THE CANADIAN POP STAR WHO SHOCKED A BILLION PEOPLE
How a 27-year-old rapper from Richmond, B.C., sparked the biggest celebrity sex scandal in China’s history
For a man who scandalized a billion people, Edison Chen is a surprisingly sympathetic character. On Feb. 21, the 27-year-old, Vancouver-born pop star—and the protagonist of the biggest celebrity sex scandal China has ever seen—sat at a small table facing 400 reporters and photographers gathered at the Hong Kong International Trade and Exhibition Centre in Kowloon. His head hung low, his eyes were downcast, his shoulders slumped. Even his hair—usually worn spiked, and now slicked to his forehead—appeared to be atoning. He sighed deeply into the microphone. “Today, I have come back to Hong Kong to stand before you and account for myself,” he said, in his native English. Camera flashes conjured a lightning storm.
In the preceding weeks, hundreds of sexually explicit photographs of Chen and many of Hong Kong’s most beloved female
teen idols had been leaked onto the Internet. Millions had viewed Chen engaged in some of the most intimate and acrobatic positions imaginable with more than half a dozen different partners. For almost a month, there had been non-stop press coverage as images leaked out in a seemingly endless stream, despite the best efforts of police to contain them.
“I admit that most of the photos being circulated were taken by me,” Chen said, adding that they were stolen from him, and never intended for public consumption. “This matter has deteriorated to the point where society as a whole has been affected by this and in this regard, I am deeply saddened.” He appealed for forgiveness from “the ladies” and their families, from his parents, from the police and, most importantly, from the people of Hong Kong. “I know young people in Hong Kong look up to many figures in our society and in this regard, I have failed. I have failed as a role model.” He announced his resignation from the industry to search his soul. “I will be away from Hong Kong entertainment indefinitely,” he said. “There is no time frame.”
Outside, the paparazzi, which had been
pursuing Chen with a Watergate-esque zeal, were in a frenzy. News reports claimed the actor was receiving round-the-clock police protection. His life was being threatened by Triad gangsters, they said, who allegedly control the Hong Kong entertainment industry and who did not appreciate the ruin of some of their most lucrative stars. (It also happens that Chen’s current girlfriend, and one of the women in the pictures, is the niece of mob-connected music mogul Albert Yeung, chairman of Chen’s former record label, Emperor Entertainment Group.) Posters affixed to downtown locales reportedly offered a reward of HK$500,000 (US$91,000) to whoever could produce his dismembered hand. More than 200 police officers were mobilized for the press conference, and at least 80 formed a human chain around Chen’s parked car to ensure his safety coming in and out of the building. One angry legislator told reporters, “They don’t go to such great lengths to protect even the chief executive.” Weeks after the apology, across mainland China, thousands of antifans held protests, with banners that read “Reject Edison Chen, give back modern civilization.”
EXPLICIT PHOTOS FEATURED HONG KONG'S TOP STARLETS
It may at first seem difficult to understand all of this fuss over a bunch of dirty pictures, especially in North America, where between Paris Hilton and o Pamela Anderson, having Internet access is s tantamount to joining the Hollywood sexw tape-of-the-week club. The Edison Chen inci^ dent was covered in the North American < press, but primarily as salacious scandal. In > the West, we’re more cynical about our celeb¡L rities—we’ve come to expect and enjoy their < frailties as part of the entertainment experiw ence. But moral standards in China are decido edly different. In 2006, for example, when ^ a tabloid published a photo of Gillian Chung, Sí of the squeaky clean female pop-duo Twins— ^ and one of Edison Chen’s co-stars in the >3 photo scandal—adjusting her bra backstage g during a concert, it sparked a national con§ troversy about indecency in media coverage, u By comparison, the Edison Chen scandal was U) like finding online pictures of Justin Timber-
lake in flagrante with Jennifer Aniston, Jessica Alba, Scarlett Johansson, Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff and either one of the Olson twins—except in a country where, as recently as 20 years ago, there was no sexual education at all.
The fallout of the Edison Chen scandal extends far beyond its star. In addition to the devastating personal and professional ramifications for the women involved, the incident left the public with all sorts of questions. How do you regulate public decency in a society that is changing as quickly as China’s? Are the Internet and tabloid media hijacking the culture? In the press and in online fan forums it also launched a wave of conspiracy theories: did authorities put Chen up to his apology and resignation in order to minimize negative publicity in the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics? Are they using the scandal as an opportunity to crack down on Internet freedoms? Is it possible that Chen leaked the photos himself to jump-start his career in Hollywood? After all, observers pointed out, his first big North American break is on the horizon—a role in the highly anticipated upcoming Batman film, The Dark Knight.
