Viewing entries tagged
Practitioner

Pooja Mor: My Life as a Model

International runway debutant Pooja Mor chats with Ria Jaiswal about her past, her present and her ever bright future.

Anastasia Lin: a Falun Gong practitioner seeking the Miss World crown – in China

Anastasia Lin, Miss World Canada 2015. (AnastasiaLin.com)

Anastasia Lin, Miss World Canada 2015. (AnastasiaLin.com)

Under different circumstances, Anastasia Lin would be a shoo-in for Miss World. A vocal human rights activist with prominent cheekbones, the Canadian candidate for the crown is also an accomplished piano player, a Chinese calligrapher, and an actress with more than 20 credits in film and television.

But this year’s contest takes place in Lin’s native China, which poses a threat for the finalist and her family as Lin practises the spiritual faith of Falun Gong.

Tens of millions in China practice Falun Gong, which combines moral philosophy, meditation and qigong exercises, and emerged out of ideas prevalent in alternative Chinese medicine.

Falun Gong believers have been detained and killed in Chinese labour camps in their thousands, according to activists. The religion was branded an “evil cult” and outlawed in 1999, following a silent demonstration by thousands of Falun Gong practitioners outside Communist party headquarters, who were protesting attacks on its members. Since then, nearly 4,000 practitioners of Falun Gong have reportedly died as a result of detention in camps, though human rights researchers believe the number to be much higher.

Lin, an outspoken advocate on human rights and religious persecution, had refrained from publicly disclosing her faith. But having gained a wider platform thanks to winning the Canadian crown, Lin revealed her faith practice to the Guardian, hoping it would help stop the demonization of the Falun Gong faith and give voice to other Chinese people who are persecuted for their beliefs.

“If I don’t, the oppression will never stop,” Lin said.

Anastasia Lin is crowned Miss World Canada 2015. Lin has revealed to the Guardian that she is a practitioner of Falun Gong. Photograph: Andrew Chin/Getty Images

Anastasia Lin is crowned Miss World Canada 2015. Lin has revealed to the Guardian that she is a practitioner of Falun Gong. Photograph: Andrew Chin/Getty Images

Though she has kept her faith out of the public eye, she has been anoutspoken advocate for other minority religious groups persecuted in China, such as Muslim Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists and Christians.

But it is for her outspoken advocacy work that she says the Chinese ministry of state security is trying to silence her by intimidating her father.

Lin has set foot in China only once since moving to Canada in 2003, but she says her father, who still lives in Hunan province, has been visited by security agents at least once. According to Lin, he is not affiliated with Falun Gong or any religious group.

Just a few days after winning the Miss World Canada crown on 16 May, Lin began receiving text messages from her father asking her to stop her advocacy work. She had highlighted her human rights work in a video and speech at the pageant.

“Do you know the security forces actually came to see me,” Lin said, recounting a text from her father. She said he warned her that if she continued to do her human rights work, she would risked turning her family against each other. “When I asked him more details, he just pleaded that I allow him to live peacefully by not bringing up rights abuses in China again.”

Since then, his business has suffered. “Now people are too scared to be associated with him,” said Lin, who has featured in Canadian films critical of the Chinese regime since the age of 18.

She doesn’t know if agents have visited him again as she said he refuses to talk about it during their brief phone calls. “Nowadays, he always mentions how great the Chinese president is,” she adds. “I think he believes that his phone is being tapped.”

Lin’s case is a classic example of how Xi Jinping’s regime tries to bring Chinese expatriates to heel through the harassment of loved ones left behind, explains Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Chinese activists’ parents and siblings are sometimes prosecuted on false allegations while others simply disappear. It amounts to psychological torture,” Richardson said.

 Police detain a Falun Gong protester in Tiananmen Square as a crowd watches in Beijing, in 2000. Photograph: Chien-Min Chung/AP

 Police detain a Falun Gong protester in Tiananmen Square as a crowd watches in Beijing, in 2000. Photograph: Chien-Min Chung/AP

But Lin continued her activist work, by writing a Washington Post op-ed in June and by testifying to the US Congress in July about religious persecution in China.

By coming out now as a practitioner of Falun Gong, Lin has become its highest-profile follower in the western hemisphere.

“It’s not an organised religion,” she said. “The teachings – established by qigong master Li Hongzi in 1992 – are about finding our authentic self. And this is what I’m trying to do by speaking up. If I don’t, the oppression will never stop.”

