Mr OneTwo on life as a black American actor in China

The 38-year-old New Yorker gave up his stable job and life in the US for an adventure that led to a career on television and cinema screens in China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 December, 2017, 6:34pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 December, 2017, 6:46pm

Douglass Fearon never imagined he would make a name for himself as a Mandarin-speaking television and film star in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

But as one of the few black American actors working on the mainland, the 38-year-old New Yorker, who goes by the stage name of Mr OneTwo, is proud of what he has achieved.

“The first time I saw myself on screen, I was so happy – not the normal kind of happy, but a feeling of accomplishment,” he said.

And that is exactly what he went looking for when he gave up his stable job and decent salary as a commercial loan banker in 2008 and moved to Guangzhou to explore his potential.

Nearly a decade on, Mr OneTwo has appeared in seven Chinese films and eight television dramas – and that is in the space of two years, since his acting career began.

His latest role is as an African warlord in the television series Peacekeeping Infantry Battalion, a show that has had nearly 2 billion views on Tencent’s live-streaming platform. It is also aired on Jiangsu Television.

In fact, Mr OneTwo had not considered going to China before 2008, when he was introduced to a recruiter looking for English teachers for universities in Guangzhou.

“I had no idea what China was like, the only thing I knew was that I liked Chinese food. But even so, of course, I found that food in China is so different to what I had in the States,” he said. “At that time I only planned to be in China for two years, as being a teacher was never my goal.

“But I always knew I wanted to be in the entertainment industry ... I even took acting classes outside of work in America,” he said.

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He embraced the challenge, taking Mandarin classes and throwing himself into the task of learning the language – it took just two years for him to become fluent.

Mekael Turner, an American friend he met in Guangzhou, asked him to start a hip-hop group with him and they started performing in nightclubs as HotChocolate.

Soon he came to the attention of modelling agencies and local television producers, before he shot to fame as the first black man to win popular dating show If You Are the One in 2014, when he was matched with a Chinese woman.

After he appeared on the show, he started receiving offers for television and film parts.

“I am an anomaly. I am a six-foot-one black American man with tattoos who can read, speak and act in Chinese,” he said.

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It began with small roles, playing the bodyguard for Huang Xiaoming – one of the highest paid actors in China – in the film Mission Milano directed by Wong Jing, and a part in Hong Kong movie Helios, starring alongside big names Jacky Cheung Hok-yau and Nick Cheung Ka-fai.

Last year he started taking roles with bigger speaking parts, in both Mandarin and English, and he will star in a film next year that is solely in Mandarin.

He said he has settled into life in Guangzhou and does not feel he stands out from the crowd too much. The city is known for having the biggest African community in Asia – estimates range from 150,000 to 300,000 long-term residents, according to government data from 2014.

But when he tells people he is American, some ask: “What? There are black people in America?”

“America is very racist. China is not. A lot of times they just don’t understand,” Mr OneTwo said, adding that he usually offered some advice when people did not know how to address him.

Whenever he is being called a “hei ren” (black man), “I will tell them: please call me a ‘foreign friend’ or my name.”

He came up with the name Mr OneTwo, which came from the main character in his favourite film RocknRolla.

“No matter what language you speak, you will be able to understand ‘one’ and ‘two’,” he said.

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Although he has found success in a relatively short space of time, China’s entertainment industry is known to be difficult for foreign actors to break into – particularly landing the big roles.

Discrimination and racism can also be a problem. For example, a Chinese poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens that downplayed or left out non-white characters came under fire in 2015, while last year a television commercial for laundry detergent was taken off the air after it sparked outrage for showing a black man being “washed” into a fair-skinned Asian man.

“I heard that the man [in the commercial] didn’t know when he filmed it,” Fearon said. “I am very careful with the roles that I take because a lot of times what I’ve noticed in Chinese culture is ... some people can’t distinguish what they see on TV, whether it is real or not.

“I don’t want to be typecast – I don’t want to be seen as just the bodyguard guy. I have more to do and to show,” he said, adding that he had also turned down roles including as drug dealers and prisoners.

In his latest movie, Mr OneTwo plays a doctor helping Chinese peacekeepers fight terrorists – but he is not giving away any more about the film than that. “I was a hero,” he said.

“If I can be the Will Smith of China, of course that would be great. But there aren’t a lot black American actors here like me, and I want to make a name of my own.”