Since that day in February, Edison Chen has fallen off the face of the earth—perhaps a wise move given the Triad rumours. Some reports place him in Boston, where his girlfriend, Vincy Yeung, is attending college. Other reports put him in a rehab centre in Utah getting treatment for sex addiction—but say he left after he was beaten up by several other male patients for unknown reasons. Still others swear he is in Hollywood being wine and dined by producers who want to parlay his notoriety into the next big thing.
As it turns out, Edison Chen has been spending time with his family in British Columbia. His cousin Oscar Lo, an animator, confirmed that his family in Vancouver is
rallying around him. “We actually had dinner with him last night,” he recently told Maclean’s. “He’s fine. He’s in good spirits. Just laying low.” The family, he says, is very supportive. “I think over there people react differently than they would’ve here. Here, I don’t think it would’ve been such a huge deal.” Lo, who grew up with Chen, says he wasn’t particularly concerned for his cousin’s wellbeing, despite all the media speculation. “He’s a smart guy,” he said. But he still worried about how Chen was doing personally.
In Canada, Chen is relatively unknown, unless your taste in movies runs to the teen horror genre. In 2006, he starred in The Grudge 2 with Sarah Michelle Gellar, his first Hollywood crossover film. That year, he was also chosen to be among People magazine’s sexiest newcomers. Boyishly handsome, Chen can get around pretty anonymously on this side of the ocean. But in Hong Kong and mainland China, he is a virtual multimedia
ANTI-FANS CONDEMNED CHEN. FOR OTHERS, HE BECAME A FREEDOM-OF-SPEECH ISSUE.
brand, a would’ve-been Sean “Puffy” Combs with an expanding list of job titles: film and music star, record producer, fashion entrepreneur and hip-hop style icon.
“Edison enjoyed, before the outbreak of the sex-photo scandal, enormous popularity in Hong Kong and among the Chinese speaking community around the world, including China and Taiwan,” says Vivienne Chow, a Hong Kong-based entertainment journalist for the South China Morning Post who has followed the scandal closely. “He quickly established himself as a heartthrob with his unusually photogenic face”—a face that won him lucrative endorsement deals with Pepsi, Mastercard, Samsung and others.
“I think an apt U.S. parallel might be someone like Justin Timberlake,” says Anne Ciecko, a professor of contemporary Asian cinema and popular culture at the University of Massachussetts-Amherst. “He’s got marketable boyish appeal and musical talents, some acting chops, tons of commodity potential.” And the life suited him. “I was a lost soul,” he said
in a 2006 interview. “I swear becoming an entertainer has saved my life and made me more focused. I was so lost before.”
On the surface, at least, Chen’s life before fame seems quite ordinary. Born in Vancouver in October 1980, Chen grew up in a close-knit family with his mother and two sisters (one of whom, Tricia, also has a career as a pop star in Hong Kong). His father, Edward Chen, a businessman, moved back to Hong Kong to work, but stayed closely connected to the family. Chen told BeingHunted, an online magazine, in a 2006 interview, “My family has inspired me the most in my life... I believe my mother is the best woman in this world... and she has guided me to be a righteous person, taught me my values, taught me how to REALLY treat a lady. And then there is my father who has guided me through so many of my career problems.”
As a boy growing up in Richmond, B.C., Chen, along with his cousin Oscar, was a rabid collector of sports cards and comics—X-men, Batman, Superman, the standard boy fare. He spent much of his time at Imperial Hobbies, a local game and comic-book store where he eventually worked. “We used to deal with him quite a bit when he was a kid,” says Francis Munroe, the store owner. “He was very intelligent and probably one of the best kids I knew for being so polite.” His acting career came as no surprise at all, says Dave Strutt, the store manager. “He was a very charming young fellow. I think the girls always found him charming, too. Any girls around.”
