AUDIE CORNISH, host:
Actor Jonathan Kos-Read has an unusual talent: playing the token white guy -whether it be a Neanderthal caveman, a gun enthusiast or a hapless boyfriend, he's made a career out of playing white men in Chinese soap operas. As NPR's Louisa Lim reports, his decade at the frontline of Chinese popular culture has given him a unique perspective.
(Soundbite of movie in Chinese)
LOUISA LIM: It's the typical Chinese chop-socky kung-fu film, with a mustachioed baddy fighting a plucky heroine, both of them kicking and whirling, all the while balancing atop red poles arranged in a yin-yang symbol. But there's just one big difference.
(Soundbite of movie in Chinese)
LIM: Despite his fluent Mandarin, the mustachioed baddy flying through the air is actually American. For 37-year-old Jonathan Kos-Read it's just an average day's work. This L.A. native is a fixture on Chinese screens; he's become the go-to guy for roles that require a white face and flawless Chinese.
But Kos-Read says about 40 percent of his jobs call for one particular role.
Mr. JONATHAN KOS-READ (Actor): I'm, you know, the American. I'm, like, this rich guy who's arrogant and I come to China arrogantly and I fall in love with an Oriental beauty, and I pursue her for however long it is - 10, 12, 20 episodes. But in the end she makes the right choice and she sticks with her Chinese boyfriend.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Princess Deling," in Chinese)
LIM: That was the case in "Princess Deling," a historical drama where Kos-Read is told he can't be with his love, a Qing dynasty princess.
Kos-Read is now a veteran of 90 different Chinese showbiz projects. He's drawn his own conclusions on the view of Americans in Chinese popular culture. To sum it up: brash and naive but ultimately sympathetic.
Mr. KOS-READ: I can't think of an evil character that I've played who was American. For the most part, the evil characters are French and English, and the dumb characters are German.
LIM: So, what are Americans stereotyped as?
Mr. KOS-READ: Usually, Americans are stereotyped as the good guy. There's a lot of stuff that's done about World War II, where Americans worked with China, and there's a lot of stuff that's done during the Qing dynasty, when America was not a major China enemy like England and France.
Unidentified Man #1: (Chinese spoken)
Unidentified Man #2: I will make you a bet.
Mr. KOS-READ: Me being a gun expert, I'm the hotshot guy teaching them how to use the fancy American machine gun.
LIM: Kos-Read believes a recent spate of World War II movies is viewed as China celebrating being on the right side of history. He attributes this to a growing mood of nationalism. Other changes he's noticed include better, more rounded parts for foreigners.
Despite that, he still worries about the decade he's spent perpetuating Chinese stereotypes of Westerners.
Mr. KOS-READ: Well, how do I, how do, like, foreign actors in general here deal with the Uncle Tom question? We are helping to shape Chinese peoples' perceptions of what foreigners are. The simple answer is that everybody draws a line in the sand, and where my line is, is I won't play anybody who's bad because he's a foreigner.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Here Comes Caocao" in Chinese)
LIM: Kos-Read's fame was magnified by his own TV show. He describes it as a kind of Chinese "Jackass." It's called "Here Comes Caocao," which is his Chinese name, and it's based on his foreignness. In it, he takes to the streets and gets people to dance with him, profess their love for each other out loud and be silly in a most un-Chinese way. He doesn't spare himself either, doing stunts like learning how to be a Hooters' girl. The show has been hugely popular among Beijing's grannies and grandpas.
Mr. KOS-READ: If I go to a park in the morning where people are doing their Tai Chi and walking backwards, I'll get mobbed. Like, oh my god, it's Caocao, it's Caocao, oh my god. I'm at a real nice level of famousness where sometimes when I can't get a cab somebody'll pull up and be like, hey, Caocao, come on, I'll drive you.
Unidentified Girl: (Chinese spoken)
LIM: When we meet, Kos-Read and his family are being filmed by Chinese TV. It's a special on how famous people raise their kids. Kos-Read has a terrible flu but, ever the trooper, he is roused from his sickbed to dance with his four-year old daughter for the cameras.
Producer Linda Yu believes Chinese audiences are fascinated by Kos-Read.
Ms. LINDA YU (Producer): (through translator) He and his wife are an East-West mix, so they have different ideas about how to raise a child. He's been in a lot of shows on TV, so the Chinese media pay attention to him.
LIM: So, with his Chinese wife, is he living the stereotype as the arrogant American who falls in love with the Oriental beauty? No, he insists. In the shows, the Chinese wives of Americans suffer one of three fates: they turn bad, they die or they live out their life in unhappiness. These are yet more stereotypes his family is determined to resist.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.