China arrests Christians who opposed removals of crosses

 

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Lin’s experience comes amid harsher treatments of religious minorities and human rights lawyers, explains Sophie Richardson. “The Chinese state has become increasingly paranoid and authoritarian since Xi Jinping took power in 2013,” she says. Chinese Christians have been a notable target of late. Authorities have removed crosses from more than 1,200 churches since early 2014 and the country’s security forces this week launched a roundup of church activists who oppose the crosses’ removals.

Lin has also felt ostracised by segments of the Canadian Chinese community, despite her Miss World Canada win and the backing of the Canadian government for her activism. She said she stopped being invited to events by community leaders tied to the Chinese embassy and consulate since her crowning. And to those community events that she is invited to, she is “monitored” by the Chinese consulate.

“They send officials to all social events,” says the actress, who also believes that her phone is tapped.

Whether China will allow her to compete in the Miss World final in Sanya, on Hainan Island, is uncertain, as many Falun Gong practitioners have been denied entry to the country in recent years.

“My aim is not to put an anti-China slogan on the stage,” she insists. “After all, it’s a beauty pageant. But I feel that my presence in that country alone would give people hope. The regime would show itself worthy of hosting the [2022 winter Olympic] Games by allowing me to enter China freely.”

Originally published on The Guardians.

Spirited Style

Gabriel Georgiou, a Greek-Australian, highly sought-after hair stylist, went from Hollywood to Bollywood, with a stop in between in the land of the spirit.

 
It was a very, very loud voice that said to me: ‘We have come to take you—you have lost your way.’ I said ‘I know, I understand, I’m really sorry. I’ve just been caught up in it all, and I’ve lost myself. Give me another chance.
— Gabriel Georgiou

T ake it from Gabriel Georgiou, life as a top-flight hairstylist in Hollywood is as hot as you would imagine it to be: glamorous, intense, and jam-packed with celebrities. In the 1990’s, he made oodles of money and went to the spiciest parties. He worked on the likes of Cate Blanchett and Robert Downey Jr., to name a few, and his ‘dos sauntered down the red carpet and graced the pages of Vanity Fair and Vogue. He had everything.

Almost everything. 

On the surface, Georgiou was wielding a talent that millions looked up to and few could match. But under the surface lived another Georgiou, the one who buried his nose in Buddhist and Taoist books as a teenager, the one who explored orthodox monasteries on Mt. Athos in his native Greece, the one who braved “so much weirdness and trickiness out there,” to find answers to his questions about “life, the universe, people, suffering.” 

“Too many questions,” he said in a recent interview with Taste of Life, “to which no one could give me the answers.” Georgiou would one day find his answers, but not before taking a few left turns down dark alleys. 

In the late 80s he answered the call of the bright lights and stepped into the hairstyling industry. He made his way to Hollywood and into the A-list events. Celebrities, art directors and producers noticed Georgiou’s natural talent and, soon, everyone from Drew Barrymore to Keanu Reeves to Jessica Alba wanted his styles. “I succeeded in becoming one of the very busy hair stylists in the industry,” Georgiou says. In his hands, blow-dryers and scissors worked magic. He coaxed manes into the most beautiful looks imaginable with the skill of a wizard. His pay cheques started piling up, he got himself a house in Los Angeles and all the trimmings of a jet-set lifestyle. But, according to Georgiou, something was missing.

 

Gabriel Georgiou worked his hair-styling magic on the covers and pages shown here of recent international fashion magazines.

“It was all superficiality. I was seeking fame, materialism, wealth. I was indulging myself.” He started doing drugs. “Yes, it was a recreational thing, but it was also to keep me able to deal with all the rubbish around me.” Buying each fancy new thing, hot cars, and attending Hollywood parties didn’t bring him happiness, he said. Happiness trailed farther and farther away.

His downward spiral is not a rare one: with one hand, drugs like meth comfortably filled the hole in his heart while, with the other, it stole him piece by piece. A turning point came during a fashion shoot on location in the British Virgin Islands when he was 32. 

“I nearly passed away. On big trips, I would quit drugs ‘cold turkey.’ That, plus the exhaustion, plus a lot of things—I was very, very ill at that point. I’d barely get up to do hair, and the make-up artist would take care of the rest. I was in bed for a few days, and at one point I felt I was going. I was going. I felt I was leaving. There was no fear; I knew I was just leaving the human world. There was this voice. It was three or four dimensions, I don’t know what to call it. It was a very, very loud voice that said to me: ‘We have come to take you—you have lost your way.’ I said ‘I know, I understand, I’m really sorry.’ I genuinely meant it from my heart. ‘I’m very sorry. I know I haven’t found what I’m looking for. I’ve just been caught up in it all, and I’ve lost myself. Give me another chance. Please, give me another chance.’ I sunk back into my body, my eyes opened and I was back. That’s when the change started, and I started trying to clean myself up.”

