Editor’s note: This translated article discusses the situation of foreign entertainers in China over the past couple of decades and the difficulties they face trying to break into the Chinese market.
The article offers some frank views on the Chinese bias towards foreign entertainers in China and the overall tone of the piece suggests that this is a status quo that is unlikely to change any time soon.
The first generation of foreign entertainers in China started with Da Shan. From then on, audiences have seen many different foreign faces in entertainment but the faces were constantly changing. Foreign actors and entertainers are still on the fringes of the Chinese entertainment industry. It is difficult for foreign entertainers to truly become famous in China. Even if they accumulate substantial fame, foreign entertainers face many limitations in the Chinese market. Similar to the plight of Asian actors in Hollywood, foreign entertainers in China will always be seen as a side dish, never the main course.
The First Foreign Crosstalk Master
The first barrier for foreigners attempting to enter the Chinese entertainment market is language. In the late 1980s, China already had many different types of foreigners and the number was gradually increasing. However, most Chinese had not been exposed to foreigners, especially foreign entertainers. Imagine the joy and surprise when a foreigner got on stage wearing a long robe and started telling Chinese jokes. The audience was both shocked and overjoyed.
This foreigner was Canadian Mark Henry Rowswell, who is better known in China as comedian and performer Da Shan. After he performed in a sketch in China's 1989 CCTV New Year's Gala he became famous overnight in China.
Da Shan wore a Lei Feng style cap and a military coat onstage in the New Years Gala sketch. He spoke in a dramatic accent, all in Chinese. Two foreign performers were cast in the role of an ordinary Chinese couple. The whole concept was very strange. Da Shan only had to say a few words and the audience roared with laughter. At the time, Da Shan's stage name was Lu Shiwei, which is a transliteration of his English last name Rowswell. After the New Years Gala, the articulate performer changed his Chinese stage name to Xu Dashan.
However, Da Shan is not the first foreign star to appear on CCTV. In 1988, a student named Carlo from Yugoslavia became the first foreigner to take part in the CCTV Spring Festival Gala. Carlo performed with well known Chinese comedians Chang Baohua, Chang Yuan, Shan Lianli, Wang Quan, Li Bocheng, Libo Liang and Li Lishan in a Chinese crosstalk or xiangsheng sketch. The performance was a huge success and began the trend of foreigners studying and performing xiangsheng comedy.
At that time, studying comedy was a popular route for foreign students of Chinese who wanted to better understand Chinese culture. In late 1989, Da Shan paid a visit to Jiang Kun, a comedic master, in order to perfect his own xiangsheng methods and become the first foreign master of the art. Xiangsheng artists in China often study under coaches, and comic master Ding Guangquang is known as “Beijing's foreign coach.” For over ten years, Ding Guangquan has taught over a hundred foreign disciples from seventy different countries. Many of China's well known foreign artists including Hao Lianlu, Da Niu and Zhu Li'an are Ding Guangquan's former students.
In the 1980s and 1990s, it was still exciting for Chinese people to spot foreigners on the street. It is said that when a foreigner walked down the street, Chinese people would all come out to check them out. They would try to walk along with the foreigner. Wherever the foreigner went, a crowd of Chinese people would try to follow. Therefore, a foreigner merely walking down the street would often cause a scene.
For foreign entertainers in that time, their actual performance was often a secondary factor. It was more important just to have a foreign face on the stage. However, seeing foreigners speak Chinese filled Chinese audiences with pride for their strong nation. Television programs were keen to invite foreigners to perform on stage, and foreigners who could speak Chinese were especially sought after.
Variety Shows and Singing Contests
In the next decade, more and more foreigners began to perform on different Chinese traditional evening variety shows. However, none of them have been able to reach the level of domestic fame that Da Shan already had. Like in the past, foreign entertainers used popular talent and variety shows as stepping stones to enter Chinese show business. In these talent shows, foreign performers now compete against Chinese performers rather than other foreigners. Chinese audiences, however, are not as impressed with and curious about foreigners as they were in the past.
Hao Ge, a Liberian performer, rose to Chinese stardom on the CCTV show “Star Way.” His performance on “Star Way” helped him break into the mainstream Chinese entertainment industry. Hao Ge was named runner up in 2006 on “Star Way.” He soon caught the eye of well-known music producer Liu Huan. Since then, he has released three albums in China.
