Living off the lense
By Xiao Changyan (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-05-05 07:53

The word "paparazzi" first entered the Chinese lexicon when Princess Diana became a victim in 1997.

Since then, mainland celebrities have gradually learnt the harsh truth about the paparazzi when the worldwide obsession with celebrity found its way to China.

To date, actor Li Yapeng and his wife, singer Faye Wong, seem to be the biggest victims of the paparazzi here. During a recent talk show on CCTV about the phenomenon, Li announced bitterly that in order to avoid media voyeurism, the pregnant Wong would give birth to their child at home instead of hospital.

As pop culture only gets hungrier for celebrity gossip, there seems no end to the war between stars and this much maligned section of the media.

"But stars on the mainland should feel much luckier," said singer Chang Kuan. "since the paparazzi here are just in the fledgling stage, though they are learning fast from their counterparts in Taiwan and Hong Kong."

Unlike the paparazzi in Hong Kong and Taiwan, a lot of mainland entertainment media is less concerned with celebrities' personal lives.

"Our regular work is attending entertainment press conferences, interviewing stars and writing stories. We also release some anecdotes and rumours about celebrities, but on the precondition that no one gets hurt," said Wu Jie, a reporter from BTV.

But despite this, the numbers of paparazzi on the mainland are growing. According to Liu Song, an experienced photographer, who claims to be one of the first paparazzi in Beijing, the number of professional paparazzi, who tirelessly hunt celebrities, public figures and their families for the opportunity to photograph them, "may be around 100 in Beijing and Shanghai."

"It's only three years since paparazzi first appeared here," said Li Xiaowan, editor-in-chief of Bigstar and OK. He agreed that Bigstar, the first mainland magazine focusing on the celebrity gossip, marked the birth of the first group of professional paparazzi in Beijing. The magazine, established in 2003, claims to have already won 300,000 readers.

But while the Beijing paparazzi scene is growing, it is from the Hong Kong and Taiwan media that they learn how to get unique tabloid news. According to the Beijing News, the first paparazzi news on the mainland was published in 2003, when a detailed tracking record and a lot of on-the-spot photos were published about the affair between film star Zhao Wei (Vicky Zhao) and entertainment celebrity David Wu. This was soon followed by photo exposes of Andy Lau, and Zhang Ziyi from the film "House of Flying Daggers."

Later, when some reporters tried to sneak onto the set to take pictures of The Twins Effect 2, security staff beat them up, arousing nationwide debate about the paparazzi.

Most paparazzi, like Liu Song, are young men under the age of 35, since the profession needs a strong body and mind to carry out the arduous trailing and photographing. Liu clearly remembers his first exclusive with the secretive filming of Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, three years ago. To avoid detection by security, he climbed several high walls, and leant on a shaking post for hours to take photos. Feeling all shook up after his one-man mission, Liu bought himself accident insurance. "Because it is just too risky," he confessed.

Payment for the fruits of the paparazzi's labours is not high at all, considering the risks and high cost of travelling and equipment. Liu admitted that he could not make a living out of what he earns from the local media. He sells most of his exclusive photos to the Hong Kong tabloids, which are willing to pay a few thousand Hong Kong dollars for one "explosive" picture.

The gap also shows in the equipment of the two groups of Chinese paparazzi. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, most paparazzi are equipped with high-resolution DV, pocket infrared cameras, tracking devices and cars. To avoid losing track of their target, some even rent two cars to tail stars.

But in Beijing and Shanghai, the local paparazzi are more like lonesome cowboys with digital cameras as their only weapon.

These snappers have also become scapegoats in the conflicts between the stars and their agents. Zhu Xiaoyi, from the magazine Vanity Show, told how one star's agent called the magazine and told them the time and place where the celebrity was meeting a date.

Following the tip off, the photographers were soon in place and taking pictures. But when the star, who was unaware of his agent's actions, discovered he was being tailed, he angrily accused the reporters infringing on his privacy.

But it would seem that much of the celebrity chagrin is just for show.

"In fact much of the gossip is provided by agents in order to get more publicity for their clients," Zhao revealed.

(China Daily 05/05/2006 page3)