Monday, October 26, 2009

Zhang Ziyi, Li Bingbing, Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and foreign men

I find it difficult to write about issue of ethnicity and nationality in countries other than the United States because my own nation is currently going through an often mean spirited debate concerning immigration, a debate that can easily veer into a racist demonizing of immigrants. One of the things that makes it different from other nations is that there is no "American" race or ethnic type, (other than the Native Americans who have been economically and socially marginalized) so the debate here is joined under the generally false premises of economic dislocation, loss of national identity and dilution of language.

So I will rush in where angels fear to tread with a question about the treatment of Chinese actresses and their relationships with "foreign" (which means in this case, I think, western) men. The most obvious is Zhang Ziyi who seems to be the most popular target over the past couple of years. Things weren't helped by the notorious poster for "Memoirs of a Geisha". Much could be attributed to artistic/commercial motives of wanting to produce a striking, memorable poster but the blue eyes in the image annoyed/outraged most Asian people that I knew at the time. In case you don't recall it:

Zhang Ziyi's relationship with Isaeli billionaire Vivi Nevo was a very big deal in China, with breathless reports of them kissing at a New York Nicks game all the way to the semi-public displays of "what the hell" on the beach at St. Barts. This is a relatively low-key and typical "China Daily' story. Another non-incendiary story ran in Yummy Celebrities although clearly a lot of those leaving comments had been waiting to do so for a while. I assume that comments on a celebrity site are more important in China than elsewhere because of the credibility given to the "netizens". A couple of them compared her to Gong Li--I found a few references to a "foreign" boyfriend that Gong Li may have had in 1995 but the articles that contained them were so scurrilous that I won't link to them.

Perhaps the strangest and funniest example ran in Singapore's Straits Times in which she was accused of swearing on live TV to show that she was now an international star.

It isn't just big stars, though. Tongues were wagging when Li Bingbing was accompanied after a hospital stay by a western man although she took pains to explain that they were not in a relationship.

Theses are a couple of screen grabs from "A World without Thieves"--some Chinese actresses my wish for a world without gossip rags.

Singer and actress Coco Lee doesn't have to explain her fiance, although his name (Bruce Richardson) and picture make it clear he is Caucasian--but not, in this case, "foreign". China Daily has the story. She looks great--all one can say about Bruce is that a lot of silkworms died in vain to make that suit and shirt combination.

Perhaps she got a pass on the foreign question because she is (or at least is reported in some outlets as being) Chinese-American born in Hong Kong, raised in San Francisco with dual citizenship.

Two movie icons that have escaped criticism--or at least any recent criticism--over the nationality/ethnicity of their respective fiance/spouse/companion are Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung. I assume that with Michelle Yeoh it is because she is, while ethnically Chinese, is a citizen of Malaysia and may be more Malaysian than anything else. Her parents were from there, she was honored with the title Datuk and when made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French she collected the award at the French embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Here she shares a laugh with the ambassador while he presents the ribbon and medal representing the honor. Perfect dress for the occasion--very formal yet festive and the lack of accessories is a perfect touch since she is having an important one pinned on her. Clearly she doesn't neglect her arms during workouts.

And in a more typical shot, from "Wing Chun"

She has been engaged to or at least the common companion of Jean Todt, newly elected head of FIA, organization that runs the hyper-lucrative and oh-so-social Formula One racing circuit. Interesting couple--she is tall and gorgeous, he is short and toad-like but both are smart, have some money and move easily in almost any company. The only problem in the relationship seems to be that while he is eager to get married--or at least announce their engagement--she seems to be much less so. But at least she doesn't have to put up with a drumbeat of criticism from the press about seeing a foreigner.

Maggie Cheung may have gotten some flack when she first "abandoned" Hong Kong for Paris to make "Irma Vep" with Olivier Assayas and then married him, having made 70 movies in 11 years in the former Crown Colony. Now, divorced from Assayas, living where she wants to live--London, Paris, Hong Kong--and being accompanied by a series of European man the most recent German architect Ole Scheeren, who was based in Beijing and now is working in Bangkok. With her movie career largely behind her and happy, at least for now, being idolized by a new generation of fans and showing up at a few red carpet events and film festvals while trying to keep the top fashion designers in Paris and Milan from dedicating their entire season to her, Maggie must very well armored against the puny slings and arrows of Hong Kong gossip.

And of course:

From "Clean"

From "Irma Vep:

Anyone who stumbles across this entry may well know a lot more about this than I do and I would greatly appreciate those who correct mistakes of fact or emphasis or who can speak more knowledgably about the attitude of the Chinese gossip press toward Chinese actresses with foreign consorts.

Echoing what I began this post with, I realize that the USA is embroiled in a debate on nationality and citizenship that is of life and death importance to millions and which is often used cynically by politicans and can bring out the worst in many citizens here. So I am not criticizing anyone, just wondering about this particular issue. An example: If Natalie Portman become engaged to Chow Yun Fat there would be little outcry because she planned to marry a foreigner.


  1. A quick glimpse at those links were enough to remind me why I don't read comments on news stories. If I did, I would immediately completely lose what little shred of faith and respect I have for my fellow human beings.

    There's nothing I hate more than that bizarre feeling of entitlement to judge a celebrity's private life. Clearly, some netizens (and I hope it is some and not many or most) would benefit more from spending their time examining themselves and not others.

