06/10/2017, 11.10
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'Uncle Jerry', bridge builder with China through TV

by Xin Yage

The Jesuit George Gerald Martinson died last May 31. His mission in Asia using the media to teach English, music, Jesuit history in China, Pope Francis.

Taipei (AsiaNews) - "Uncle Jerry", as he was known in China and in many East Asian countries, died suddenly on May 31 last from a heart attack. Four days earlier, he returned from his last trip to Beijing where he collaborated to produce a documentary about Teilhard de Chardin, a famous Jesuit paleontologist who belonged to the study team on homo erectus pekinensis, whose remains were discovered near the Chinese capital .

George Gerald Martinson, Father Jerry (丁松筠 神父), was the second most famous Jesuit in the world (the forermost resides in the Vatican) thanks to his work as producer and television actor in the most populous nation on the planet and those neighbouring it. He was also famous for his famous lessons in English and human values ​​that have formed generations of Asians to communicate in the most widely used language on the planet and above all for his charismatic, kind and inspiring personality that left no one indifferent to him after meeting him. These features were not marginal: you do not get to have these levels of popularity and influence without an out-of-the-ordinary  personality and a great sense of humor.

No one at Kuangchi Program Service (KPS, 光啟 社) in Taipei, where he worked for more than 45 years, remembers ever being reproached by him - a special gift in being sensitive to his interlocutors, a capacity for empathy and innate sense for communication were at the root of his transparent and captivating personality. His best friend, John Hei (黑 幼 龍), President of Carnegie Training in Asia, remembers: "My job is to help people communicate without judging the interlocutor, having a constructive attitude, and being a good manager : Jerry did not need our advice, he already possesed all of these innate qualities and cultivated them daily with assiduousness. "

First, Taiwanese and then continental viewers quickly grew fond of this young, handsome, intelligent and accessible priest. On June 1, all the newspapers reported his death, and the following day all the front pages of the same newspapers reported that he had become legally Taiwanese: yes, because the Foreign Ministry had been planning to personally deliver his notice of citizenship to Father Jerry Martinson at the KPS television studios on June 1st, two days before he died but no one even thought of cancelling the ceremony and thus it became an act of commemoration. All newspapers and magazines were present, and the delivery of the offical document became a tribute to Jerry's gift for the people he loved in Taiwan, China and throughout Asia. His brother Barry (丁松青 神父), also a Jesuit and parish priest in a village in Hsinchu province, was present to receive the citizenship on his behlaf.

Poverty and vocation

Jerry was born in San Diego, California on December 2, 1942, the first of three brothers. His dad died when he was only 10 years old, his mother took care of the three little Martin-sons and raised them with love and strength in the midst of so many economic constraints. This strength and determination was absorbed by the children. Jerry used to repeat to his employees at Kuangchi: "In difficult moments do not panic, we evaluate the situation and solve the problem." His brother Barry remembers their infancy: "We were very poor, I remember that once we won a trip to Disneyland, a full day including a lunch in the restaurant, we could not believe our eyes in front of that buffet of wonderful food, we ate so much that then we could not walk anymore, we were almost sick from indigestion! " During high school Jerry helped his mom earning some money as part-time employee in the famous San Diego Zoo: "I liked the animals, I liked to care for them and stay with them," he used to say. He had the same affection for humans. "When talking about him, praise comes easy, but all this admiration reflects the reality of who he was: Anyone who does not credit this praise and the spontaneous respect that he created did not know him!" says Nancy Wang (王念慈) with tears in her eyes.

After high school, Jerry decided to enter the novitiate in the Californian province of the Society of Jesus, followed two years later by his brother Barry. During the early years of formation, he discovered that his generous and friendly sensibility needed greater horizons and asked to go on mission to Asia, where he was sent by his provincial. So he set sail on a ship "on one of those ships carrying freight with other confreres also sent on mission," he said. From California they arrived after a month in Korea, “and in those days one of us had a small camera, and we all got involved in an experimental film: It was then I glimpsed my adventure with the media world. " He did not know then that documentary making, presenting and production would be his mission as a bridge: he first studied Chinese at Hsinchu (新竹市).  He chose not to go to an institution, but wanted to learn to speak to ordinary people, so he asked to live with a family. His reluctance to conform with the institutions made him amiable and accessible to ordinary people. Then he did the theology studies in Taipei, but at lessons he often felt like a fish out of water: "I did not understand how I could communicate those theoretical things to people, it was a separate world."

Homilies and a band

And so, encouraged by his superiors, he took up his guitar and began to hold simple ethics lessons at the university. "For the simple fact that he was in-tune, handsome and accessible he became really popular among students," says one of his students: "We went to lessons to feel united, just to be with him and to sing the American and Chinese hits with his band. " Yes, because Jerry had put together a band with his brother Barry and two Taiwanese friends: the two Martinsons on guitar and voice, plus a bassist and drummer. "They usually played in the bar at a crossroads near the Church of the Holy Family," says Father Alan Grisewood (桂雅安 神父), an English missionary, they were really successful! Jerry told me: I cannot just stay in the church giving homilies, I have to go where people live. "

With all this growing fame (Jerry later humbly confided: " it was easier to attract attention then, there was not all this entertainment industry") the provincial father sent him to Kuangchi Program Service to work on television. "Kuangchi Program Service, created a decade ago by another visionary Jesuit, was in its golden age: it was the most important television production company in Taiwan and much of the Chinese television world: in the evening, after writing the scripts of the programs all day, as we were walking back home we could hear the movies and the programs we produced filtering from the apartments, "says an old retired writer. "Some of our programs reached 35 share points," recalls executives at the time.