After that job, he purged everything. He gave away his designer clothes, fabulous furniture, the car. He quit his job and left Los Angeles. “Everyone was shocked at what I was doing. The so-called friends I had? Vanished.”

His family’s home in Brisbane, Australia, became a refuge. “I didn’t want to see another human being,” he says with a light laugh and no trace of self-consciousness. “All I wanted to do was spend time with my family, read books, eat and sleep. I was tired and exhausted and feeling this superficiality that I saw in everybody. I was truly questioning whether there were any good people left.” 

 
 

Luckily for him, there was at least one good person left and the two crossed paths. She was a makeup artist who listened to his story while they worked together on commercials in Australia, a gentle person who seemed at ease even under pressure. She told Gabriel that she practiced a meditation and spiritual discipline called Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong), and that if he ever wanted to learn, he could find her in the park on most Sunday mornings.

“What I really liked were the three principles of truth, compassion, forbearance—that resonated with me. And the fact that it was free really clicked, because I knew that something good is taught from the heart, and you don’t take money for it. And thirdly, the fact that it was mind and body.”

Once Georgiou took Falun Dafa seriously, his body experienced a sudden jolt. “The second week I tried the exercises. I never felt something so strong, getting rid of such negativity.”

“I said to the practitioners ‘give me the books right now—I need to know what this is, what I’m doing. I need to read everything.’ That was it. I’ve been practicing ever since,” says Georgiou, who quit smoking with almost no effort just five weeks later. With each passing day, he watched as other unhealthy habits and chronic unease fell away. 

“I used to have scoliosis which gave me a lot of suffering. During meditation, every time I finished and got up, my back would crack—all the cracks and placements happening. I’ve never had pain ever since. I used to have insomnia. That’s all vanished. I haven’t been to the doctor or taken an aspirin for 11 years.”

He continued to work on his inner self while the exercises worked on his body. He started living by truth, compassion and forbearance, the tenets of Falun Dafa. “My energy levels were sky high. Work became easier. I worked hard and positively—I was happy all the time. I took things lightly, and I laughed easily.” After being disillusioned with the fashion industry, it was Falun Dafa that made him want to enter it again. “Everyone sees a very big change. I’ve actually had someone say ‘I never liked you in the past, but you’re so different now,’ and we’ve become very good friends. I realised that I can be a positive influence in this world of fashion.”

At the Starbucks below the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver, I met Georgiou this spring during the Times of India Film Awards. Hours before the red carpet was rolled out, the entrance was packed with tense fans leaning over the railing, waiting for Bollywood’s biggest stars to walk through a wall of security guards and into the lobby. 

Our conversation was periodically halted while the crowd voiced their excitement in shrill waves. “I have to go in a few minutes,” he said, observing the star in the middle of this particular wave. A twinkle touched the corner of his eye. “She has the big performance tonight. I’m having trouble with my heat tools, I’ll have to start early.” 

Today, Georgiou is an international virtuoso once again, only now he wows Europe and India with his creations. Magazine covers and red carpets are again his canvas, but the stars’ names are Italian, Czech or Indian, and their followers can outnumber Brad and Angelina’s. Georgiou splits his time between Greece and Mumbai, India—the thumping heart of Bollywood—where he works. The new environment has brought new challenges, but he says the principles now dwelling in his heart help him handle anything. 

Simultaneously satisfying divas, directors, co-stylists, and his own sky-high standards means Georgiou finds himself in extremely high-pressure situations, knowing that stars’ reputations and tomorrow’s audiences are hanging on this afternoon’s brush strokes. 

In front of the Pan Pacific, before he whisks himself upstairs to prepare his star for her big moment, he gives me a kiss-kiss on each cheek. So European! As he presses into the wall of security guards and fans, I yell “Good luck! I hope everything goes smoothly!” He turns briefly and flashes me a beaming look of thanks that says ‘Whatever happens, I’m sure I’ll be fine.’ Then he disappears into the flurry of cameras.

Photo by Mara Desipris / Steven Mena / Clockwise from top: Vogue Hellas: Photo by Costas Avgoulis; Vogue Australia: Photo by Karin Catt / Votre Beaute: Photo by Thanassis Krikis; Grazia: Photo by Suresh Natarajan; Vogue India: Photo by Prasad Naik

Originally published on Taste of Life magazine.

