This month last year, a bunch of snapshots of Hong Kong star Edison Chen and several starlets engaged in extremely explicit scenes surfaced online.
Questions lingered for many days before the photos' authenticities were verified.
This week, an even bigger star appeared, seminude, in dozens of photos made public and betraying no hint of PhotoShop meddling.
Zhang Ziyi, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame, was snapped lying on a beach with her fianc Vivi Nevo in a series of images that can be called intimate but not exactly inappropriate by Western standards.
OK, I'll be frank. Without the benefits of illustration, the photos seem to have caught the couple in the first phase of foreplay.
So, it was deja vu all over again, but a major letdown nonetheless for those who have exposed themselves to Chen and his flashing light bulbs.
Is there a pattern here?
Are we to be treated to confidential images of movie stars during the lull between New Year's Day and the Chinese New Year from now on?
Will it grow into a new tradition a la the monster CCTV gala?
Who will be 2010's star caught in a moment of titillation or stark exposure?
The key difference between Zhang's case and Chen's is morality.
Zhang is engaged to the person in the photos; Chen was not. What Zhang did was normal to most people, and what Chen did was outrageous to many.
If it was a private beach, as rumored, or a public nude beach, Zhang and her fianc did not break any rules of propriety. Of course, it can also be argued that Chen's conduct only involved consenting adults.
But if you look at some of the online reactions, you'll detect traces of male chauvinism and shallow nationalism.
While many were initially shocked to come face to face with Chen's "licentiousness", there was a gradual increase in expressions of envy among China's netizens. What man doesn't want this kind of "emperor's treatment", they asked.
With Zhang, the interracial interplay obviously got on the nerves of those under the illusion that they would have dated "China's gift to Hollywood" had a white man not preempted their dream.
Now let's imagine if it had been Chen with a white woman. I bet he would be hailed as a hero among the testosterone-drenched but sexually starved nerds hunched over their Lenovo notebooks.
There are people who condemn Chen and Zhang with equal gusto. Celebrities should uphold the moral and behavioral standards of our day, they maintain. But they seem to have forgotten that celebrities have their private lives as well, and it's none of our business.
However, things can get complicated because celebrities have public personas, and the rises and falls of their careers are based on that. This blurs the line between their public and private existences.
As long as they are seen in public, even if it's because of paparazzi or computer leaks, the private side becomes integrated into the public facade.
From that, you can argue it's their responsibility to "keep on playing the role" unless they're absolutely sure it won't become public knowledge.
In a sense, it's just like their makeup and wardrobe. They can be dressed however they like, but once seen, it will affect others' perceptions of them.
Now, let's turn the tables and focus on the audience.
If you conduct a survey about public opinion on paparazzi, it will be predominantly negative.
But if you ask around as to who would refuse to view private photos taken by paparazzi or leaked by computer repairmen, I'll be shocked if many go along.
In other words, most people know paparazzi intrude on others' privacy, which is morally reprehensible, but they would gladly enjoy the fruits of this labor. Few realize that it's public interest that sustains the livelihoods of paparazzi, and, therefore, few would come away from a viewing session with a guilty conscience.
Now, with a print media outlet, it's more clear-cut: You buy a copy and you support what its photographers do, including sneaking around stars' hangouts and filming them in awkward moments.
But once the platform moves online, it becomes a whole new ballgame. There's a sense of altruism: One forwards these kinds of images to a network of friends as if they were self-generated jokes. Few are troubled by ethical or legal implications.
The communal atmosphere of the Internet intersects with the communal nature of celebrity information.
In the old days, people gossiped about their neighbors. In the digital age, tidbits about entertainment luminaries form the common threads that bond us together, providing us with topics for conversations and armchair theorizing.
The Internet-addicted generation has such a voluminous appetite for tabloid information that it would appear to make up most of their knowledgebase. Or so it seems to me.
What does it have to do with me, at all, if Zhang Ziyi makes out with her fiance?
I'm not her family member, nor am I even her friend or acquaintance. If she did not go out with a media tycoon, she would not have dated me - the chances are less than one in a million.
Why should I care?
Likewise, Chen's photographic activities do not tell me what I should or should not do.
I never equate the roles he played with his real self. Some people talk about stars as if they're their bosom buddies. But they are not. All the mountains of information about them are only good for killing time.
As for the pervasiveness of explicit images online, these images are basically compensating for the lack of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, or, more bluntly, the absence of real porn.
Most portal sites in China look like a high school boy's fantasy room, with half naked women in all kinds of postures.
I guess that's the reason several of the most heavily trafficked websites in China were cited for "low and vulgar practices" and became a target for a Net nanny campaign.
This reminds me of a brief scene from the Swan Lake ballet in a classic Soviet film, which was the only provocative image of feminine allure allowed during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
People flocked to the theater just to see it. For a long time, ballet and body-hugging period dramas from the West served a purpose other than artistic appreciation.
My grandma complained that Western women were naked from the waist up and Western men from the waist down. She would have understood the fuss about Zhang wearing a bikini on a beach.
The era of movie stars crouching and hidden under a protective layer of puppetry has phased out. Instead, we now have the industry standard of "any exposure is good exposure".
Some netizens even suspect Zhang orchestrated the beachside-fondling incident to unseat Vivian Chow and Joel Nieh, whose breakup and makeup story had monopolized headlines recently.
Ultimately, it is Zhang's own business if she is relaxing under the sun or rehearsing under the glare of the camera.
You can critique her work, but don't intrude on her privacy.
You're not part of her life, so don't let her be part of yours.
Go get your own life.