Mickey Mouse and Refugees

It was the perfect world for Jerry. He would say, "I just started to translate Mickey Mou-se cartoons into Chinese, I had a small coffee table in the corner of a small room on the fourth floor, and I was there every day ". Moving from amateur entertainment to the professional world required training and time to understand the production structure from the inside. But the basic ingredients were there and it was innate and undeniable. His Chinese was now elegant and practically perfect, the fact he was photogenic and friendly basically pointed to a destiny on the small screen in the early evening.

He also conducted an edition of the gala evening of Taiwanese television awards, and years later, thanks to his own production, he even won the local Oscar for Best Documentary: The Golden Horse (金馬獎), which is the highest prize in the Chinese world of film. It was1986 and a fundamental step that summarizes Jerry's mission and the sense of his vocation as a person and as a priest.

The documentary that won the 23rd Golden Horse is called "Beyond the Killing Fields" (戮 戰場 的 邊緣) and told the life of refugees on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. Jerry interviewed people living in the camp. The end result is a touching story of the sufferings of those who had to leave everything because of the war: as the narrator he focused on the need to build communities and the human contact that these people were seeking. His microphone and the camera attracted the refugees who gathered to tell their stories of their flight from their homes and their families. "There were two incredible years - Jerry once remembered - first production in Thailand, then return to Taiwan, for post-production and finally discovery by leading Taiwanese and then Asian broadcasters - it created a wave of emotion, donations in terms of funds and solidarity. Just think, for example, that for more than a year the taxi drivers wouldn’t allow me to pay and they told me they wanted to offer my fare to the refugees: amazing the power of the screen and the values ​​it can transmit! "

This points to Jerry’s newfound celebrity status and the fact that he had not forgotten the sense of his mission as a priest and as a Christian, of contact with the most marginalized. "Here in Taipei, on Sunday, I would celebrate Mass on a construction site where Indonesian migrants were working right next to our television studio where the new buildings were built: really poor and especially unheard of people, the very people whom Jesus approached" .

A priest for Asia and China

One day, two Taiwanese brothers met him and offered him a project: to teach English on both TV and videotape: they would be the producers. At first he was puzzled, he did not want to be an English teacher, then he understood the potential of the project, which could consolidate and broaden the audience. When the brothers come back to meet him, Jerry told them he accepted the proposal. This is how Giraffe English was born (長頸鹿 美 語). It is a chain of schools for English that spreads first to China and then throughout Eastern Asia. Since then, Jerry's fame has been unstoppable. Bargaining with Phoenix based satellite television in Hong Kong and with Chinese provincial television. On the Continent (where the chain now has more than 500 major branches without counting all the subsections) Jerry's figure is now a established brand, he used to be invited to launch products in major metropolises and he would seize the opportunity to spread values ​​and build bridges . This path and the power of his image paved the way for cooperation with Chinese national television (CCTV, 中央 電視台), which since 2005 broadcasts Kuangchi Program Service and Jiangsu TV (江蘇 電視台) co-productions from three detailed documentaries on Jesuit history in China: Paul Xu Guangqi (徐光啟), Adam Schall von Bell (湯若望) and Giuseppe Castiglione (郎世寧), the latter - the Milan artist - a real success. A fourth production, on Matteo Ricci (利瑪竇), is now under way. Such productions are the result of deep determination in building bridges of dialogue, a will that has distinguished Jerry's entire life.

Prior to the June commemoration ceremony, an interviewer asked a collaborator of Jerry’s how he reconciled the fact of being famous and at the same time accessible and close to people: "To be well-known first required great patience: when I started my collaboration with him, I sometimes asked him to discuss a new idea and go for a coffee at the bar down the street: impossible! In that hundred meters we would be stopped by at least twenty people who wanted to say hello and exchange two words with him. I had to buy the coffee and drink it on the street. Once I asked Jerry, "Apart from all the pressure you feel to be always available to everyone, what do you feel when you ride on the train and everyone greets you?" And he immediately said, "It's a blessing every time."

Father Emilio Zanetti (蔡明隆 神父) who has collaborated with him at the Kuangchi Program Service for the last five years, says: "I used to poke fun at him and say “will I ever meet someone almost as famous as you?' Two years ago, we finally came to a real test: face to face with great filmmakers. For the production of Silence (沈默), shot by Scorsese here in Taipei, we were together on the set. I remember the first morning we came with Andrew Garfield to go to the area where the production assistants were. I walked away behind Andrew and Jerry, with another person. Andrew was the first to enter the courtyard next to the offices, then Jerry. I look up and saw that everyone went to greet Jerry: "I cannot believe it!" I said, "he even tops Spider Man!" A production girl approached me smiling and saying, "He is our superstar!"

Jerry always learned something from all those he met: in the last two years he has conducted the TV show on Pope Francis, titled Oh my God! And was struck by the example of Francis, a Pope who listens "when we talk to people and we are tempted to shoot off hasty judgments, let's remember his sentence:" Who am I to judge? "

More than 20 years ago, a book on Jerry was released: "A priest who does not seem like a priest" (一個 不像 神父 的 神父); In a couple of months, a new book, posthumously, will be published about his life, written by himself last year along with a reporter from a major publishing house in Taipei. As one of his students said, "We look forward to knowing new aspects of his life and to everyone who has met him thanks him for helping us know more about Jesus and how much he has given us. Thank you Jerry! "

Xin Yage

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