Free China: The Courage To Believe

 
 

Stories like these only exist in the distant past—or do they? A quiet, unassuming man or woman seems just like us, but when faced with evil, extraordinary abilities are revealed and a legend lives through the ages. In the film Free China: The Courage to Believe, true stories tell of heart-wrenching compromises and awe-inspiring strength of character, and its end is not yet written.

In the 1990’s, Dr. Charles Lee, originally from China, was living in the US as an American citizen and Jennifer Zeng lived in China, a proud mother and communist party member. Both began practicing Falun Gong, the ancient Chinese spiritual practice that adheres to truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. When, in 1999, the communist regime outlawed the practice and dragged loyal practitioners into labour camps, Zeng and Lee were thrust into excruciating darkness, and faced abhorrent choices. Now living outside China with their families, both have joined the peaceful efforts to bring human rights to their homeland. Free China sheds light on the current plight of the Chinese people and reminds us that heroes of yore are still made today.

Michael Perlman, who directed Free China, drew on his experience directing Tibet: Beyond Fear, an award-winning film that followed a Tibetan Buddhist monk and nun in their struggle for respect, freedom and inner peace amid violence.

Kean Wong, Free China’s executive producer and driving force, met Perlman by chance in Manhattan one evening in 2010. Wong was a television show host and producer for NTD Television, working to revive traditional Chinese culture and provide independent Chinese news coverage. Perlman, well-acquainted with Tibetans’ peaceful efforts for freedom, was mostly in the dark about China’s.

“We had this instant connection,” Wong recalls about meeting Perlman. “I said to him ‘If you want to help free Tibet, you need to first help free China.’ And Michael said ‘That’s exactly what I’ve been saying.’” Wong knew the perfect documentary subjects, Zeng and Lee, who continually and devotedly recount their stories to shed light on the atrocities behind today’s Great Wall. And what stories. The makings of a socially-immediate, award-winning film had been found. “We shook hands excitedly and said ‘Let’s make a film called Free China.’” Eighteen months later, their film swept the independent awards circuit.

Free China took home Best Feature Film at the IX International Short Film Festival in Peru, “Best of the Fest” International Freethought Film Festival in Denver, CO, Winner at American Insight’s Free Speech International Film Festival in Philadelphia, the top award for International Political and Cultural Documentaries at the L.A. Awareness Film Festival in West Hollywood, the top award for documentaries under 60 minutes at the 45th Worldfest Houston International Film Festival, became “Offical Selection” at a half dozen other festivals and was nominated for the “Best Soundtrack Album” at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards 2012.

“We’re all very honored and proud of our team’s efforts, in particular, Tony Chen, who composed an incredibly inspiring and moving score,” Wong said, and he’s clearly not the only one who thinks so. Free China’s nomination for “Best Soundtrack Album” at the Music in Media Awards placed it alongside big-budget films like Twilight and powerful production houses like Sony Classical. “We were up there against them with this little shoestring budget,” Wong says. It’s a relief to know that heart and conviction, not only budget, can bring motion pictures to the forefront.

Free China will be released online worldwide and opens in Canadian theaters in June, 2013. Visitwww.freechinamovie.com for more information.

How One Man's Journey To The Olympics Took A Soulful Turn

Luge athlete Martins Rubenis of Latvia at the Winter Olympics, February, 2014

Luge athlete Martins Rubenis of Latvia at the Winter Olympics, February, 2014

On the luge medal podium at the Sochi Olympics this year, among the ranks of athletes from the world’s wealthiest nations, you might have noticed an outlier—Martins Rubenis of Latvia. While his competitors had the likes of BMW and Ferrari to thank for their sleds, which reach blistering speeds on the downhill ice tracks, Rubenis proudly accepted his bronze not only as a racer but also as a designer and engineer.

I caught up with Rubenis on a Celsius -12 degree day in December during the Luge World Cup in Whistler. Over mugs of hot chocolate at the Four Seasons, we relived the highlights, hurdles and spiritual insights on his journey.

A soul and a sled

During Rubenis’s 25-year career, he was a force to be reckoned with on any track. Beginning in 1998 at the World Junior Championships, he won gold and silver at multiple European and World competitions. Rubenis was the first member of Team Latvia to ever stand on a Winter Olympics podium, in 2006, Turin, Italy — a feat now being repeated more and more often by his country’s sliding athletes.

Rubenis fell in love with luge as a child. “What’s the first thing that comes to the mind of a little guy? You take a sled and you go off to the mountains and you have fun. And if somebody calls it a sport, then why not?” thirty-five-year-old Rubenis recalls, each word coming closer to a giggle than the last.