English born Ian Inglis participated in Jiangxi “China's Red Song Talent” television program in 2010. Inglis made it all the way to the national top five in the singing contest. His Chinese was quite good and he was able to clearly sing the red song, “A Good Example to Learn from Lei Feng.” On his stint on the show he also sang an interpretation of “The Internationale” in eight different languages.
American performer Pan Jieming or Benji Schwartz arrived in Shanghai in 2006. When he first arrived in China he did not know any producers or directors but wanted to break into the entertainment industry. His friends advised him to go on a talent show. In 2009, he participated in the Taiwanese show “Super Idol” and made it into the top ten. Through this opportunity, he got the chance to work with Taiwanese writer Chiung Yao. After the show, Pan Jieming starred in the Chinese dramatic television series written by Chiung Yao titled “My New Fair Princess.” In the series, he played Benjamin, a foreign artist. He acted so well in the series that he ended up outshining the male leading role.
Times have changed for foreign performers in China. Now there are many foreigners trying to get famous in China. Most of them are able to speak Chinese. Foreigners now need real talent or it is difficult to make it in the Chinese entertainment industry. Even famous foreigners who are well known abroad often find it difficult to integrate themselves in the Chinese entertainment industry. Foreign artists, like all celebrities, need continuous exposure in China in order to stay famous. Without exposure, they soon disappear. Hao Ge and Inglis appearedon variety shows for exposure. However, it is difficult for them to market themselves in mainstream Chinese media. Pan Jieming appeared in “New My Fair Princess” and a handful of other works. However a representative of the show, Qiong Yao, said that Pan Jieming has since returned home and is now difficult to find and contact.
The Era of the Popular Foreigner Has Passed
Mike Sui was born to a Chinese father and American mother. He moved back to China from America at age seven and finished elementary school and junior high. At age fifteen, his mother sent him back to the United States for high school because she feared that his English was not good enough. After high school, Mike returned to China for the holidays and decided to stay permanently. For him, he said, China is home and Chinese and English are both his native languages. “I'm a Beijing resident,” he added.
In 2006, Mike participated in the red talent show “My Show” but only made it to 100th place. The show did not help him forward his career in any way and he still had no fixed job and less than 15,000 Yuan in savings. His mother gave him a hard time every day and he often had to borrow money from friends. That year, he became addicted to World of Warcraft and gained about 25 kilograms. He worked as an English teacher to make a living and earned about 300 Yuan a day. He had no goals; he just lived one day to the next.
Mike's father did not like the way his life was going, so in 2009 he used his connections to find Mike a small role in a movie. When Mike finished the movie, he started working on a TV series. He was still hardly known, but he was beginning to earn real money for his work in acting. “The paycheck from the drama was really good. I got 90,000 Yuan for three months’ work. I did not earn that much money in the whole year before and now I can earn that much in three months. I thought then, just wait until I get more famous, then who knows how much I could make!”
Reality hit when in 2010, Mike could not find acting work for a whole year. He stayed at home, unemployed. Mike said that he cannot sing or dance, therefore he cannot go on programs like “Star Way”, which is the best way in China to gain recognition. These kinds of shows are a good way to develop as a performer but he could not do anything worthy of them. Mike did not know what to do. At the same time, internet videos and user generated content online were on the rise. For Mike, creating simple original entertaining videos was not difficult at all. He started to make videos and put them online.
Mike had an advantage as a foreigner creating these videos because of his status as a native Beijinger. In some of his short videos he used a character from popular English teaching material in China named Li Lei. In his most popular viral video, “12 Beijingers” he speaks in Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwanese, American, French and Russian accents, makes fun of poor English and Chinese, and uses everyday Chinese things like MoMo and Erguotou. Chinese people liked that he uses everyday vocabulary in his sketches; this is something none of Mike's foreign predecessors did. Mike took control of his own fate and used the Internet to carve his path in China.
Mike's “12 Beijingers” video went viral on Weibo and soon made him famous as well. Because of Mike's Chinese upbringing, he is very different than most famous foreigners in China. It would be more difficult for other foreign performers to attain his depth of understanding of both Chinese and Western cultures. Other foreigners who do not have Mike's bi-cultural background must try to get by on their talents alone, which is more difficult.