One summer, Chen, who attended R.C. Palmer High School, went to visit his father in Hong Kong—which has long served as the heart of the Chinese-language entertainment industry. He was approached by a talent scout about shooting a commercial. He also caught the eye of actor Jackie Chan, who approached Chen about signing him for a movie. At that point, Chen had virtually no experience in the entertainment world. So he enrolled in Jackie Chan’s school for young actors, and spent eight months learning martial arts,
singing and dancing. Unlike the North American star system, where J.Los and Timberlakes are a relative rarity, Hong Kong pop stars have a long tradition of crossing platforms. They’re expected to be able to do everything: sing, dance, act, sell merchandise. Their images are very carefully sculpted and controlled. At the age of 20, Chen signed a record deal with Emperor Entertainment Group (EEG) and in November 2000, his first CD, Edison Chen, hit gold. He was on his way to teen idol-dom.
His early hits were syrupy Canto-pop ballads—songs about shy glances and puppy love he’d sing to hordes of swooning girls. Likewise, his early films were mostly pop fare with titles like Gen Y Cops and The Spy Dad. “Girls have posters of him in their bedrooms and stickers of him on their notebooks at school,” says Robert Vance, an American teacher and writer based in China. “I don’t ever hear anyone talking about his great movies or songs. They just talk about his looks.”
Chen’s Canadian roots gave him a certain cachet, and he had the added advantage of being able to perform in four languages: Cantonese, Mandarin japanese and English. This put him in the position to become huge not just in Hong Kong, but throughout China. In the former British colony’s post-handover era, there is a great deal more overlap in popular culture with the mainland. China has opened up more in recent years, too, with a lot of its Westernization coming via Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. Though there are still some restrictions on the flow of content into the mainland, says Cieko, they have proven nearly impossible to enforce with the spread of the Internet.
As he became more successful, and able to exert a measure of influence over his career, Chen made use of his North American “outsider” appeal and morphed into a bad-boy hip-hop artist, which he felt was more authentically his style. In 2004, he released his first Cantonese hip-hop album, Please Steal This Album. Several singles off the record, peppered with English slang, topped the local charts. Last year, he released what he called China’s first rap album, a Mandarin record called Allow Me To Reintroduce Myself, with tracks produced by Kanye West. In 2006, he won the U.S. hip-hop industry’s seal of approval when he opened West’s first show in Kowloon. He also earned some acting credibility when he starred in the crime-thriller trilogy Infernal Affairs (hailed as the godfather saga of Hong Kong), which Martin Scorsese later remade as the Oscar-winning film The Departed.
The mania around Chen ensured that he would become a popular target for the country’s flourishing paparazzi. In the tabloids, he was always pictured with one beautiful girlfriend or another, as would befit a young pop star. He was not, however, universally admired in his adopted country. Chen felt that, as a rapper, he was often singled out by increasingly aggressive tabloid reporters. “They choose to target me and say a lot of bulls-t,” he said in 2006.
But observers say Chen often brought negative attention upon himself. “Edison has never been the most popular among the press,” says Vivienne Chow. “Despite this being a highly Westernized society, manners are still regarded as highly important here and Edison did not always show the kind of manners that the press expected.” In 2004, he was involved in a street brawl in Hong Kong with a couple of teenagers who were taunting him and mimicking his breakdance moves. One of them threw a punch. Chen suffered face and neck injuries, but he declined to press charges. In
May 2007, in a heated moment, Chen was charged for kicking and denting a taxi that was blocking his driveway and was put on a one-year good behaviour bond.
But changes were coming. By this point, Chen was well on his way toward building his own Jay-Z style hip-hop empire in China. In 2003, having read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, he cofounded CLOT, an urban lifestyle company that specializes in everything youth-culture-related—including urban fashion, a music label, corporate consulting and event production. He even opened his own New York-style pizza joint. In Hong Kong and China, Chen said in one interview, there were no other companies fully taking advantage of the booming urban youth market. After reading Gladwell’s book, he said, “I realized I had the power to be the first match to light the huge fire.” CLOT has done design collaborations (or “collabos” as he calls them) with Nike, Pepsi Levi’s and Lacoste, among others.
As he got older, his playboy image had begun to mature and his entrepreneurialism had earned him some industry respect. “I used to hate interviews,” he told Vivienne Chow in May 2006. “But now I love interviews because... people are actually respecting me more to talk about real issues instead of, ‘What kind of girl do you like? Long hair? Lush lips? Wearing Nike?’ You know. They actually ask me about my work now.
And I’m appreciating that and maybe it’s because I’m actually putting time into my work now. Whereas before I used to just show up.” Of course this was before his Apple PowerBook laptop, where he stored his most private mementos, went on the fritz.
