Now that she's moved away to New Orleans, I don't see Ricky Lee Jones much any longer. But she was in town last week and we got together for dinner to catch up. She had just been in China. I didn't recall her having much of a following there from when we were both at Reprise, so I was very curious about how the economics of that trip worked. As best I can understand, a wealthy guy in suburban Shanghai put up a very large amount of money for her to play a kind of prestigious show for a small number of people. nice way to see China-- or at least suburban Shanghai-- and walk away with a tidy sum to boot!
The story reminded me of an HBO Vice episode from last year, "Rent A White Guy," about how it's possible for westerners, specifically white westerners, to make a bundle in China by... being white. I knew that China-- among other Asian countries-- will pay a lot for white models. But this story goes way beyond that. I mean how about being the westerner who gets hired to go out on the town with a group of rich Chinese kids who just want to make an impression-- of looking "cool and worldly?"
|"White Makes You A Winner"|
I was in Bangkok for much of December and January. Everywhere I looked there were billboards and signs advertising skin whiteners (or lighteners); it was overwhelming and it's creating a neurosis among Thai kids-- of both genders-- that darker skin is unattractive. I didn't like it and couldn't escape from it. Apparently it's even worse in China. The episode makes the point that "there's a grey market for whites in China. A white face isn't just a marketing ploy, but a substitute for actual professional credentials." Even doctors-- like the fake "vice chairman of clinical urology at the University of Virginia," lecturing actual Chinese doctors about chronic prostatitis, about which he knew exactly nothing at all.
The rent-a-laowai business is for real in China. And ruminative enough for an enterprising American to go over there, sign up with an agency and make enough money to live... and then some. As long as you're ok with being a prop, or even a fake celebrity. This is especially lucrative in third and fourth tier cities, not in cosmopolitan places like Beijing and Shanghai. And very often there's something shady about those hiring the foreigners to pretend to be something they're not, a white something they're not.