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Requiem for the Token White: Behind the Scenes on a Chinese TV Shoot

Tales from the white guy actor circuit. 500rmb and a pretty good anecdote off the port bow.
Jun 24, 2016 | 18:28 Fri
It’s no secret that traditional China is disappearing. A certain China -- an inherited culture, a shared history, a traditional heritage that stretches back generations -- is disappearing. Consider the Starbucks moving into an ancient temple; the hip new speakeasy cocktail bar renovating and replacing a traditional shikumen laneway; the mini mall that stands where an ancient city gate once stood. As China races ever headlong towards modernity, a new, internationally-minded generation supplants the last and a certain China continues to disappear forever.

If you were to ask me, one aspect of traditional China that’s fast disappearing that I’m very much going to miss is the whole “hungover white dudes getting paid to do ridiculous white dude stuff in a movie or TV show or whatever” thing.

Ahhh, the art of the hungover white dude doing white dude stuff for a TV or a movie or whatever for a few red bills… It’s a disappearing art form, it really is! With changing market climates and shifting consumer expectations, our opportunities are drying up, and our chances to express our chosen craft are diminishing by the day.

Where will you go now, totally hungover white guy pretending to be a bouncer at a some gala event for the nouveau riche? What shall you do, completely hungover white guy who pretends to DJ while a pre-recorded mix plays at a club opening in a third tier city? What shall become of you, savagely hungover white guy in some TV advertisement for some inscrutable traditional Chinese medicine playing on a loop in a metro station?

Who will speak for the brutally hungover white guys in suits, posing for a photograph that’s going to be used on the front of a pamphlet for a sketchballs business English teaching school and probably most of their online material?

The whiteness -- *gasp*, the whiteness -- it wanes. It wanes. It grows dim. It grows murky. A dying light. It flickers softly… briefly for a moment… before being extinguished forever.

I will speak. I will speak for the white faces in the background, lending the scene a little bit of that “international credibility” that used to play so well with clients and potential investors circa 2007. I will speak for these cultural champions of the arts, called upon by divine inspiration -- but holy Jesus, hungover as hell, seriously -- possessed of absolutely no qualifications to do whatever it is they find themselves doing, relying on a (white) wing and a prayer.

Commit this to history, then, before it slips into myth. Allow me to take you behind the scenes for that time I played a 19th century (18th century? 17 century? Snuh?) ship’s captain in a documentary for Chinese television about… something, I don’t really know; whatever it’s not important.

The Call

The life of a professional (read: unprofessional) white dude doing white dude stuff for hire is a bit random and accidental -- it’s really touch-and-go. You never know when your next call is going to come or what you’re going to be doing. One day you could be dressed as a clown at some Korean kid’s birthday party and the next you’re in a suit at a podium reading business jargon gibberish to a room full of Malaysian venture capitalists. You’ve got to keep your whiteness in peak form. You’ve gotta keep that whiteness firing on all cylinders. On my off-days, I like to stay in shape by playing F-Zero on Super Nintendo, eating Subway Melts, and renewing my subscription to Maxim.

No matter what the job is, no matter how much they pay, no matter where it’s coming from, no matter what’s going on in the world, “The Call” is always the same, and it is this:

“Hello, dear! Friend of friend works in production company and needs foreigners for a few days work. They like they should be Canadian or American but Australian is okay if not possible. But better perhaps if they not Australian.”

I got that text in 2006 on a Sony Ericsson and then two days ago again in 2016 on an iPhone 5. And it’s always from a dude called “Keven” that you never remember meeting.

The Scene

A movie lot on a Chinese television production looks like this.

Pretty much the same as anywhere, I suppose. It’s like a giant warehouse space out in the middle of nowhere. And it’s always a bit ghetto. On the one side, is all the antique furniture and props that get switched in and out of the shooting stage place. Everything is green-screen. I wonder what people did before green-screen? When did green-screen get invented? Is green-screen hyphenated? I have no idea because I’ve never taken a film or acting class before.

Let’s go backstage to do make-up because I’m about to act in a film.

The Backstage

Here’s a look backstage. There’s a make-up person, a hairstylist person, an assistant hairstylist person, a costume specialist person, about three other random assistants that buzz around, and an official “go get the white guy, the director is ready for him” guy.

Here is one of my co-stars. He’s a very handsome fellow in any era, gotta say. He’s going places.

And this is a fellow white guy bit player. He’s getting his stubble filled in to give him more of a “seedy Italian” look. Neither of us know what we’re doing yet.

Time for make-up. They put a bunch of white foundation on my face and filled in my eyebrows with a pencil. That was it. I didn’t need much. I gather I was supposed to look like I’d been on a horrible 19th century British clipper ship for several years, which is a look I pretty much bring to the table 24-7 anyways. They seemed pretty pleased when I showed up. It’s like I’m method.

The Costumes

I was scheduled for three scenes and two costumes. This one…

…which is like 19th century opera-wear I guess?

And this one…

…which is PUFFY SHIRT YES.

The Shoot

So, I’m not sure, but piecing it together, I guess we were filming a documentary on Chinese vases, and how they became popular in the west. I think I’m playing a ship’s captain who discovers them in China, and then the other guy is like a 19th century seedy industrialist-type who is going to buy said vases and import them into Europe. Our scene together is us purportedly discussing the aesthetic value of said vases, and a narrator is going to narrate the action later on.

So this is us “pretending like we’re talking” while cameras on tracks rolled in and out and got different shots of it.

Actual spoken dialogue:

Me: "Your mother is so hot."

Him: "No, your mother is so hot."

Me: "Your mother is hotter than this vase."

Him: "Your mother is shorter than this vase."

Me: "I want to import your mother into my life."

Him: "No, I want to import your mother into my life."

Annnnnnd SCENE.

My other scene was “look into this telescope for 10 seconds”…

…and “use this quill and pretend you are writing something for 10 seconds -- just make something up; look like you are writing English”.

What I actually ended up writing:


The Hype

It took all day from 8am to 4.30pm and we got paid 500rmb, lunch, watermelon, and a carton of cigarettes. Very standard white guy doing white guy stuff payment. I don’t know where it’s going to end up. Television? A commercial? A massive theater release staring Karen Mok? Who can say.

Actually, I hope it ends up in a taxi cab commercial, which I am convinced is the medium of the future. I hope to one day be recognized besides Debra, Master of Wine, and the crazy exercise lady as an early innovator in the art form.


Like the calligrapher, the jade worker, and the traditional pottery maker person before us, perhaps the time has come for the hungover white dude doing white dude stuff for a TV or whatever. The world no longer has any need for our non-talents… They need “professionals” these days. The industry has “matured”. The robber-baron days are over for us talentless whites. Still, I will always have my memories…

…and a very respectable 15-second film career that will live on long after I’m gone.

(Or TV, I dunno.)


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