Dressed in a velvety Santa suit and carrying a goody bag slung over his shoulder, Richard Goodman worked the international crowd at the Shenzhen, China, Crowne Plaza Hotel's lobby cafe, handing out gingerbread cookies with a hearty "Merry Christmas."
The Western guests played along. The Chinese guests looked bewildered.
"Xie xie," a woman said, inspecting the cookies and saying thanks in Mandarin before asking her dinner companion, "What is it?"
Another guest wanted to know why only his children received the treats. "Where's mine?" he asked.
Santa isn't a familiar figure in the southern Chinese boomtown, where toys are made but rarely found wrapped under a tree.
It's what makes Goodman's presence so unusual. Five years ago, the 79-year-old retiree from La Habra and proud member of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas traded in the Southern California mall circuit to pose for photographs in a faux wood cabin on the other side of the world.
The Crowne Plaza in Shenzhen wanted an attraction every December to one-up the competition and help Western visitors feel more at home during the holidays.
Hiring a foreigner who looks born for the role brings a level of authenticity that hotel executives can tout just as much as Goodman can brag about his genuine beard, a shock of white hair that falls to his chest. Even the red face is real. It's rosacea, the veteran Santa impersonator explained.
"Real beard, real foreigner. We're the only ones to have it," said Katherine Si, the hotel's sales director.
In taking the job, Goodman ventured into a culture where Christmas is still a loose idea. Christianity may be on the rise in China, but few Chinese are fully aware of the secular and commercial traditions of the winter holiday, such as Santas, presents and a red-nosed reindeer.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, they may be a 2," Goodman said of locals' knowledge of Christmas customs.
Goodman, an Episcopalian, isn't discouraged in the least. He has tapped one of the most exotic assignments a rent-a-Santa could hope for — one that's guaranteed to provide good yarns to tell at Santa luncheons back home. It also beats grueling 12-hour shifts at Fashion Island in Newport Beach.
In Shenzhen, the children don't throw up or spill soft ice cream cones on your lap (at least not yet). All anyone ever asks for is a picture with the red-suited man, most unaware that they could get a few minutes on his lap if they wanted, and maybe even put in a word for a special Christmas wish. Not that he'd promise anything. One of the first rules that hired Santas learn is to be noncommittal about children's requests.
"I think sometimes the novelty isn't that he's Santa, but that he's an old man with a white beard and a funny hat," said Goodman's wife, JoAnne, 73, who also makes the journey each year.
The Crowne Plaza is across the street from one of China's kitschiest destinations, Window of the World, a theme park filled with miniaturized versions of landmarks such as the Great Pyramids and the Taj Mahal.
For Goodman and his wife, walking through the neighborhood can mean frequent pauses as Chinese passersby stop them for a photo with Santa.
"Of course it's because he goes out like that," JoAnne Goodman said, nodding toward her husband's attire of fire-engine red pants, oversized white T-shirt and matching red beret with a puffy white ball on top, Santa's version of casual dress.
On a recent weekday, the Goodmans strolled to the gates of another nearby amusement park called Happy Valley, filled with thrill rides.
"Good people-watching here," the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Santa said — even as smiling pedestrians turned to look at him and a few took out cellphones to snap his photo.
Wang Cailian, a tourist from a neighboring province, asked Richard Goodman if her family could pose with him.
"He looks almost like the real one," said Wang, 48. "His beard is beautiful."
Wang said she did not celebrate Christmas and knew little about the holiday, but she was sure her friends would be thrilled to see photos of her family with a foreign Father Christmas.
"I wish you a long, healthy life," she said to Goodman in Mandarin as they parted, a typical farewell to a senior citizen in China.
Goodman is a Colorado Springs native who retired from the Southern California aerospace industry in 1994 at age 63. He first worked for North American Aviation in Downey and then Rockwell in Los Angeles after the companies merged, staying a combined 28 years. His last stop was at Northrop in Pico Rivera, where he worked for eight years.
He has been posing as Santa for 37 years. At Rockwell, a friend asked him to fill in for a sick Santa at a Pasadena interior design business. Goodman proved so convincing that he was asked to come again.
Through word of mouth, Goodman landed other Santa jobs at area department stores. Fifteen years later he grew a beard and started appearing at private parties and charity events.
In 2000 he joined SantaforHire.com, a Newport Beach agency that runs a nationwide network of Santas with real beards. It has also sent members to China.
"They want us because the Chinese don't grow beards as well," said Bob Mindte, owner of SantaforHire.
One of the exported Santas was a friend of Goodman's who had worked at the Shenzhen Crowne Plaza for a year. He urged Goodman to take the China post in 2005 after he landed a gig in Hong Kong.
With their children and grandchildren spread out across the U.S. and overseas, the Goodmans decided they could spend their Christmases in China. Airfare, meals and lodging at the five-star hotel would all be covered. The pay was decent too, enough to cover vacations to Budapest and Amsterdam. Paris is next on their list.
"We can't believe how well they treat us here," Goodman said.
Each year he brings gifts for the hotel employees. He always chooses something native to California. One year it was Knott's Berry Farm jam. Another time he brought nuts from Hadley Fruit Orchards. This year he is giving the staff taffy from Bakersfield.
Goodman often greets guests in the hotel's four restaurants. But his primary job is to pose for photographs in the Santa cabin in the lobby, which he does six days a week in the early evening for an hour a day. A Polaroid-type picture with him, encased in a card signed "Santa," costs $3.75, with proceeds donated to an autism society. Because so few children stay at the hotel, most of his customers are adults. Goodman typically arrives the first week of December and leaves a few days after Christmas.
The Goodmans travel with four suitcases, enough room to carry all the gifts, two Santa suits and the boots, belts and hats that go with them. The one time that Chinese customs officers inspected his luggage they puzzled over a box of candy canes.
"They had no idea what they were and grew very suspicious," said Goodman, who was finally able to convince them that the mysterious red-and-white objects were indeed candy.
Down at the Santa station, Ella Wang, a 25-year-old employee of a nearby hotel, was waiting to meet Goodman. She had come with a friend who thought it would be fun to take a picture with Santa before they grabbed dinner.
Wang said celebrating Christmas made her feel vaguely modern. Last Dec. 25, she called her parents in northeast China and wished them a merry Christmas. Her father, a farmer turned migrant worker, didn't know what to say and replied, "Happy to you too."
This night Wang got into the Christmas spirit. She sat on Goodman's right knee, held his left hand and tilted her head toward him with a toothy smile for the camera.
"I'm so happy," she said, inspecting the picture.
"I'm going to put this on my desk."