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.
Pretty much any kind of foreigner will do, with one exception: "They
definitely prefer people that don't look Asian," says American expatriate Ben
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
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
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
Richard Doran, a professional radio host in China and an occasional guest on
Gaudefroy's programs, remains skeptical that such shows are actually improving
"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
"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
"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
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
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."