China’s illegal ‘white monkey’ foreign models paid to bare skin and be gawked at as marketing prop
- Called ‘white monkeys’, foreign models working illegally outside China’s tier-one cities get by on being white, handsome, blond and blue-eyed
- They are used as a marketing prop at bizarre corporate promotional events – exhibited to be photographed
Professional foreign models and performers can make a good living working in China.
Securely employed, with contracts and work visas organised for them, they are eagerly sought out by big brands and other businesses, and enjoy all the benefits of expatriate life in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou.
In the wilderness of smaller provincial cities, however, the picture is different. There, another breed of foreigners, working illegally, appear at bizarre promotional events mockingly called “monkey shows”. The foreigner is essentially a marketing prop – exhibited to be gawked at and photographed, like a monkey in a cage.
Yet for new arrivals looking for casual work in China, whose English is too accented or not fluent enough to teach, taking part in monkey shows is a way of putting food on the table.
“White monkeys”, as they are known jokingly in the expat community, are among the most poorly integrated foreigners in China, barely able to speak or read Chinese.
English-speaking local agents act as go-betweens for the “monkeys” and Chinese clients, for a cut of their fees of 20 per cent to 30 per cent. The best agents also act as “monkey protectors” – shielding them from the worst excesses of small-town Chinese businesses, and often willing to deal with their landlords and banks.
Alice, who doesn’t want to reveal her Chinese name, is one such agent. Her English is fluent and idiomatic, but she wants to learn more Russian – beyond the swear words she has been taught – because most of the foreigners on her books are either from Russia or Ukraine.
“Most are here on student visas to learn Chinese, but they never go to class,” she says.
They are easier to deal with, less demanding and tougher than Western Europeans or Americans, Alice adds. These qualities ensure there is high demand for their services, but there are other reasons.
“Chinese want the most foreign-looking foreigners possible – dark eyes and dark hair are a no-no. Sharp facial features are no good, either. They want tall, with white skin, blond hair, blue eyes, and a round, cute face. Muscles are very good – there are many topless jobs for guys with good muscles,” she says.
They will be rewarded with extra cash for baring their flesh, whether they are muscular or not. “The standard rate per day is between 800 and 1,000 yuan (US$117 and US$147),” Alice explains, “but if a girl wears a bikini or a guy is topless, this is an extra couple of hundred.”
The models are not expected to do too much for their pay. Apart from simply being foreign, they are only required to “either stand still for as long as five hours, or do catwalks on the stage”, says Alice, going on to describe a typical “monkey show”.
A company planning a promotional activity for a new product usually hires an events and marketing outfit. The events company contacts agents like Alice to find foreign models.
The activity typically takes place in a shopping centre, where a stage will be erected. An MC and a band are roped in, and a prize raffle is organised.
Besides cosmetics and clothing companies, real estate developers also like to have foreigners “exhibited” at their activities when they are promoting new property projects, Alice says.
In tier-one cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, such a crude marketing exercise would be ridiculed, but in the Chinese hinterland, tall, blond foreigners – women in high heels and men in suits – lend an air of perceived sophistication. They are certain to impress the locals, who will queue up to take selfies with them.
Alice has a foot in the door of a booming industry in which athletic “white monkeys” are in high demand: “Plastic surgery companies who do vaginal rejuvenation procedures need male foreigners for their promotional activities. This is happening all over China now. It’s big business. One operation costs a few hundred thousand yuan,” she says.
“They put on a real show, usually in a big, famous hotel. A middle-aged woman, a former client (who’s actually just an actress), gets on the stage and gives a speech, sobbing and crying: ‘I washed the dishes, took care of the child, did all the housework … and my husband would not even look at me. He would come back late. He saw other women … but now, since I had this surgery, he comes back home early every day! He treats me better than ever. Life is so much better’,” Alice recalls with a laugh.
Muscular foreign male models will walk a catwalk topless at these events, and are also expected to play “sexual games”.
Alice explains that the MC will choose a woman to join the model on stage. Then they will be given balloons to burst by using different sexual positions. For example, the woman may bend over holding a balloon against her buttocks, and the male model will burst it by grinding his pelvis into it.
“Also, a guy will lie down on stage, and a woman would be asked to show how she would seduce him – dancing around doing sexy moves. These women are very shy at first, but they usually get excited and laugh a lot,” she says.
A popular foreigner, who is willing to travel, can make more than 20,000 yuan a month, Alice estimates. A dancer or a musician can rake in even more.
Dimitri, who returned to his native Russia several years ago, says he enjoyed his days working on monkey shows in China.
“I did the most random events. I pretended to be a German doctor promoting Swiss cosmetics. Then I pretended to be an Italian luxury bag designer selling my creations, and it was good money. I once made 2,500 yuan for four hours’ work dressed as a clown in a shopping centre,” he says.
“As long as you don’t take yourself too seriously, it is actually fun and you go to places in China [that] foreigners do not usually see. I did not have any negative experiences – apart from freezing outside a hotel in Sichuan in winter wearing just a suit, and boiling alive wearing a woollen three-piece suit in summer in Guangdong.”
Dimitri admits he enjoyed being the centre of attention, but adds: “You must remember that you get all the attention purely because of the colour of your skin. It has nothing to do with your acting ability or personality. Most monkeys are very aware of this.”
A vaginal rejuvenation promotion was Dimitri’s “weirdest gig”, he says.
“Foreign guys – two Italians and two Russians – received the ladies in a hotel lobby, gave them flowers, sat with them at dinner and served them champagne. We did all those weird sexual games with balloons. Then the Italians went on strike, demanding more money for walking the catwalk in speedos.
“Nothing naughty took place, but I got my butt pinched in the evening a few times when the ladies got a bit drunk. We got extra pay for wearing the speedos, too,” he recalls with a laugh.
Dimitri says he called it quits after China became flooded with young Ukrainians looking for work, following the start of the civil war in Ukraine.
“I am blond, but they were taller and younger than me, and I was not getting any good gigs any more,” he says.
Not all “monkeys” are Caucasian, according to Alice. “One agent I know got a request for 10 women from a variety of Southeast Asian countries for some kind of international forum, to sing in Chinese,” she says.
“She found them, but … five of them were actually from Thailand. Nobody found out or really cared [that they were from the same country] though,” she says.
“Monkeys” are still able to make a decent living, Alice adds, but storm clouds are gathering on the horizon: the Chinese authorities’ enforcement of labour and immigration laws is becoming increasingly strict. A growing number of “monkeys” are being apprehended, having their visas cancelled and given a few days to leave the country.
Monkey business may soon become a thing of the past in China.