Arts & Entertainment

Cultural Exchange: Jonathan Kos-Read is 'the token white guy' in Chinese cinema

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The rich, arrogant foreigner comes to China for business, but he ends up falling in love with what the script invariably calls an "Oriental beauty."

He pursues and tempts her for a few episodes, but in the end the virtuous lady makes the proper choice of staying true to her Chinese love interest.

Well, most of the time.

"Occasionally she'll stay with me," shrugs Jonathan Kos-Read, an actor from Torrance who's made a career out of playing foreigners on the Chinese screen. "But if she does, she'll either live in unhappiness, or she'll die."

Kos-Read, 37, is a self-described "token white guy." In this booming land where ambitious aliens scramble for fortune, he has used a telegenic face and unusually dexterous Mandarin skills to carve out a niche in Chinese television and films: the foreigner, in all his various incarnations. His self-started acting career spans more than a decade, spinning across some of the headiest years of China's rapid economic growth and social evolution. He is famous now, particularly, he says, among the grandmother set, who know him by his Chinese name, Cao Cao.

Making his living as a white man for hire, Kos-Read is taking on a heavy and problematic mantle. White-skinned foreigners loom in Chinese history as colonialists, occupiers, opium-pushing tricksters. China kicked out the foreigners and sealed itself off from the world; China reopened and now the world has come flooding back.

Today, it's not so much that foreigners are regarded as bad — on the contrary, many are heartily welcomed and at least outwardly respected as harbingers of economic success. But they are decidedly other. As workers and students from around the world take advantage of relatively lenient visa policies — more than half a million lived here in 2007 — there is an acute sense of who is foreign, and who is not.

From the boardroom to the screens of pop culture, the novelty of the white man in China is well established. Chinese companies seeking an aura of credibility hire otherwise unhelpful white people to attend board meetings. Chinese dating shows sprinkle foreigners into the mix.

In its quiet way, Kos-Read's rise to fame illustrates the arc of China's fascination with foreigners — and also exemplifies the allure China holds for a certain stripe of audacious and ambitious youth. Kos-Read's determination to come to China took root in his final months at NYU, where he studied first acting, then film and finally molecular biology.

In the beginning, the China plan was a sort of glamorous counterweight to a dawning, panicked realization that graduation would demand a certain boldness from a young man who'd considered himself extraordinary throughout his undergraduate years.

"My plan was to find a way to be awesome," he said. "I know how that sounds."

Flipping through a course catalog, Kos-Read's eye fell on Chinese, and he was taken by the possibilities.

"It struck me how cool it would be to be that guy who speaks fluent Chinese, to be that cool guy. That was still rare enough then as to be almost nonexistent," he said. "I thought, 'Hey, I could go to China and be awesome — to be the guy who goes to the weird foreign country and integrates himself into the culture and gets it.'"

He got onto a plane in 1997 with a tourist visa and a sliver of a job prospect that evaporated as soon as he set foot in China. "It was the vaguest of plans," he says. "I wanted to be like a character in a novel."

Upon arrival, he found lodging in a student dorm in the capital, landed a job teaching English and set about improving his Mandarin with monastic zeal. Early on, he forced himself to go three months without uttering a word of English.

Today, Chinese viewers marvel over the authenticity of his Beijing slang, and Kos-Read remains scornful of expats who turn to tutors and classes to polish their language skills. "China is your classroom," he says.

As he settled in, he began to notice the parade of foreigners who cropped up on Chinese television. A few observations struck him: They were amateurish actors, they had "crap Chinese" and they were "funny looking." "I thought, you know, man, I'm better than them," he said. "I went to acting school, I speak pretty good Chinese and I may not be a 10, but at least I'm an 8."

Kos-Read landed his first role in 1999 after answering a classified advertisement. It was a low-budget, art house movie, and he played a tag-along American documentary filmmaker who followed young, disaffected urban bohemians into the countryside. Since then, he has appeared in period dramas, romantic tearjerkers and more, finally achieving the status of street recognition for the television show that documented his antics, "Here Comes Cao Cao."

Through the years, he has broken down his roles into six categories, with the aforementioned spurned lover topping the list as most common.

The parts suggest the varied ways foreigners loom in the collective Chinese consciousness. Sometimes, the on-screen foreigner is a stroke of characterization. Kos-Read calls this figure "the symbol."

"The main Chinese guy is an international player, but how do you show it? He has to have a foreign friend," Kos-Read explains. "Or, even better, a foreign assistant."

Then there's the subtle school of character dubbed "the cipher": the foreign visitor who extols one of his homeland's own alleged virtues ("In America, we stick together!") with the aim of indirectly nudging at attributes China might wish to adopt, as the screenwriter sees it.

The historical "villain" is, almost invariably, British or French. These figures crop up in period dramas. The American, Kos-Read insists, is rarely depicted as an evil being.

But there is "the fool," explained thus by Kos-Read: "I come to China disdainful. I don't get it. My character is like, 'China sucks, man.' But through my encounter with amazing China, my opinion changes. The white guy realizes how amazing China is."

And then, finally, the role that's been falling to him now more and more frequently in recent years: the "real guy." "The guy who's a person before he's a foreigner, with motivations beyond being a foreigner," he said.

When Kos-Read started acting in China, he says, screenwriters fell back on stereotypes to depict people from overseas. But the rapid influx of foreign workers and the growing sophistication of the film and television industry means that now most writers have had regular interactions with foreigners and are more apt to portray them with nuance and textured motivations, Kos-Read says.

"There's the Uncle Tom question," he acknowledges. "How do I deal with playing bad guys in Chinese shows?"

The answer, he insists, is that he doesn't take "crazy, ridiculous, evil foreigner" roles. Moreover, he argues that such roles are vanishing. "There was a lot of that before, and a lot less now."

Kos-Read is comfortable here, and has no immediate plans to return to the United States. His income has grown as his profile has risen, and as Chinese film and television budgets have grown more generous. His wife is Chinese, and they have a daughter.

By the way, he adds, American filmmakers are hardly immune to the ills of stereotyping. "They make the same mistake. They treat Chinese characters as culturally driven automatons," he says. "It's disheartening."

megan.stack@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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