In late January of this year, the first series of three explicit pictures turned up online. They showed Chen engaged in sexual acts with Gillian Chung and Cecilia Cheung, two of Hong Kong’s biggest female stars. Photos featuring at least a half a dozen other female celebrities continued to leak onto the Internet, until there were hundreds—featuring them naked, semi-naked, in the shower, with stuffed animals, in bikinis, and in every conceivable position—being passed around by the millions, crashing servers and bringing the entertainment industry to a standstill. Among his many co-stars in the photos were singer Candice Chan, modelactress Rachel Ngan, and former beauty pageant contestant Mandy Chan. Some were in other well-publicized relationships at the
time the scandal erupted. Others were implicated, like Maggie Q of the Hollywood film Live Free or Die Hard, but denied any involvement with Chen.
Adding to the hype was a mysterious personage-only self-identifying as “Kira,” the name of a well-known Manga character—who was leaking the images systematically, ostensibly from a foreign location, and publicly taunting a hapless police force trying to contain the onslaught. The story played out like a mystery-thriller and fans followed along obsessively: who would be next? What obscene position would they be engaged in? Was Chen’s life really being threatened?
As much as Chen was chastised, fans largely blamed the women involved. Cecilia Cheung, for instance, is married to a Hong Kong celebrity named Nicholas Tse, and the scandal sparked gossip that their new child might be Chen’s. Two others reportedly called off their engagements. “In Hong Kong, in some ways they are very conservative,” says Shuyu Kong, a professor of Chinese media and popular
CHEN'S AMBITION WAS TO BRING URBAN YOUTH CULTURE TO CHINA
culture at the University of Sydney in Australia. “You think of Hong Kong as Westernized and open, but not in every aspect.” Particularly shocking to the public was Twins’ Gillian Chung, a spokesperson for Hong Kong Disneyland, who has appeared with Chen in a number of very sweet Cantopop videos, the kind parents approve of. Despite her weepy public apology—she said she was “naive” in her youth—and her record company EEG’s early insistence that the photos were doctored, fans were shocked and angered that she deceived them by faking an “innocent girl” image. “In public, she frequently claimed how she was just so pure, naive and a virgin,” says Kong. “She was a girl in her twenties who said she had never been kissed, and when she was kissed, she was so uncomfortable. She never had a boyfriend. People loved to believe it.”
The story occupied the front pages of the local papers for a month: the Los Angeles Times reported that some papers in Hong Kong experienced a 50 per cent jump in circulation during the scandal. Particularly in mainland China, says Kong, fan culture of any sort is a new thing, and there is a belief that stars should be infallible. “Maybe 10 years ago fan culture was not so big,” she says. “But now it’s such a big thing and a lot of them are high school and even elementary school students.” The biggest celebrities in China have a godlike status that they don’t have in North America, Kong says. On the one hand, they’re expected to have a very cool, edgy image, but on the other, fans still expect them to have an impeccable moral compass.
The scandal was discussed on every entertainment and current affairs show, with expert panellists from Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and beyond assembled to discuss its various social and political ramifications. In Guangzhou, in Guangdong province, the most open city in the country, schools used this case to teach their students about privacy and morality: how to think about pop idols; how to correctly use the Internet; and the importance of the social value of privacy. “The schools decided they can’t avoid [the scandal],” says Kong, “and so they want to use it almost like a textbook case study to preach their ideas.”
As for the Hong Kong police force, just because they couldn’t contain it, it didn’t stop them from waging a valiant effort. The computer store where Chen had initially taken his broken laptop was raided. Authorities seized computers that contained 1,300 pictures belonging to Chen. In the week after the photos leaked, nine people were arrested, including computer store technician Sze Hon-
chun, who was charged with accessing a computer with dishonest intent. Also charged was a 24-year-old clerk in Kowloon, who is alleged to have uploaded zipped files containing 93 photos classified as “indecent” or “obscene” to an online server in Cyprus, and then pasted hyperlinks to the files in a Hong Kong forum, where they could be accessed by anyone.
“The Hong Kong police don’t have much experience in dealing with this kind of cybercrime,” says Shuyu Kong. The day after they announced their victory—that they had rooted out the source and apprehended a perpetrator—a flood of new photos came out, accompanied by messages from Kira: “Catch me if you can!” Desperate, the police threatened to punish anyone caught possessing, distributing, or looking at the photos. “The police head made this announcement and a lot of people just panicked, or felt angry,” says Kong. “They thought, Why? It’s on the Internet. Just because I watch it I can be punished? Lawmakers didn’t agree with this police statement. There was quite a controversy about it.”