Awkward Casting Choices
Many foreigners come to China to try to become actors. However, sometimes foreign actors are pigeon-holed into certain roles almost automatically. Japanese actors must always play the role of the villain or the devil in Chinese films and television shows. Those with Western faces often play the foreign elite but are used more as “stage props” than actual actors. Roles for foreign actors in China are often very limited.
“I'll ask what the role is and the person in charge will respond, 'devil.' I'll ask them, devil in what sense? And they'll respond, “villain.” That is often how the conversation goes,” said Zhongyue Bolong, a Japanese actor in China. His tone is helpless. Zhongyue Bolong came to China in 2000. He was very interested in acting and made a special trip to go to Beidian and Zhongxi in order to study theater. However, there were not many opportunities for him in terms of live theater. After struggling to find work for two years in China, Zhongyua Bolong returned to Japan. Soon, the director Yang Yang called him and asked him to return to China because, “it is the 60th anniversary of the victory of the war and we will shoot a lot of war dramas.”
Zhongyue Bolong returned to China and really began acting in 2005. He played the role of a Japanese lieutenant who was killed. He said, “He was pushed into the show in his underwear and then was burned to death. It was the first role in which I felt that I was really an actor.” Then for seven or eight more years, Zhongyue Bolong continued to act in TV dramas. He played soldiers, artillery and military officers, soon becoming a “familiar face” on the domestic Chinese television scene. However according to his own estimates, 95 percent of the time, he played a villain.
As he often plays Japanese officers in dramas, Zhongyue Bolong is often patronized by angry youth on his Weibo page. Chinese young people will write things like, “Go to hell,” and “Go back to Japan.” Zhongyue Bolong's mother was also unhappy when she saw some of his work, “because all of the characters end up dead and often have to kill themselves by committing seppuku onscreen.”
Once, the director asked Zhongyue Bolong to play a Japanese character in a scene where he would have to rape a Chinese woman in the snow in minus ten degree weather. “It's such a cold day, isn't this an unlikely thing to happen?” Zhongyue Bolong tried to negotiate with the director. The director replied, “This is how Japanese people are.” Zhongyue Bolong tried to protest further but eventually bit the bullet and acted in the scene.
In the past two years, however, Zhongyue Bolong's roles have improved. He said happily that he had recently played a financial broker in a modern drama. “This was the first time in mainland China where I did not have to wear dirty clothes in an acting job. Also, I normally shoot features in rural areas and this was done in the city center. Most importantly, my character did not die in the drama.”
The Future of Foreign Entertainers
Da Shan has more than 3.8 million Weibo fans. On his Weibo he introduces himself as a “Chinese and Foreign Cultural Ambassador.” Da Shan has now left the entertainment business and only appears occasionally on talk shows. His main business has now become centered on cultural exchanges. In this job, he doesn't have to worry about traveling to go shoot programs or the limited character selection for foreigners in the Chinese entertainment industry.
Well known foreign television host Da Niu said, “As a foreigner you will never be on the front lines. You are only a side dish, you are not the main course.” This is an apt representation of the attitude of the Chinese entertainment industry towards foreign artists.
Chinese foreign entertainers are often asked, “Do you like China?” Most of them have a long list of reasons ready why they like China. However, when they are asked if they would consider settling down permanently in China, most do not give such a straight forward and enthusiastic answer.
Zhongyue Bolong admitted that this is a dilemma for him. “My mother is older and she has been urging me to come back. But I keep dragging on here, year after year. On one hand, I do not want to cut off my ties in China and have to start all over again in Japan. I hope to be able to engage with China and Japan in areas such as trade. I could be a translator in this field.”
The number of foreigners in the Chinese media confirms the progress and development of both Chinese society and the nation's entertainment industry. However, entertainment is a business and those in the business seek profit. The Chinese market is large but it is primarily marketed to native Chinese. I am afraid that no one in the business would be willing to take the risk of creating a foreign star for mainstream Chinese culture. Foreign movies were once dominant in the Chinese box office, but now domestic movies are quickly gaining ground. As local media culture goes stronger, what will happen to foreign entertainers to China in the future?
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Keywords: Foreign Actors in China Da Shan Foreign Entertainers in China
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