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

The native of Torrance has used a telegenic face and deft Mandarin skills to carve out his niche: playing the foreigner.

January 16, 2011|By Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times
  • Jonathan Kos-Read has forged an acting career in China.
Jonathan Kos-Read has forged an acting career in China. (Cheng Yutao )

Reporting from Beijing — 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.

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