The small children with big ambitions in China’s show business
These Chinese middle-class kids have big dreams that they’re working hard to realise – and parents willing to fund them
Guo Rui is just 10 years old, but she already knows what she wants to do with her life. Her dream is to be an actress, and like a growing number of middle-class Chinese children, Rui is already working towards that goal, putting in as much time in front of the camera as she can.
“I’ve always thought to myself that if I can appear on television or on the big screen, and my performance is seen by lots of people, I’ll feel so proud,” Rui said.
The child actor is taking a break on the set of Let’s Have a Talk in eastern China. The Chinese-language film tackles communication issues between kids and their parents, and it is one of many movies starring children currently in production across the country.
On a sweltering day, the actors are being told to redo scenes in a suburban Hangzhou alleyway again and again – more than 10 times – for a scene that will last just one or two minutes on the big screen. Between takes, the children are scolded as if by their own parents. “How many times have I told you not to put your hand in front?” one crew member barks. “Behave yourself and focus on your own acting,” says another. “If you’re naughty again, you’ll get a slap.”
FAME AND FORTUNE?
While her classmates are diving into extra study, taking on new subjects or travelling with their parents over the long two-month summer break, Rui and others like her are busy learning their lines and acting in movie and television roles, despite receiving little or no pay for their work.
Parents told the South China Morning Post they accepted their children would not be paid, and so did the young actors – the main thing was that they were appearing on screen. People in the industry said it was normal practice for low-budget productions in China, and that children with more experience and a bigger profile did get paid. The regulations state that “art or sport companies can recruit minors aged under 16 with approval from their guardians” but there is no guidance on compensation.
Like the adults, young actors put in long hours for these coveted roles. Their parents, meanwhile, are willing to shell out for all the classes they need, and to take them to other parts of the country for filming, to help them achieve their dreams of becoming stars.
As well as their fame and social status, China’s big-name entertainers are among the highest paid people in the country, and those factors are driving the interest in child acting, according to Liao Feifei, an agent for young performers with Shanghai Very Proud Film and Television Culture Media.
The agency recommends children for one or two advertising jobs every day and for at least one film or TV opportunity a month, Liao said.
“Our business is growing very fast. The success of young stars, such as TFBoys, has given us a boost,” she said, referring to a popular Chinese boy band.
“In the past, parents never imagined that their kids could act in movies or in a TV series. But now, with child acting agents and various talent training centres, being a young actor is possible.”
Liao’s is one of many such agencies to open in mainland China in recent years. It charges a membership fee costing “tens of thousands of yuan” annually (10,000 yuan is the equivalent of about US$1,500), she said, but would not provide more details.
“Most of our members are really focused on acting, so their parents support them by investing a lot of time, money and energy in their children’s interest,” she said, adding that many of the children she represented came from wealthy families.
In Rui’s case, it all started two years ago, after a talent scout saw her on a street in Beijing where she lives, and asked if she would like to sign with his agency. Rui’s mother, Yang Wei, said she and her husband decided to let their daughter sign up, because she loved acting and performing on stage so much. She takes roles mostly during her winter and summer holidays and has already appeared in several films and TV series.
Rui said her idol was Chinese actress Zhao Liying, whose road to stardom inspired her.
“Zhao Liying is from a poor family and grew up in a village. She’s a big success and it’s all down to her hard work,” Rui said. “I want to learn from her spirit.”
Yang said they had spent more than 200,000 yuan (nearly US$30,000) on acting, piano and dancing lessons for their daughter in addition to the cost of signing with the agent and taking Rui to filming locations in other cities. Yang, who works in hospital administration, said her schedule was flexible so she could accompany her daughter to places like Hangzhou when she landed a role.
Rui’s parents are not alone in spending big money to help their child try to break into the industry. In Nanchang, Jiangxi province, 13-year-old Huang Kai said his family had invested hundreds of thousands of yuan on dance lessons so he could “become a star”, according to an interview with Pearvideo.com.
Kai said he was a huge fan of Lu Han, a Chinese pop star known for his dancing skills. His mother, whose name was not given, told the news website that she considered the dance class fees to be money well spent. “It can improve his chances of becoming famous and it also teaches him perseverance,” she said.
On the set of Let’s Have a Talk, Rui is one of four children cast in lead roles and they have all travelled from different cities for the film shoot. Li Jiahang, 8, is from Harbin, in northeastern Heilongjiang, while Li Mingle, 9, and Gong Yanning, 12, are both from the east of the country – Mingle from Suzhou, Jiangsu, and Yanning from Ganzhou in Jiangxi.
Mingle’s mother, Ding Fangfang, said it was her son’s third film role since last summer, when he first signed up with an agent.
“Our relatives often say Mingle is good looking, so my husband and I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea for him to work as an actor when he grows up,” said Ding, a stay-at-home mother. “But we didn’t know how to get started until we spoke to a children’s acting agent last year.”
Ding said her son had not received any income from acting so far but did not consider that a problem since he was learning and gaining valuable experience.
“Instead we value these acting opportunities,” she said. “It’s not only because my boy loves acting, but also because these roles teach him to endure difficulties, like not getting enough sleep and acting in cold or hot weather.”
Ding said Mingle had become tougher and more independent since he started acting. “My son had to wear thin clothes during bitter weather when they were filming over the winter holiday at the beginning of this year,” she said. “I was so worried about him, but Mingle soldiered on.”
For Mingle, acting is something that he enjoys, and he feels “cool” when he sees himself on screen. But he is already wary about fame, saying he once saw an A-list actor with his entourage behaving arrogantly towards fans trying to greet him.
“That’s not right,” Mingle said. “If I become famous one day, I won’t let it go to my head. I’ll be warm and nice to people around me.”
Wang Bei, a senior supervisor at entertainment industry consultancy Beijing AIMan Data Technology, said more money was being invested in children’s films and drama series in China.
She said interest in the industry was partly driven by parents wanting their children to learn more “comprehensive skills” beyond academic study, including the arts.
“Show business for children – like academic tutoring centres – targets parents who are willing to spend money on their kids’ interests and development,” Wang said.
Shanghai agent Liao said since the company opened three years ago, the number of children’s shows on the books and their signed young actors had doubled every year.
“We’ve seen a lot of new agencies springing up across the country in the past few years,” she said. “But there are also many more opportunities for kids to act. There are so many parts now – in films, TV series and ads.”
Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the Beijing-based 21st Century Education Research Institute, said there was nothing wrong with children wanting to act, as long as they were genuinely interested in it.
“It’s another option for them to pursue success other than the conventional way – studying hard to achieve academic excellence,” Xiong said.
But he was concerned by parents who, encouraged by the success of a few top young stars, signed up their children with agents even though they had no interest in it.
“They’re just hoping their kids can easily rise to fame,” Xiong said.
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The mothers of Mingle and Rui said that was not the case for their children.
While Mingle said he liked being an actor – eventually one like Hong Kong martial arts star Jackie Chan, he hopes – his mother was less certain about his career path.
“We know there’s not a great chance of becoming a big star in this industry – so many people have tried and failed,” Ding said.
She was also worried about his studies suffering if acting took up too much of his time.
“While he’s here, his classmates are all busy taking extra academic classes,” she said. “So I’m afraid he’ll be left behind.”
Rui’s mother was also concerned, saying she hoped her daughter, who is in Grade Four at primary school, would focus more on her studies in the next couple of years.
“We’re a traditional family, and we still want her to have a ‘normal’ job instead of being an actress,” Yang said. “But my daughter just loves acting. I guess I’ll have to talk with her in the future to see if she’ll change her mind about this.”