In China, fame comes easier with a foreign face

In China, Westerners are plucked from the streets for television and movie roles.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

If you've got the looks, the talent, and the Mandarin, forget Hollywood – the Chinese entertainment industry wants you.

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.

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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.

Richard Doran, a professional radio host in China and an occasional guest on Gaudefroy's programs, remains skeptical that such shows are actually improving mutual understanding.

"They still ask if we know how to use chopsticks," he says. "Can you imagine a European television station putting a Pakistani immigrant family on television and asking if they'd learned to use a knife and fork yet?"

Regardless of the content, a host's foreignness can be enough of a draw in itself.

"Foreign hosts who speak Chinese have a special appeal for Chinese audiences," says Liu Yongli, a director for state-owned China Central Television. "When Chinese people see a foreigner who speaks good Chinese and has gotten to know Chinese culture well, we get a very warm feeling, seeing that someone respects China so much."

The film world is somewhat less welcoming. Westerners interested primarily in acting work face all sorts of special challenges, not least of which is the expectation of fluent Mandarin.

To make matters worse, Westerners in China simply don't have that many parts available to them. And the roles they do get often reflect hackneyed stereotypes.

"People in general have some strange ideas about America," says Jonathan Kos-Read, one of the few full-time Western actors in China. "For instance, Americans don't love their parents and vice versa. Or, if you walk out of your front door [in the US], 9 times out of 10 you'll see a huge gun battle. That kind of thing."

Mr. Kos-Read, who trained at the New York University film school, often plays "a rich American businessman who comes to China and falls in love with a Chinese girl. She's torn for 10 episodes or so, but in the end, she always makes the right choice and sticks with her Chinese boyfriend."

Film director Gu Rong agrees that foreign actors tend to get pigeonholed. "They're often the antagonist, the central point of conflict," he says.

American actress Kerry Berry Brogan, who had extensive acting experience before coming to China, sees it as her responsibility to give Chinese audiences a more balanced view of foreigners. "I'm trying to make the depiction of foreigners more real, more dynamic, more three-dimensional. ... If there's something wrong, I let the director know," she says. "I would say 70 percent of the time they listen."

Ms. Brogan, Kos-Read, and other Western actors in China often find themselves in the role of cultural ambassador, helping directors, screenwriters, and audiences come to a fuller understanding of Westerners in general. Kos-Read says their efforts are paying off. "It's getting better fast. The scripts are improving."

Unfortunately for Western newcomers, the acting scene is becoming more competitive. The growing population of foreigners in China has professionalized the film industry, creating higher entry barriers for anyone without formal training.

And for those aspiring television celebrities planning to sign up for Mandarin classes, you'd better hurry.

"Maybe in 50 years, we'll have 100,000 foreigners speaking such excellent Chinese ... they won't be that interesting anymore," says Mr. Liu. "But for now, they're very unusual."

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