on that plane for Beijing to join the team of six to open the Australian Embassy.


Shelley Warner is General Manager, Asia Pacific Access in Beijing. Sam Voutas is a Los Angeles-based actor and independent filmmaker.

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