Film trails drifting Westerners who impersonate qualified people for a living in China

Source:Agencies-Global Times Published: 2017/3/21 18:28:39

Many foreigners who called themselves "white monkeys' were invited to impersonate musicians, architects or diplomats at real estate events to lure homebuyers in China's building boom in second- and third-tier cities

David Borenstein's film about the phenomenon is making waves on Chinese social media

This business of hiring foreign impersonators is decreasing in recent years with more professional performers from Russia and Ukraine entering into the industry

A still from Dream Empire. Foreigners wearing gorgeous costumes appear in a real-estate opening in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Photo: Courtesy of David Borenstein



David Borenstein's documentary on working as a "white monkey" in China is drawing lots of attention.

"Nobody cares whether you are an accomplished actor or what do you do for a living. If you have a foreign face, you will be put on the stage, playing an architect or a musician in activities organized by real estate developers. White people are more popular," he explains, summarizing the premise of his 73-minute film Dream Empire.

Borenstein, a visiting American scholar from Miami, made the film about his experiences with a group of foreigners who were invited to real-estate openings and other activities in the second- or third-tier cities like Chengdu in Southwest China's Sichuan Province or Chongqing to help "create an international atmosphere."

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, when China was going through a round of housing fever, many foreigners, who self-depreciatingly referred to themselves as "white monkeys" because they were treated like animals doing tricks in a carnival, were often approached by agents in the rent-a-foreigner industry to show up at promotional events organized to lure potential buyers.

The foreigners were often backpackers who were recruited in streets or pubs in these cities, or language teachers.

Borenstein said that the atmosphere of these performing activities is like "staying in a zoo" where the foreigners are like monkeys, and their white skin is the only reason for their popularity.

Interested in the rent-a-foreigner industry, as well as the political and cultural climate behind it, he recorded his work experience and made his documentary Dream Empire in 2016, which follows the rise and fall of Yana, a foreigner agent, and the Chinese building boom.

An abridged version of the film was recently widely circulated on Chinese social media. It prompted many Chinese viewers to criticize a sense of inferiority amongst Chinese people and an attitude of worshipping everything foreign.

Borenstein argued that the rent-a-foreigner industry is just one of several themes of his documentary. "I have studied Chinese for 10 years. My general impression of the Chinese people is very high," he told the Global Times on Monday via e-mail.

"Most Chinese people were proud of their own culture. But it is interesting that at the same time many had a tendency to glorify Western countries," he noted.

Foreigners are hired to play Sparta warriors to promote a rafting resort in Yueyang, Central China's Hunan Province, on July 29, 2015. Photo: CFP

'White monkey'


Borenstein got his first gig as a "white monkey" in 2012 when he was wandering in the streets in Chengdu, and was stopped by a Chinese who wanted to offer him a performing job.

"Even though I did not have much performing experience, the man still insisted. I became curious and wondered what kind of job he would give to me," Borenstein told The Beijing News.

His first show began in an opening ceremony of a real estate program where he "played" clarinet on a big round stage with two other foreigners who "played" guitar and violin. Apparently, Borenstein's little skill in playing the instrument did not affect the performance. The music was piped in from the sound equipment beside him, and he mimed performing for two hours.

In the room beside him, another foreigner was posing as the architect of the real estate development, on display to potential buyers.

Borenstein talked to these foreigners, and it turned out that all of them were recruited while walking down the streets. They were all impersonating someone else with qualifications they did not have.

"It [the experience] really confused me. How could this kind of things happened?" Borenstein, who was a Fulbright scholar on anthropology in Sichuan Province at that time, told The Beijing News. In an effort to figure out the question, Borenstein started his two-year acting career.

The actors he worked with called themselves "white monkeys" because nobody cared about their real identities. As long as they had a foreign face, they would play various roles on different occasions, said Borenstein.

Borenstein often played a clarinetist. His agent took a picture of him with the clarinet and billed him as the celebrated clarinetist of the "famous" American band The Travelers. His other identities included an Olympic athlete and diplomatic envoy.

One time, a real estate developer in Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, asked Borenstein to play a diplomat from the US Embassy and say, "President Barack Obama is fully in support of this real estate development."

