Fri, May 04, 2012
China > China & World

U.S. actor's viral video casts foreigners in new light

2012-05-04 03:57:02 GMT2012-05-04 11:57:02(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

Mike Sui (Photo source:

by Xinhua writers Liu Yang, Zhang Yi

BEIJING, May 4 (Xinhua) -- An American performer, unknown in the U.S., has bagged surprising popularity in China overnight after posting a 9-minute comic video displaying his command of regional Chinese and foreign accents, as well as English with a strong Chinese accent.

The video's unexpected popularity demonstrates the viral power of China's Internet and may mark a change in the way Chinese view foreigners.

Mike Sui's solo hit, in which he portrayed 12 different Chinese and foreign characters, went viral soon after he uploaded it on April 27. Within less than three days, the video had over 3 million views on Youku, a major Chinese video-sharing website.

It now has more than 6 million views across various websites. Sui's followers on Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like microblogging site, have also increased by more than a hundred-fold since the video was released.

"A foreigner who speaks such good Chinese is pretty awesome," said Zhao Zhiwen, a drama student in Beijing. He added that the video was very nicely made and dealt with many trendy topics, as well as poked fun at common stereotypes.

Sui was surprised by his overnight success.

"My expectations for the video weren't very high. I did it for fun, wanting to express my feelings in a satirical way, which I thought Chinese comedy lacked," Sui told Xinhua.

The 26-year-old actor was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan to a Chinese father and an American mother and lived in Beijing for years as a child. He moved to Beijing in 2005 to pursue an acting career after finishing high school in Wisconsin.

In addition to adding lots of Weibo fans, Sui began receiving a flood of offers for various kinds of work soon after his video hit a million views.

"I've gotten offers for TV talk shows, event hosting and acting parts in plays and TV series," Sui said.


Many Weibo users have compared Sui to "Dashan," the Chinese name for Mark Rowswell, a Canadian who shot to Chinese stardom in 1988 after appearing in China Central Television's hugely popular New Year's gala.

Rowswell's native-sounding Chinese stunned millions of Chinese TV viewers, many of whom, due to years of isolation from the international community, had never seen a foreigner before, let alone one who spoke Chinese as well as they did.

Rowswell's rise to fame dovetailed with the early years of China's reform and opening to the outside, which began in 1978.

"Chinese people, with wide-open eyes, longed to see what was happening outside China, and were eager to come into contact with foreigners. Rowswell appeared on TV at a good time, and his performance was amusing as well," said Xia Xueluan, a professor of social psychology at Peking University, who was a visiting scholar at the University of Maryland when Rowswell gained fame.

"Since the country had just opened up, foreigners were a rarity, a novelty, a curious attraction," said Steve Kulich, director of the Intercultural Research Center at Shanghai International Studies University. Kulich first visited China in 1981.

"The best way to gather a crowd anywhere was for two foreigners just to stand still - they would soon be circled by a large group of curious onlookers," he said.


But according to Kulich, Chinese reaction to foreigners is much different than 25 years ago. Chinese no longer look at foreigners as if they are "aliens from another planet."

Instead, their attitude is: "Look, there is someone who is not from here," Kulich said.

Sui, the new Internet celebrity, said Chinese certainly have little reason to find foreigners speaking Chinese surprising in light of today's extensive people-to-people exchanges.

According to Education Online, the largest education website in China, the number of Chinese students studying abroad reached more than 300,000 last year.

Meanwhile, a report from the National Bureau of Tourism showed that outgoing Chinese tourists reached a whopping 70.25 million in 2011.

"The uniqueness of laowai [foreigners] has worn off, and many 'foreign guests' are increasingly being viewed as coworkers or international competitors on a playing field that is increasingly tipping in China's direction," Kulich said.


Despite an increased naturalness in relations between Chinese and foreigners, Sui said he still feels like an outsider sometimes, even though he feels more at home in China, where he has lived for a total of 17 years. He said his Western face still prevents him from fully integrating into Chinese society.

"I don't want to be seen just as the foreigner who can speak good Chinese," he said.

Kulich cited historical and economic development factors as reasons for a feeling of "otherness" among overseas visitors, as China was largely isolated and somewhat xenophobic before the reforms of the late 1970s.

"China is now a great country, and foreigners are flocking to the country. If China wants to become international, it'll have to embrace these newcomers just like the United States did in the early 1900s," Sui said.

But one thing Sui knows for sure is that Chinese viewers' standards for entertainment are much higher these days than 30 years ago, when Rowswell rose to fame.

"It's closer to the U.S. standard nowadays, meaning that I have to work harder," Sui said, adding that he is happy with the situation.



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