The Bizarre Chinese Trend to Hire White People to Stand Around at Events
In one of the most surreal moments of David Borenstein’s short career as a “white person for hire” in China, he pretended — in front of hundreds of people — to be part of an internationally renowned band despite the singer not being able to sing and the musicians barely knowing their way around an instrument.
At one event, they dressed up as British beefeater soldiers, some in ill-fitting fancy dress suits, and simply stared ahead, mute. Other foreigners would sit in fake houses in fake cities pretending to lead fake lives, where people would look at them longingly, eager for some of that fake international pizzazz to rub off.
“It was absurd,” said Mr Borenstein, who lived in Chongqing at the time in south west China.
“They didn’t care if we had any skills or talent. We used to call them ‘white monkey’ gigs.
“The feeling of being ogled at must have been like the early days of anthropology when you could go to the zoo or a World Fair and see an African tribesman or an Eskimo next to an igloo.”
For several years from 2012, Mr Borenstein was employed in the Chinese foreigner-for-hire industry where non-Chinese people, almost always white and including Australians, would turn up to events simply to add a dash of overseas glamour.
What they said or did barely mattered. Much of the time they didn’t even need to talk, just look foreign.
With producer Jesper Jeck, Mr Borenstein has turned his experience into a documentary, Dream Empire, screening in this month’s Sydney Film Festival.
If you looked Western and lived in a major Chinese city you were a target for the agents.
“If you talk to foreigners living in China, pretty much everyone was accosted on the street or in bars. A lot of people were doing it and you could make your monthly rent in one gig,” Mr Borenstein told news.com.au.
“White people for hire was precisely what it was.”
The film follows Mr Borenstein as well as Yana Yang, a 24-year-old foreigner-for-hire agent keen to make enough money so she can buy her parents a house.
At night, she scoured the streets and bars of Chongqing “going to look for foreigners”, she says in the film. “Pretty face, decent body,” she scrawled down in her notebook next to one foreigner’s phone number.
Mr Borenstein, who headed to China on an academic scholarship from the US, ran into Ms Yang just as his studies were wrapping up.
“Someone just comes up to you and what they’re looking for is a foreign face and a little nugget of talent.
“They will take your photo and days later there are ads on the Chinese internet saying you were a world famous dancer or singer.”
Mr Borenstein played clarinet as a hobby while at university, so the agency rechristened him as David “Borenzi”, a clarinet maestro with the “famous American band, The Travelers”.
The band was completely made up, he didn’t meet his fellow band members until just prior to his first performance and many of them only had the most rudimentary knowledge of music.
Invariably, these gigs were held far away from the city, in one of the sprawling new build metropolises that were springing up all over China.
Mr Borenstein and his fellow foreigners were the shiny, sweet icing on top of a hard sell cake designed to get people to buy some of the thousands of empty apartments.
“We had one gig where we had to be a country music band and I had a friend in town, visiting from the US, who was a fairly well-known singer,” he said.
“We did the sound check and, for once, it was actually really good because he’s holding it all together.
“And then this Government official comes over and says a country band has to have a sexy singer and so they added a Spanish woman who didn’t speak English and couldn’t really sing.
“And ‘because music has no borders’, they said, they put in some Ugandan drummers too.
“So the real country singer is unplugged at the back while the fake country singer and African drummers are out front,” said Mr Borenstein.
He said there was a Chinese fascination with anything Western. Be that Western stars or pastiche Western buildings such as the city of “Britishville” where he once performed.
“Chinese architecture was associated with times of weakness, when Western Imperial powers bullied China and it fell behind, so using so-called ‘Western style’ is connected to a resurgent China bursting out on the scene.”
It was also about developers and Communist party officials shouting about their legitimacy and effectiveness, even if the face of a sea of unsold apartments all around them.
“There are lots of Chinese people who probably knew a Ugandan drumming team made no sense in a country band but because the officials were so powerful they didn’t dare contradict them.”
In 2014, the Chinese property bubble burst and, as the vast new skyscrapers lay empty and dark, so the bottom began to fall out of the white monkey market. Foreigners were no longer the symbol of financial success.
Mr Borenstein started getting less lucrative gigs and Ms Yang struggled to achieve the new “Chinese Dream” of individual wealth.
“Foreigners for hire still exist but not as it did back then now these remote ghost cities are in such a terrible position,” said Mr Borenstein.
“There’s also a new nationalism from President Xi Jingping which has seen a push away from a worship of the West and foreign performances.”
Looking back, how did Mr Borenstein come to rationalise this bizarre gawking at the often silent Westerners?
“The film shows a situation where party stewards are so desperate to show success in these empty cities that they descend into this world of fantasy and lies.
“People asked me, how were the Chinese so naive to see economic growth when it wasn’t there and were convinced through these stupid pageants?” he said.
“But when you look at a Donald Trump rally, that’s far more ridiculous than a few foreigners performing in China”.