The agent asked for a picture form Borenstein and prepared to make a badge proving he was consulate general. "Luckily that fell through. I'm not sure how I would have felt after going through with that, or even if I would've," Borenstein told citylab.com, a US-based website about cities, in a February report.

The foreigners were mostly hired to add prestige to real estate developments. "You put a foreigner in front of a building and everything is different," explains the foreigner agent Yana in the documentary.

Borenstein could earn 1,000 to 1,500 yuan ($145-$217) for "playing" a song. In two years, he travelled to Dazhou and other small cities around Chengdu to more than 40 activities, playing various roles the real estate developers needed.

On many occasions, local officials were also invited, and they seldom questioned the identity of the foreigners. This is partly because "internationalization" was also an idea the local governments wanted to trumpet, which signified a "developed" economy.

"In these shows, the developers and relevant officials would come out, and directly after they spoke, they would bring foreigners up on the stage. To me, it felt like we were a symbol of authority," Borenstein told citylab.com.

Professional imposters

Most of these activities recruit staff using agent companies. Li Ya (pseudonym), who worked as a manager for one of the agent companies in Chengdu for five years, said that these companies appeared in Chengdu as early as in 2003 and they aimed to find models and musical bands for corporate event companies.

"I was responsible for seeking foreigners to play different roles in accordance with clients' requirements when I first stepped into this field. The business was booming since many real estate developers and cosmetics companies want to have foreigners to act as engineers or professors. They prepared English speeches for them and a translator during the activities," Li was quoted as saying by The Beijing News.

Some companies may have specific demands on the appearance of actors. For example, Li needed to find a foreigner with the characteristics of a professor - older, with beard and 175 to 180 centimeters tall - to introduce "a cosmetic product he developed" during a press conference, said Li.

"Some foreigners may think it incredible when they start out, but they got used to it after doing it many times. After all, they could earn more than 1,000 yuan each time," said Li.

In recent years, there has been a slump in the "white monkey" business, said Li.

"There are more joint venture enterprises emerging in Chengdu in recent years which have foreign employees and don't need actors for shows. The other reason is that now business activities need real performances," said Li.

Li noted that more foreigners with professional backgrounds have entered into the field and foreign musicians are easy to find these days. Fake performances will lead to a loss of reputation and business, said Li.

"Fewer foreigners from the US or other European countries want to take the job and more professional actors from Russia and Ukraine flocked to the field," said Li. "Shows of Russian beauties wearing bikinis are still popular in some third-and forth-tier cities or township where people still run after 'internationalism.'"

For foreigners who still work in this field, earning money is not all they want.

A drummer from Ukraine told Li that he wanted to stay in China for the rest of his life since his father died in war and China brings him money and a feeling of security.

The government has also begun to manage the industry. The Exit and Entry Administration of Chengdu Public Security Bureau arrested many foreign girls who had no proper working visas in a conference center in Chengdu in 2015. More agent companies are choosing to sign contracts with foreigners who have proper work visas.

Unsavory foreigners



Borenstein described his experience working as a "white monkey" as "curious, funny and hilarious" and he also showed pity for performers who have real talent. He also noted that some cities lost a chance to develop real local talent because they were chasing an illusory "internationalization."

In an e-mail to the Global Times, Borenstein wrote that he noticed some paradoxes in how his Chinese friends interpreted "foreignness."

"Nowadays most of my Chinese friends I meet are very proud of China's economic development and national strengthening. Yet at the same time many of these same friends view purchasing foreign products and sending children to school in Canada as ultimate status symbols. One can go on for awhile mentioning examples like these."

He also wrote that it's important to note that there are numerous very professional foreigners working in China - some of the world's best architects, for example.

"It's true that there have been certain industries in China - specifically English teaching, modeling, and performance industries - that have historically attracted some unsavory Westerners that seek to make a living off 'chongyangmeiwai' [having a servile attitude to foreign things]. But even these industries also have some very professional foreigners. These industries as a whole are also professionalizing quite quickly at the moment in China," he wrote.

Yana sold her share of the management company when the bubble in China's housing market started having problems, leading to a decrease of real estate events, and she started to work in a cultural performance company in Chongqing.

Borenstein's film is currently playing on the festival circuit, mainly in Europe. It just won one of Europe's top awards for a documentary - the Golden Alexander award, grand prize at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.


Newspaper headline: Monkey business


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