  2. I have never understood that either. We aren't attracted to the person as such but to her image, an image that she doesn't even have complete control over.

    As long as an actress does a good job on screen or stage, looks elegant/funky/divine on the red carpet (if she does red carpets) and doesn't embarrass herself in interviews, what else can one ask?

    While there are individuals who have successfully leveraged their stardom into other fields--Angelina Jolie takes her work for the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) very seriously and they count on her to boost press coverage and global awareness--there aren't many that do.

  3. I am assuming that you are a white guy like me so I am sure you can see the irony in this post as you, and me, and others gaze in wonderment at these Asian actresses.

    I don't think this trend is limited to Asian actresses; every Asian woman I've known in America -- whether first generation or second generation or an immigrant to this country -- dated or married a non-Asian man. I have asked a few of the women about this and the best answer I get is that that the Asian men they have met have been too chauvinistic. I don't know how true that is but the trend is obvious.

    How much of this is related to the desire to appeal to the European world I wonder?

    Interesting post. From what little I know about Zhang Ziyi, I think the Chinese dislike her for a variety of reasons.

    And it was not just Asian people who found the whole Memoirs of a Geisha poster/casting flat-out ridiculous.

    I was lucky enough to be raised by a mother who worked a job that allowed me to meet a lot of foreign military officers. I have a very old school pro-immigration mentality.

    Nothing makes me feel more patriotic than something like the sometimes silly Moscow on the Hudson. The idea of people wanting to come here humbles me, really.

  4. I am indeed a white guy--and like all white people in the U.S., am here because someone from the white parts of the Old World decided to head for the land of oppurtunity, although there wasn't that much to decide when the altenative was to starve in Ireland. Although it was certainly much more a choice than Africans had, which was none.

    The idea of "I got here so let's pull up the gangplank" is abhorrent and disgusting. The constant drumfire of slander against recent immigrants--recently from Latin America--is as unamerican (a dumb word but it works here) as anything.

    That is part of the reason behind this post--the reaction in China seems so strong and the question of nationality/ethnicity/identity is such perfect dry tinder for a social and politcal firestorm, at least in the US, that it seemed even more extreme.
    (Metaphors by MixMaster)

    The casting of "Memoirs" is so strange that it will never be explained. It is as if director Rob Marshall said that he couldn't find one Japanese actress to play one of the principal roles.

  5. I am a caucasian who is dating an asian woman(Chinese). She is an ABC. I have dated women of other races as well and don't find this odd in the least. My girlfriend's parents, who were born in Taiwan and had an arranged marriage, tried to set her up with other Chinese men for years. My girlfriend refused. I think since she was born here she is assimilated to an American way of life. Through schooling, pop cuture, media, etc. She says she is only interested in caucasian men (lucky me :p) but really never gives a reason for disliking asian men. Her parents would prefer that she date a Chinese man but have taken to me very well.

    I guess my point is that race is of little importance. More so in affairs of the heart. My girlfriend's sister is dating a Chinese man. They are both ABC's. Though they are both Chinese the only language they speak where they can understand each other is English. She speaks Mandarin and he Cantonese. They are both Chinese, but what does that matter?

    Interesting post.

  6. chungking--

    While race seems to be of little importance in matters of the heart to those involved it also is used constantly (and, in many places, including large parts of the United States, effectively) for those who view with alarm, seize the high moral ground and behave as if everyone's business is there own.

    One of the issues that surprised me about how virulently the Chinese gossip press reacted to Chinese actresses dating Caucasian men was the extreme proprietary interest that they seemed to have in the personal lives of the actresses--I wonder if, for example, the reaction would be as strong if Eason Chan was dating Scarlett Johansson or Audrey Tautou.

  7. The proprietary hold the celbrity press seems to have on it's native female celebrities is odd and the barbs they put forth about dating outside their culture seem curious? Is it part jealousy that actresses have the ability and are exposed to being worldly? I do think that plays a part of their mentality.

    As far as an Asian men dating outside of race, the reaction may be viewed as a mixed bag. As far as I can tell, this situation happens much much less often and might be viewed as a curiosity rather than a slight to Asian women and culture.

  8. western culture has had huge hegemony presence in asia in past 500-600 years. thats why asian women "grow up" with this inferiority complex and western-white idolships thru western ideals and media

    You WHITE guys only have great media marketing only to save your ass with these brain-white washed asian women

    Am sure one day West- white culture will fail, and Asia( China) will be center of world

  9. "An example: If Natalie Portman become engaged to Chow Yun Fat there would be little outcry because she planned to marry a foreigner. "

    thats point isn't it?

    would a famous WHITE female actress in ho-wood marry or date asian male?

    Double Standard indeed

  10. "Am sure one day West- white culture will fail, and Asia( China) will be center of world"

    A bet on China as the coming superpower seems like a sure thing and probably is just that.

  11. it is true there is a cultural difference here the west is far more open to inter racial couples because the USA is built on the immigration of all races. In the east identity is more fixed because they have history and culture but in america they dont really, or at least not in the same way.
    Couples in the spot light of all cultures will gravitate to other rich or powerful people because lets face it, not everyone can understand the life of a superstar, i think this is the point. none of the celebrities menchioned are a normal couple dating in hong kong, or where ever and this means huge pressure and focus from the worlds media. This is not something an average person can handle.