February 29th, 2008


Edison electrifies China

Yesterday Hisae was telling me about the Edison Chen photo scandal in China. She'd read about it on Japanese bulletin boards, and joined the millions who'd downloaded the photos to see what all the fuss was about. Brief recap: Canto-Pop star / rapper / playa / actor Edison Chen took his pink Apple laptop in to get fixed at Elite Multimedia in Hong Kong, where he'd bought it. A repairman there, Sze Honchun, found up to 10,000 explicit images of Edison fucking various famous Chinese singers and actresses (Gillian Chung from Twins, actresses Cecilia Cheung and Bobo Chan, and others), copied them, and started releasing them on the internet to make money. Arrested on charges of dishonest gain, Sze is currently out on bail, awaiting trial.

The scandal has thrown the careers (not to mention the personal lives) of some of China's biggest stars into turmoil. It's also focused the attention of Asia, if not the world, on sexual mores. Is China sexually conservative? How widely is porn viewed there? Which is more sexually permissive, ex-colonial Hong Kong or ex-communist mainland China? How do the Hong Kong stars' public images differ from their private behaviour?

Some amazing stats have emerged. When the photos were posted on mainland Chinese chatroom Tianya.com, they were downloaded up to 20 million times a day. The government didn't take any steps to remove them initially -- although they censor political or religious stuff severely, the Chinese authorities don't seem to care much about sex images. "Web sites on the mainland are usually more sensitive to political issues than to pornography," says the Wikipedia entry, "and for several weeks major sites such as Baidu permitted the images to be disseminated, attracting Hong Kong users". Eventually, on February 18th, the official Beijing Network News Council held a meeting about what they rather charmingly called "the romantic pictures", rebuking search engine Baidu for spreading them.

By this time -- three weeks after the first photo appeared online -- it was too late to stop the images from circulating. Hong Kong media outlet Wen Wei Po sent a questionnaire out and found that 40% of high school and primary school kids had already seen the sex pictures. Some were even trying it for themselves. For people of all ages, there was stigma involved in not having seen the images. Japanese bulletin boards hosted discussions in which people criticized the shape of Edison's penis (too smooth, straight and veinless, thought the Japanese, with too small a head) or gave it new names (the "Edison sausage").

Western media coverage was contradictory and somewhat confused. Used to treating mainland China as a conservative, censorious place, the West seemed surprised that people in Hong Kong had had to use mainland Chinese servers to access the images. "We tend to imagine Hong Kong as a free-wheeling, anything goes kind of place," said Foreign Policy. "But in many ways, it still reflects the conservatism of the mainland."

Maybe they should have said "in many ways, it still reflects the conservatism of the West". Daisann McLane, a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist, told the LA Times: "In many ways, Hong Kong preserves a lot of Confucian ideals that got swept away on the mainland," she said. "There is a disjuncture between public image and what's in the pictures."

On this last point -- the disconnect between what the Japanese call omote and ura, public face and daily life -- there was more agreement. "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," continued the LA Times.

This obviously interests me -- a couple of days ago I was telling you how Emmy the Great's style reflected a Hong Kong ingenue mode. "What made the scandal especially shocking was that some of the female stars in the photos have built their careers on "innocent girl" images," remarked Foreign Policy.

While I agree that this makes the images exciting, I don't think it's in any way contradictory. People in the West have a tendency to focus too much on things being logical opposites, which in our minds makes them not mutually-creating complementaries but mutually-banishing irreconcilables. Something must either be guilty or innocent; it cannot be both. As a result, unable to hold opposites in its mind at the same time, the West tends to be rather too quick to charge people with hypocrisy. Asia is much more dialectical in its thinking. A dialectical view of the ingenue is that her innocence is in dialogue with its opposite, is a theatrical representation. If this is true of ordinary people, it's even more true of actors and singers, who have not only the public / private split, but also a whole series of fictional personalities and audience projections overlaid onto their natural contradictions.

It's very simple, and very complex. An ingenue is someone who pretends to pretend not to know her own sexual power. Or, to make it even more simple and complex, who pretends to pretend to pretend to pretend, in order to gain sexual power, not to know her sexual power. An ingenue, in other words, is not a victim, or a hypocrite. She's a powerful sexual actress.

Here's a video of Gillian Chung weeping at a press conference apparently held impromptu in a public railway station following the publication, last year, of nude photos of her shot in Malaysia. Now these are very complex tears, with onion layers of meaning. They might represent real pain because people saw her naked, but they might also be a way to re-establish a conservative public ingenue persona after being caught in private in a rather different mode. Caught doing something much "worse", Gillian hasn't cried in public this time (though she may well be crying about the cancellation of her Olympic opening performance). Her statements, this time, have been terse and unemotional. She was foolish, she said, and has grown up since Edison snapped her. Here she is acting the part of a schoolgirl, with Edison as the only boy student in a girl's school:

It seems real Hong Kong schoolgirls have also grown up rather quickly in the last month. But maybe their innocence was always somewhat more dialectical than we presume.