Foreign actors in China share their experience dramatizing one-dimensional and stereotyped roles

By Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2016/8/17 19:13:39

Wearing an old Chinese military uniform from a movie museum, Yegor Shyshov salutes the audience during a taping of Hello Tianjin. Photo: Courtesy of Yegor Shyshov


Yegor Shyshov, a 27-year-old actor and host from Ukraine, who has been living in China for over six years, loves his job. But sometimes even he has to admit that it leaves a somewhat bad taste in his mouth.

While shooting a program about Dragon Boat Festival for a Chinese entertainment company, Shyshov sometimes couldn't help but feel a slight twinge.

Although his Chinese is almost perfect, to the point where if one heard him without seeing him they would think he is Chinese, the director asked him to use a thick foreign accent, pretend he can't speak the language well, and act clueless about the festival. To the director, it is funny and congruent with audience expectations in China.

"According to my observation, more often than not, whether in TV series or entertainment shows, there are certain stereotypes being imposed on foreign characters," he said. "The foreigner is supposed to be like a monkey on TV. We have to act excited over every little thing, pretend that we don't understand anything about China, and act in an exaggerated way."

Max Liu, the founder and CEO of Fun Models, an online platform for booking foreign actors and models in China, said China has witnessed an increasing demand for foreign actors in recent years as evidenced by the inclusion of more international elements on TV shows.

But while conceding that foreigners in the Chinese film and entertainment industry do get cast in stereotypical roles, Liu remained adamant that such behaviors were on the decline.

"[Sometimes foreign actors] are subject to some stereotypes because some scripts have propaganda intentions that require the foreign actors to fit certain images. Also, some Chinese producers don't really understand the foreigners," Liu said. "But, in the past few years, the stereotypes are decreasing. As Chinese producers develop a better understanding of foreigners, more diversified roles are open to them."

Tired of playing the same stereotyped roles, foreign actors expect to have more interesting parts as Chinese producers and screenwriters gain a deeper understanding of the West and bring it to the Chinese stage. Photo: IC

Yegor Shyshov performs Lü opera (a kind of regional opera from Shandong Province) during a CCTV show in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Yegor Shyshov


 A foreign face the only prerequisite

Shyshov came to Beijing after he won a scholarship to study in China. He later started to act in TV series and movies, and two years ago, he got a job offer to host Hello Tianjin, a show that introduces Tianjin to the world.

According to his experience, regardless of the medium or genre, strong stereotypes of foreigners are being portrayed by the Chinese entertainment industry. The producers want foreign actors to portray the image of a dumb foreigner who can't get anything right and doesn't know anything about China, he explained.

These stereotyped portrayals are supposed to be funny and rack up ratings with the Chinese audience, but for some foreign actors, it is not always so.

Two years ago, Shyshov participated a TV series called Rapture and Found, starring famous Chinese actors Li Yifeng and Ying'er. Shyshov played an English teacher from the UK who is clueless about China, which made the character a laughingstock in the show.

"There was a line where the director asked me to introduce myself as nikelashi  (the Chinese pronunciation of Nicholas). He  asked me to say lashi  in an exaggerated way, which changes the meaning to poop in English, and say it many times," Shyshov recalled. "Then the Chinese characters around me would laugh at me and say that my name is lashi, and I had to pretend that I didn't know what lashi means. It was really stupid and kind of hurtful."

Shyshov has met the same kind of stereotype in other forms of entertainment as well. He recalled that once a producer asked him to do a clapper talk show.

"I told them that I am not good at clapper talk. In turn, the producer got even more excited over the fact that I am not good at it; they told me that a flop performance from me is just what they and the audience want since I am a foreigner," Shyshov said.

"I told them that I think it might make me look bad, but they told me that it doesn't matter. They don't care about my image; they just need a foreign face to fit the image of being ignorant and funny," he said.

Most producers and Chinese viewers have yet to realize that more foreigners live in China long-term now and have a deep understanding of Chinese society and culture, according to Shyshov.

In a July New York Times report, Jonathan Kos-Read, who goes by the Chinese stage name of Cao Cao and has acted in some 100 Chinese films including popular Chinese movies like Mojin (2015) and Ip Man 3 (2016), said that his early roles weren't great. Back then, he said, most filmmakers still had limited exposure to foreigners and foreign cultures.

Kos-Read said his early parts tended to reflect Chinese stereotypes of Westerners. He was often typecast in stereotypical roles, such as the "dumb guy," "the fool," "the arrogant foreign businessman," or "the foreign friend whose presence is intended to make the main character seem more worldly," the report said.

Changing gears, shifting perspectives

According to Shyshov, as more Chinese gain a better understanding of foreigners, the parts for foreigners in Chinese TV shows have become more diversified and are less stereotyped.

Some Chinese viewers have realized that a lot of the expats in China are quite versed in the local culture and lingo. In some aspects, they even know more about China than some locals. As a result, there are now more savvy foreign characters on Chinese TV shows to reflect that reality.

Earlier this year, Shyshov portrayed a Chinese-American who was born in the US and grew up in Beijing in the show Gehai Qingtian, a role that reflects a more contemporary reality.

"The character I portrayed isn't stereotyped at all," Shyshov said. "This character reflects the reality that there is more communication between China and the world now, and more foreigners have a better understanding of China."

More foreigners are playing the protagonist in shows as well, which signifies tremendous progress, said Shyshov. In Gehai Qingtian, Shyshov and another foreign actor played the lead characters.

Other entertainment shows have also begun to diversify their depiction of foreigners. Shyshov no longer begins Hello Tianjin with feigned ignorance. Two years ago, he would start the show by saying he doesn't know anything about a given topic and ask his Chinese guest to teach him. Nowadays, things are different.

"Now, in the show, I would first explain some basic knowledge then ask the Chinese professionals to make further introductions," Shyshov said. "That's because more Chinese viewers understand that foreigners can also have a good understanding of China."

Shyshov said he expects fewer stereotypes and a wider selection of roles for foreign actors in the future.

 Kos-Read believes the growing variety of roles open to foreign actors like himself is a result of more Chinese exposure to outside societies and culture. Chinese know some foreigners now, so they write more interesting characters now as a result, he told the New York Times.

A similar change is happening on Western TV shows, where the Chinese character is often portrayed as a restaurant owner or someone who knows kung fu. As the two societies learn more about each other and reflect the changing reality as it pertains to the people that come to their countries, the stereotyped portrayals have been decreasing, Shyshov said.

"As China's TV and movie industry continues to develop and the communication between China and foreign countries increases, there will be more international elements in Chinese TV programs, which will provide foreign actors with more opportunities," he said. "A foreign face is no longer enough to get a job in media; foreigners must have their own talents or characteristics to get a job. It's not enough to just play the dumb foreigner card anymore."

Newspaper headline: Paid laughingstocks

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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