The public generally responded in one of two ways: there were those who believed it was a privacy issue, and that a crackdown was warranted because the photos were stolen property and the public shouldn’t be free to pass around private, explicit pictures. On the other side, however, were those who said it was a freedom-of-speech issue—and that police were selectively applying obscenity laws. In early February, more than 200 people protested the police’s handling of the case. They argued that there are thousands of nude photos on the Web, posted without the subjects’ permission—why zero in on these ones just because they involve public personalities?
In any case, in mainland China, the government’s early reaction, a crackdown on those who had viewed the photos, proved ineffectual. “It quickly became apparent that this was not going to occur in light of the fact that millions were viewing the photos,” said Vance. It was not the first time the Chinese government had made promises it couldn’t keep when it came to cleaning up the Inter-
net. For example, in December 2007, they announced that all video sharing sites would be under state control. “They had to scale back that plan when they realized that it just wasn’t feasible,” he said. “Even sites that are routinely blocked in China—such as YouTube and the BBC—can be viewed easily using anonymous proxies.” In short, there is no stopping a curious fan.
The entire Edison Chen ordeal underscores the fact that, where sex is concerned, the younger generation in China may as well have grown up on a different planet from their parents and grandparents. During the reign of Mao Zedong, all discussion of romantic love and sexuality were prohibited—deemed preoccupations of the self-indulgent bourgeoisie. Men and women wore the same unisex uniforms and hairstyles. In fact, it was not until the ’80s that basic sexual-education programs were developed, and even then, discussion limited to the importance of using birth control to limit population growth.
Now, after decades of sexual repression, China is experiencing something of a sexual renaissance. Provocative advertising, sex shops, and films with steamy love scenes suddenly proliferate. Prostitution in hotels and karaoke brothels is soaring because of the country’s one-child policy, which created a generation of men with too few potential female partners.
The new openness brings some undesirable consequences—rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are up. And of course, when you squeeze decades of social evolution into a handful of years, there is bound to be conflict and resistance as young and old stake their positions. In the midst of these growing pains, perhaps no one was quite prepared for Edison Chen. “It was certainly a huge shock to the society as something like this has never happened before in the Chinese entertainment world,” says Vivienne Chow. Outraged by the Chinese media’s wall-to-wall coverage of the scandal, Shanghai Daily critic Wy Jiayin wrote, “The obsession with low-taste news may be nothing in the West, but it’s time for Chinese journalists to reflect: shall we follow the amusingourselves-to-death path that has never been part of mainstream Chinese culture?”
The public, meanwhile, had to come to terms with the reality that the pictures didn’t download themselves. “The outward reaction was of disgust, disappointment and shock,” says Vance, “but when you press students on their true feelings, they admit that ‘in these times’ it really is no big deal. The ‘shock, disgust and disappointment’ that they express is probably mirroring what their parents are saying but my students seem to be more fascinated by the scandal than anything else. The younger generation is much more open to sex than before. In fact, they are curious about it. One of my students explained to me that she viewed the photos because she wanted to learn more about sexual techniques since her parents never talked to her about sex.”
Meanwhile, the personal consequences for Chen have been enormous. His Mastercard billboards have come down. His mother apologized to the press, saying she had failed as a parent to instill good morals in her son. Chen was cut from Columbia Pictures’s new Hong Kong-produced film, Jump, and Sing Tao Daily estimated the scandal could cost Chen HK$10 million in work and endorsements a year, not to mention the more than HK$2 million he earned per year in voiceover work, which has in the past included projects such as the Cantonese Shrek the Third.
Since the Feb. 21 press conference, the question that remains is: can Chen ever come back? Many say no, but Shuyu Kong believes many people were won over by his contrition. “He apologized very sincerely,” she says, “and lots of people, at least in the media, sympathize and forgive him.” He is rumoured to be starting production on a new film this summer, a co-production between a Singapore company and an independent U.S. production house, in which he plays an American student in Singapore who falls in love with a local woman, played by the actress Shu Qi.
Perhaps he would be best to take his own advice. In 2006, Chen told an online Hong Kong magazine, “If I could go back in my life, I wouldn’t change a goddamn thing. I am happy with the way my life’s events have shaped me, my character and my values. Sometimes you got to go through the tough pain to make the extra stride to maturity.” If he is wise, he will chalk the past four months up to one giant stride. M