HONG KONG–At first glance, David Hogue seems like an unlikely reality TV star. He isn’t an acid-tongued Brit or a member of a once famous hair band. He has little penchant for drunken fist-fights, or marathon “smooshfests.” And, of course, his name isn’t “Snooki.” Instead, he’s a bookish, 26-year-old Princeton graduate completing a master’s degree in ancient Chinese classics at Nanjing University. Yet three years ago, as he was walking between classes, a producer from the Jiangsu Variety Channel, a television station in one of China’s eastern provinces, invited him to compete on a game show.
“They were looking for foreigners,” he said. “I thought it would be a fun experience to get a peek into the Chinese TV industry and meet more Chinese friends.”
Hogue is part of a growing number of expats making their mark as accidental entertainers in China. With the flood of exchange students in the country, foreign faces are becoming more familiar on Chinese TV, with visitors from Spain, Nigeria, and the U.S. competing for local hearts on dating shows. In fact, some non-Chinese are even in demand as fake executives and fake academics.
One reason for the influx: There are simply more foreigners around. The number of expats in China has surged, with over 70,000 Americans living in China, according the latter’s 2010 census, plus an additional 60,000 living in Hong Kong.
But the trend also has to do with loosening restrictions in the country. Mike Yao, associate professor of media and communications at the City University of Hong Kong, says the country’s media industry has become more lax in recent years. “Shows are not as regulated,” he told The Daily Beast. “The guest list does not have to be approved and screened ahead of time.”
On some level, central authorities in Beijing appear to have endorsed this shift. “It’s a product of China’s opening up much more to the outside world,” says Doug Young, a professor of journalism at Fudan University in Shanghai. “They’ve been relaxing rules and restrictions on the media in the last four to five years, which is probably why you see an acceleration in the number of foreigners over that time.”
Seeing the outside world come to China, in fact, seems to be part of the appeal. “As China matures economically, many Chinese see Western involvement as a stamp of approval or a form of flattery,” says Ole Schell, an American who directed Win in China, a documentary that closely followed a popular Chinese game show.
In previous decades, one of the only recognizable foreign faces on Chinese TV belonged to Mark Rowswell, a 46-year-old Canadian who looks like a cross between an accountant and an inspirational life coach. He goes by the stage name Dashan, meaning “big mountain,” and his flawless command of Mandarin--including tongue-twisters--and his intense focus on adapting to traditional Chinese forms of comedy have made him still, perhaps, the most famous Westerner on the country’s airwaves.
Many of those who have followed in Dashan’s footsteps have made their way to stardom more serendipitously. Andrew Ballen, a boisterous, smooth-shaven 39-year-old Jamaican-American, came to Shanghai a decade ago to make his fortune, and ended up a fixture on a Chinese travel program and assorted talk shows. Rachel DeWoskin, 40, an American writer with curly hair and pouty lips, was working in public relations in Beijing during the 1990s when she stumbled into stardom as the sultry character Jiexie in the hit sitcom, “Foreign Babes in Beijing.”
For those trying to make it big, being fluent in Mandarin is certainly a plus—but by no means essential. And playing the token outsider on can be lucrative, by Chinese standards. According to some reports, foreign actors often earn more than their local counterparts, by as much as 50 percent. Hogue, for instance, received the same salary as his co-hosts, 800RMB per episode—about $130.
A successful first appearance can unleash a flood of opportunities. In his first gig, Hogue competed for a 10,000 RMB ($1,500) prize by dressing up in a crab suit attached to a giant rubber band and trying to pop balloons with his claws. He did so well—particularly in reciting an ancient poem that talks about drinking foreigners’ blood—that the network invited him back for appearances on other shows.
“The element of adding a foreigner is not quite a clown show or circus type of act, but it does have a novelty effect,” says Yao. “Seeing a foreigner singing Chinese songs, or speaking very fluent Mandarin, has its draw.”
Zany antics are par for the course in China’s booming reality TV sector—so much so that the central government introduced new policies to curb them. In the last six months, Beijing has issued new regulations to crackdown on unwholesome programs like time-travel dramas, spy shows, and licentious reality TV. Western performers, however, are evidently still welcome. “Compared to immoral and frivolous content, the presence of foreigners in the media is not so irritating to the authority,” says Fei Shen, a communications professor in the City University of Hong Kong.
“If the presentation gives the audience an impression that foreign countries, cultures, and people are more civilized or better than Chinese ones, then it might incur problems. But if you use foreigners as stagecraft to enhance Chinese nationalism or patriotism, the authority might like it.”
Even if the authorities approve of a program, there are limits on how far a would-be foreign-born star can rise.
The Chinese government strictly caps the number of foreigners who can appear in any given program--one third of the cast--and forbids them from holding many of the executive positions in TV and movie studios. The ones who appear on-screen are limited to whatever sort of role the producers want them to fill—for better or worse.
In 2011, Hogue was invited to be a reality show judge—an American Simon Cowell of sorts—on a show called “I Dream.” Contestants on the show appear before a panel of 10 judges (introduced as “society’s elites”) and make the case that they deserve funding for some wild-eyed project. The judges then ask questions, give opinions, and decide whether or not to award prize money.
Hogue’s fellow judges included an art student, a radio personality, a Frenchman, and a celebrity known as the “Wolf Dad”—China’s real-life male equivalent to the “Tiger Mom.”
“Everyone had this persona they were supposed to be representing,” he said. “I would kind of be the butt of jokes on the set.”
As in the U.S., Chinese reality shows often play on the deep-seated concerns of ordinary people. On “I Dream,” contestants’ stories touched on fears about food safety, having children, traveling abroad, and their frustrations with the country’s household registration system, which makes moving difficult. Other contestants were more frivolous, asking for money to build a toilet seat in cars that can convert urine into drinking water.
Though he sometimes struggled to connect with the audience, Hogue’s response to the latter request was a crowd-pleaser:
“In America, we think of things as very simple,” he said. “You work, you eat, you sleep, you urinate. But in China, even something as simple as urinating is complicated.”
When it comes to reality TV, toilet humor is apparently universal.