Asian actors from North America have more opportunities in China

24 October 2012 / 3 years 12 months ago

Source: China DailyAsian superstar Andy Lau and Osric Chau.Increasingly Asian actors from North America are finding that China provides the opportunities that are lacking in Hollywood. Liu Wei reports in Beijing.Osric Chau, 26, found himself on the set of his first Chinese film, a remake of the 2000 Hollywood hit What Women Want, on a spring day of 2010. Having portrayed a Tibetan monk in Roland Emmerich's disaster epic 2012, the Vancouver-born Chinese got the role to work with Asian superstar Andy Lau soon after he arrived in Beijing.He thought he recognized Lau standing not far from him and went up to him, to get to know him and practice his Chinese. He struggled in Chinese for 15 minutes and eventually discovered the man was Lau's photo double."We talked about regular things, like nice to meet you, how is the film, just about everything except his name," Chau recalls, laughing. "For a while I did wonder how he could look so young and then I told myself it was because he was Andy Lau and he keeps in good shape."While China is where Chau's ancestors come from, it was still full of surprises."One thing that I love about working in China is the possibilities," he says.Chau worked as a post-production coordinator, while acting as Lau's assistant. With his bilingual ability he helped visual, sound and editing employees communicate with the director."It would never happen in Hollywood. They would have had someone for the position and would not let a person with no experience do it," he says.The 29-year-old actor Alfred Hsing has some anecdotes to share, too. The winner at the 2009 World Wushu Championships, like Chau, he is a young Chinese actor who grew up in North America, had some Hollywood experience, but is now part of China's entertainment industry.A graduate of UCLA's economics department, Hsing often asked for leave or ended his meetings early when working at an accounting firm, in order to act in films or television shows, or compete in martial arts contests. Two years later, he decided to become a professional actor.He had auditions and offers and won over his parents' support, but with an Asian face, he had to confront more challenges than Western actors.According to talent manager and producer Lillian Ng, who has rich experience working in both China and the US, Asian-American actors are typically typecast in Hollywood.Male actors typically audition for the Chinese restaurant storeowner, kung fu master, or comedic Asian character. Classic examples are Ken Jeong, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. The female roles are mostly sex symbols, such as Lucy Liu and Maggie Q - though Sandra Oh has been offered breakout roles."Although we are seeing more and more Asian (both native Asian and Asian-Americans) faces on the big screen, the opportunities for Asian actors are getting slimmer," she says."Producers are inclined more to give the roles to well-known actors. Given the shrinkage of Hollywood productions, there are only so many Asian roles on offer, and most of the Asian actors are competing for the same role."In 2010, through a friend, Hsing knew Jet Li was looking for an assistant. He sent his resume and got the job after an interview.In Beijing, he had a role in The Sorcerer and the White Snake, co-starring Li, then in Feng Xiaogang's disaster epic 1942. Now he is shooting a romantic comedy starring Zhang Ziyi.Like Chau, he is impressed by the flexibility of Chinese sets."In America, it is all about the actors' union and conditions," he says. "There should be food, lunch breaks and extra pay when you work overtime, but in China you finish the work only when the decision maker on the set says it is time."The bright side is, while he is a supporting actor in the Zhang Ziyi film, he can also work on the production team and learn about what goes on behind the scenes."The Chinese film industry is still building a sophisticated system, so there will be chaos, but at the same time there are unconventional ways of getting things done, creativity and opportunities," says Ben Erwei Ji, managing director of RG Communications and a senior producer who has worked at both major Hollywood and Chinese studios.

Alfred Hsing (middle) plays a supporting role in the film, The Sorcerer and theWhite Snake, starring Jet Li (right).The Chinese film industry has been prosperous in recent years. The box office has soared, with an annual growth of about 30 percent since 2003."The booming Chinese film market is definitely an important reason for more Asian actors to come to China to act," says Brian Yang, who has just wrapped up his part in The Man with the Iron Fists, a China-US co-production shot partly in Hengdian, a small town and shooting base in East China."There were multiple productions in Hengdian. Take the wrong turn and you walk into another movie. Here is a comedy in production, but 500 meters away is a war story," he recalls.Wesley Wong, 25, is working on a master's degree in acting at Beijing Film Academy, after finishing his undergraduate studies at USC. He says that in 2007, there were only two Asian American/Canadian students studying acting at BFA, but in 2012 the school recruited six or seven.According to Wong, after Chinese-Canadian Dou Xiao, also a BFA student, led Zhang Yimou's Under the Hawthorn Tree in 2010, five young Chinese-Canadian actors arrived at the school to learn acting.While many assume these young actors with their bilingual abilities do not have to worry so much about getting jobs in such a flourishing industry in China, they suffer from confusion of identity and another kind of stereotype."We don't exist here or there," says Brian Yang. "In Hollywood, we are minorities and stereotyped. We are what they think Chinese should be, not true Americans. But in China, we are Americans. We don't belong to either place."Alfred Hsing shares the pain."I can only appear in stories that happen after reform and opening up," he jokes.Due to their "ABC" (American-born-Chinese) accent and temperament, these actors usually get roles as businessmen at international companies. Rarely can they play in rural stories or costume dramas.Cary Woodworth is a friend to Yang and some other Asian-American actors. The European-looking actor has worked in 10 Chinese productions since 2004. As an observer and insider, he understands his friends' predicament."In the US, Asian-American actors are totally judged by their faces, and here in China, by their accent. Some of them are great actors who have things to give, but because they don't speak fluent Chinese, they lose a lot of opportunities."Yang once met a Chinese producer who told him: "We have plenty of Chinese actors who speaks perfect Chinese, so why should we cast someone who pretends to be Chinese?"But he tries to see the bright side of things."I think there will be more stories that introduce the West to the East and the other way round. Hopefully there will be more films that need more actors who will bridge the two."Only when changes happen within the industries of both countries will actors have the best of both worlds, believes Osric Chau."To change the stereotypes of Asians in Hollywood films requires more Asians to work in the industry as powerful decision makers, such as scriptwriters, directors and producers.Hopefully they will think more inclusively about Asian actors," he says.Lillian Ng, the talent manager and producer, suggests filmmakers in China be more open to these actors."Their disadvantage may come be in communicating and connecting with the audience," she says, "but many of them are well seasoned bilingual actors, breaking through the language barrier and can play any character."Alfred Hsing, who has been practicing Mandarin very hard, was rewarded by an offer to play in a period drama in the 1940s. Although he missed it due to scheduling problems, he feels his effort has been acknowledged."We must be fully prepared," he says.

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