Hong Kong ogles, blushes

Times Staff Writer

As Paris Hilton and other Hollywood types can attest, sex sells and can super-charge careers. In Hong Kong, it can also end them, at least temporarily.

And it can also prompt a tough police response to what has become a veritable public obsession.

The former British colony has been in a tizzy after hundreds of compromising photos of singer and movie star Edison Chen posing nude or having sex with top Hong Kong singers and actresses raced across the Internet. Head bowed and humbled, Chen announced last week that he would end his Hong Kong career "indefinitely." The career prospects for his lovers remain unclear.

The scandal has been fueled by big names, seedy photos, and a whiff of organized crime. And it was all unearthed due to a laptop on the blink.

"It's been on the front pages for how many days here," said Rebecca MacKinnon, media studies professor at the University of Hong Kong. "It's definitely been an obsession."

Canadian-born Chen, 27, was not only a moderately successful hip-hop artist. He was also something of an amateur photographer, recording his sexual escapades in photos with more than 15 female celebrities over an extended period.

Without giving it much thought, Chen then reportedly brought his pink Apple PowerBook in for repairs at which point a technician noticed and copied about 1,300 "private" salacious images from his hard drive, according to police.

These depicted him with various local pop stars including Gillian Chung either preening in suggestive poses or having sex. Approximately 400 pictures have found their way onto the Internet in recent weeks.

The result has been a media tsunami. Major Hong Kong papers ran the story on their front pages for three weeks as the "whodunit" unfolded. "Naked Artistes Engaged in Naughty Conduct," screamed one headline. "Naughty Photos Make It Onto the Web," blared another.

Circulation at some publications jumped by 50%. Computer servers crashed. Viewers reportedly fainted after waiting all night for the release of new photos.

The government's response -- including initially arresting people for doing little more than passing the images on to friends -- has spurred hand-wringing and debate on ethics, privacy and freedom of speech.

China's police also got into the act. Beijing has threatened to detain anyone caught distributing the nude photos, ordered websites to block and purge, and arrested 10 people in the southern city of Shenzhen near Hong Kong for selling the steamy shots.

The shock many Hong Kong residents felt at seeing images of the stars nude and having sex either online or in print with certain body parts strategically blocked -- including some adorned with stuffed animals, police uniforms, fishnet lingerie and bikinis -- was compounded by the fact that several of the female stars have been marketed as ingenues.

"It's woken a lot of us celebrities up," said Michael Wong, a Hong Kong-based actor, director, producer and singer. "We're walking around saying, 'Gee, what if that happened to me?' "

It also led Chen to issue an apology, initially by video from Canada when he asked everyone in Hong Kong to delete the photos, then at a packed news conference in Hong Kong on Thursday, when he said he needed time to "heal myself and to search for my soul."

As the scandal has intensified, advertisers have been diving for cover. Pepsi China, Standard Chartered Bank, Samsung, Levi's and the Hong Kong Metro, among others, have dropped or declined to renew ad campaigns involving Chen. Chung has been the object of boycott efforts.

Hong Kong on the surface is more prudish than Western countries and less tolerant of Hollywood-style antics.

"In many ways, Hong Kong preserves a lot of Confucian ideals that got swept away on the mainland," said Daisann McLane, a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist. "There is a disjuncture between public image and what's in the pictures."

Underneath, however, human nature being what it is, some question just how lasting the damage will be.

"Chen's career finished? I don't buy it at all," said Winsome Lane, a writer who has been covering the Hong Kong entertainment industry for three decades. "I still think this whole thing is a publicity stunt for a not-all-that-talented person. Any guy on 'American Idol' could knock the spots off of most of these Canto-pop singers."

Hong Kong experts said they also question the role that organized crime groups have played in the scandal, either to increase profits or as part of a turf battle between rival mob-controlled studios.

Whoever was behind the release of the risque photos did a masterful job of unveiling them in a measured, teasing fashion.

In late January, a first fuzzy but quite revealing photo appeared showing two people resembling Chen and Chung naked in bed. Her image in particular left nothing to the imagination.

This initially led to an impassioned Internet debate on whether the stars' heads had been digitally joined with the naked bodies of others.

Within hours, a second image appeared, this one of actress and singer Bobo Chan, and then a third, of actress Cecilia Cheung with Chen. Over the next several days, nine, then 20, then hundreds more images appeared. These quickly spread to websites based in Taiwan, the U.S. and China, reportedly attracting 27 million hits and 15,000 comments on the Tianya forum, a Chinese social networking site, by Feb. 14, as Chinese censors struggled to contain the ogling.

An alarmed Hong Kong government assigned more than 100 detectives to find the culprits and started making arrests. Initially it detained computer users who had simply re-posted the photos to friends on the questionable legal grounds that they were poised to engage in wholesale distribution.

Eventually police closed in on the computer shop worker, Sze Honchun, and seven friends. Sze, arrested on charges of dishonest gain, is now out on bail awaiting a March 14 court date.

"For many of these girls, I think their careers are over," McLane said. "But a second act is always possible, although it could take more time than in America."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Wu Yixiu of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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