From tech entrepreneurs and social media sensations, to magazine publishers and television presenters, many foreigners have found success in the Middle Kingdom. Here, I’ve assembled a list of some of the foreigners who’ve made a name for themselves in China. I hope it will encourage more young and hungry expats to create a little story of their own.
Any list of China’s most famous foreigners must begin with Mark Rowswell, otherwise known as Dashan. With a television career that spans three decades, the Canadian became interested in the Middle Kingdom at a young age. He studied Mandarin at the University of Toronto before traveling to Peking University on a full scholarship for further study. It was while he was studying in Beijing that he appeared on television for the first time while hosting a singing contest.
At that time, in 1988, it was a rarity to see a foreigner who could speak fluent Chinese. That initial appearance led to him being chosen for that year’s CCTV New Year’s Gala, where he was introduced via a comedic skit to a television audience of half a billion people.
Dashan became a television personality overnight. Far from being a one-hit wonder, however, he’s been a mainstay of Chinese entertainment for the past 30 years. From dramatic turns in period pieces like Palace Artist and The Dinner Game to presenting language learning shows such as Dashan and Friends and Travel in Chinese, he’s proved himself to have a wider repertoire than most.
Foreigners speaking fluent Chinese are no longer the novelty they once were, but Dashan’s longevity on the nation’s screens and in the people’s hearts shows that there are fantastic opportunities to be had for those who fully immerse themselves in the language.
Most of the entrants on this list found their fame and success later in life, often after graduating university or enjoying a successful career elsewhere before traveling to China. Our next entrant, however, found fame in China at the tender age of 10.
Charlotte McInnis moved from Michigan to Nanjing with her family in 1988 when she was just seven. At a time when foreigners were not as common in China as they are now, especially those that could speak Chinese, McInnis naturally found herself paraded on national television by the time she was 10. A young American girl speaking Mandarin was a big hit with audiences, who affectionately referred to Charlotte as Ai Hua.
She continued to star on television in her younger years, only briefly leaving China to study drama at Columbia University before returning to resume her successful career. Ai Hua may now be 39, but for audiences across China, she will always be remembered fondly as the little American girl they fell in love with all those years ago.
As YouTube became the top streaming site all over the world in the mid-noughties, a number of Chinese websites, such as Youku, iQiyi, and Bilibili, emerged to compete in the domestic market. It may come as a surprise that Tudou, one of the biggest of all video streaming sites in China, was actually co-founded by a foreigner — a Dutch entrepreneur named Marc Van Der Chijs.
Van Der Chijs arrived in China in 1999 while working for Mercedes Benz, but soon resigned to become an independent consultant. In 2004, his wife introduced him to one of her former classmates, Gary Wang. Within a year, the pair had established Tudou, with Van Der Chijs credited with coming up with the name, which literally translates to “potato”. The rest, as they say, is French fries. Tudou went on to become one of China’s most popular streaming sites.
While Van Der Chijs has since moved to Canada, leaving the operations of Tudou to his co-founder, he’s still involved in many Chinese enterprises, including P2P lending company Dianrong.com. He’s pretty low profile compared to his partner Gary Wang, but Chijs’ contribution to China’s internet landscape is particularly notable given that fact that he’s a foreigner.
When meeting new expats, it can sometimes feel like something of a contest when asking each other how long you’ve lived in China. One year? You might as well have just got off the plane. Five years? You probably know enough now to realize you know nothing at all about the country. Ten years? Okay, you might have picked up a thing or two by now. But no matter how long you’ve lived in China, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s not as long as the next entry on our list of famous foreigners.
Isabel Crook was born to Canadian missionaries in Chengdu in 1915. More than 100 years later, she still lives in China, minus a short stint in Canada for study. After receiving a degree in anthropology, Crook returned to China to carry out field research across the country. In the 1940s, she and her husband accepted teaching positions at a newly established foreign language school, where they helped to lay the foundation for foreign language teaching in the country.
During the Cultural Revolution, her husband was imprisoned along with others considered to be bourgeois intellectuals and Isabel was confined to the school campus. When Crook was later released, she seemingly held no resentment about what had happened and continued to live in China. In fact, in 2019 she became an honorary citizen of Bishan district in Chongqing.
So next time you’re going through a crisis and are considering leaving China, just think of Isabel Crook. She’s lived here for over a century and survived the Cultural Revolution. If she can do that, you can get over your strop about being overcharged by a taxi driver.
When you think of live music, you don’t immediately think of China. International acts rarely pass through, there are scarcely any summer festivals, and local bands struggle to get much recognition. It’s a tall order to change that, but at the frontline of that battle is Brit Archie Hamilton and Split Works.
Founded in 2006 by Hamilton and Nathaniel Davis, Split Works now has a presence in Beijing and Shanghai. The pair work as brand consultants for companies in China, but their true passion lies in organizing live concerts and festivals across the country.
Over the years, Split Works has brought a whole host of amazing acts to China. From post-rock legends Godspeed You! Black Emperor, to grunge royalty Sonic Youth, to alt pop stars like Grimes and St. Vincent, the acts enjoyed by audiences in China in recent years have been both eclectic and impressive.
The live music scene in China still has a long way to go before it looks anything like what we have in the West, but as long as the likes of Hamilton and the other good people at Split Works keep up the good fight, it’s sure to get better and better. Who knows? Maybe there are some young foreigners out there keen to join the cause and help build the scene even more.
The heyday of print publishing in China is definitely behind us. News is now disseminated online and businesses connect directly with their target audience through social media. Wind back the clock to the early noughties, however, and print publishing was experiencing a boom in China. At the forefront of this boom was British entrepreneur Mark Kitto.
Kitto began his career in the army before becoming a metals trader and moving to China in 1996. In 2004, he established That’s Magazine. At its height, his magazine empire had a collective monthly circulation of 80,000 copies. Today, the magazine is still read across the country’s most metropolitan cities — namely Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen — helping shape where people dine, drink, and party.
Kitto unfortunately departed the company after an apparent dispute with government agencies and has since left China all together. Yet, during his time, he showed that it’s extremely possible for foreigners to make an impact in publishing and advertising in this country.
As we’ve seen with this list, many of the best-known foreigners in China achieved their fame after appearing on television. These days, social media provides foreigners with a much more direct route to celebrity. Whereas before you would need to be discovered or go through auditions before making it to the small screen, now all you need is a mobile phone and a social media account.
Apps such as Douyin have given foreigners a platform to attract large followings of Chinese netizens. Young, good looking foreigners who are fluent in Mandarin and immersed in the culture are particularly popular. One such foreigner is Aleks Kost. Although you may have never heard of him, he has as many followers on Douyin as the likes of Stephen Curry, Kendrick Lamar, Bernie Sanders, Liverpool FC and the United Nations do on Twitter.
Kost came to China from Ukraine to work in the entertainment industry, like many of his compatriots. A dancer by trade, he performed all over the country, but it wasn’t until he joined Douyin that his star power started to rise.
Boasting good looks, great moves, and even better Chinese language skills, Kost was a big hit with the Chinese online community and soon built a following of over 14 million. His viral success totally transformed his career. Kost now finds himself in hot demand for live performances and television appearances.
So, what’s stopping you from becoming the next famous foreigner in China? Maybe you’ll find your name on our next roundup. #Lifegoals.
Warning：The use of any news and articles published on eChinacities.com without written permission from eChinacities.com constitutes copyright infringement, and legal action can be taken.
Keywords: foreigners who made a name for themselves in China
All comments are subject to moderation by eChinacities.com staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate.
Please login to add a comment. Click here to login immediately.