In China, fame comes easier with a foreign face
In China, Westerners are plucked from the streets for television and movie roles.
If you've got the looks, the talent, and the Mandarin, forget Hollywood – the Chinese entertainment industry wants you.Skip to next paragraph
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And even if you're a foreigner in China who doesn't have any of those things, don't worry. You've got a decent chance of getting on television, anyway.
In cities nationwide, recruiters are prowling university campuses and expatriate hangouts in search of aspiring variety show performers, game show contestants, and film extras.
Pretty much any kind of foreigner will do, with one exception: "They definitely prefer people that don't look Asian," says American expatriate Ben Ross.
Westerners are cropping up on all kinds of television shows – literally plucked from the street. Some foreign entertainers see their moment in the sun as an opportunity to help Chinese people better understand the West. But their Chinese audience is just as interested in how the outside world views the rapid economic advances of their homeland.
"We like watching these shows because they have foreigners speaking Chinese," says Beijing retiree Wu Yuqing. "They show us that the world is getting smaller."
And China's television and movie producers are eager to cater to this desire. "Chinese people really want to know what foreigners here are thinking," says Beijing casting agent Li Erwei. "They want to know what foreigners think of China and how they view our culture."
And sometimes, the appeal of a foreigner on television in a homogenous society is more basic.
"On my first show, the idea was basically to get laughs out of foreigners doing silly things," says Mr. Ross, a blogger and former English teacher who has appeared on Chinese television with a spiky wig and fake guitar while singing well-known Chinese pop songs.
Amateur actors also learn that an amusing accent here is sometimes better than absolute fluency. "They told me: start speaking Chinese, but then start messing up and ask if you can speak in English," says Ross. "It's pretty funny to see foreigners with an accent."
Television producers offer between 400 and 1,000 RMB ($50 to $125) per episode, but money is not the only motivation for some Western actors. "A lot of these shows I would have done for free, just to have fun," says Wily Boyle, a Canadian who appeared on some of the same shows as Ross.
For a select group of foreign professionals, however, Chinese television is serious business.
The pioneer in this field was Canadian Mark Rowswell – better known as Da Shan, or Big Mountain – whose pitch-perfect Mandarin and comedic skill catapulted him to national celebrity in the late 1980s.
Since then, several successors have emerged on the talk show circuit. Frenchman Julien Gaudefroy, whose unaccented Chinese got him his first gig in an instructional language video, now hosts several talk shows across China.
Mr. Gaudefroy's programs, which include "Foreigners' Viewpoints" and "Foreigners Watching China," feature guests opining on topics ranging from China's one-child policy to the relative merits of traditional Tang Dynasty clothing.