Rubenis on the podium with fellow Olympic bronze medals winners of the luge team relay event in February, 2014. 

Rubenis on the podium with fellow Olympic bronze medals winners of the luge team relay event in February, 2014. 

But the journey to Olympic glory is never easy, especially in a country whose culture and economy were left battered by Soviet occupation. While he was a teenager at boarding school trying to find his footing in life, Rubenis’s mother died of leukemia. “To lose a connection with parents or anyone you love,” he says, “somewhere deep inside, it makes something break.” With an independent spirit and the rock-solid support of his grandparents, he overcame thoughts of quitting and committed himself to the long, grueling practice and cross-training sessions. At the same time, he caught up with school and worked at nightclubs to make ends meet.

Crafting greatness

Around 1999, his sled needed upgrades but no one in Latvia could help him. If he was going to reach for gold, he would have to improve the sled himself.

Building model ships and motorcycles with his grandfather prepared Rubenis for that new role. “I started looking at my sled and trying to feel what should be changed. Since I don’t have any technical education, I try to feel how they work. It is more like an artistic approach than a technical approach,” Rubenis explains.

Rubenis designed and crafted almost every part of the sled that carried him to victory at world competitions.

Rubenis designed and crafted almost every part of the sled that carried him to victory at world competitions.

“Many people think that luging is just lying in a sled and waiting until it brings you down; it is not like that. A sled is like a living organism, all moving and working together with the body of the athlete. The most important thing is to build the sled to be one with the body.”

The meditation component of Falun Gong, along with its guiding principles, gave Rubenis a competitive advantage.

The meditation component of Falun Gong, along with its guiding principles, gave Rubenis a competitive advantage.

In the past, Rubenis would never share his parts or design knowledge with teammates. Luge is mostly an individual sport and teammates are rivals, too. But all that changed in 2005 when he began practicing “truthfulness, compassion, tolerance,” the tenets of Falun Gong, a self-cultivation practice which consists of tai-chi-like exercises and principles such as “no loss, no gain” and thinking of others first. He’s even seen his innovations on the G8 countries’ sleds at competitions around the world.

“After I took up the practice, I understood that if I share something, things come back in an even broader perspective. Knowledge is a kind of energy. When we share, we connect to the new knowledge; we give more space for new things to come. And you never know how big they will be.”

One with the way

Latvia’s former Sportsman of the Year says his sport is a lot like the ancient tradition of self-cultivation.

“When I get really stubborn about something in my life, when I just plow straight ahead, everything is very hard. It’s the same with sliding. If I just think ‘this is the only way to get down,’ sometimes I steer too much, but the curve doesn’t let me go that way. So I had to learn to feel the track and feel the way it brings me, learn how to appreciate the way it brings me, and also just try to keep on the way.”

Learning how to follow the natural course of life led to improvements in Rubenis’s physical state. “Even as I went to different doctors and people who might help me, relief was short-lived. I really couldn’t understand why. Now I understand that if my mind is right, my body follows. My hiding something and being so introverted was drilling and breaking me from the inside. I had to overcome that and change that.”

Top athletes must find ways to constantly improve their physical and mental performance. Rubenis was no exception. As early as 10 years old, he could sense that “the Eastern ways” held wisdom that could assist his performance but he was reluctant to take the initiative to try them. Years later, at the behest of his coach, he finally did and the results were immediate.

“I remember before, I was fighting against others to be better. When I started practicing Falun Gong, I realized that it had to have something to do with me. I had an ‘inner fight’ with myself, about improving myself, improving my performance and improving my approach to what I do.”

“It just instantly and naturally improved my performance. A few months later, in the winter of 2006, I won the bronze medal in luge at the Olympics.”

This winter, he stood atop the podium one last time in Sochi. He says he has now retired, but with his groundbreaking spirit, the world hasn’t heard the last of Martins Rubenis.

Originally published on Taste of Life magazine.

Why Is Taiwan Obsessed With This British Television Anchor?

Ben Hedges in the streets of midtown Manhattan, near the offices where he produces videos featuring his sharp cultural commentary in rapid-fire Mandarin. 

Ben Hedges in the streets of midtown Manhattan, near the offices where he produces videos featuring his sharp cultural commentary in rapid-fire Mandarin. 

How a fellow from Britain became one of the top three video personalities in Taiwan.

Hao Yibo, better known as Ben Hedges to his Caucasian friends and family, became an overnight Internet sensation in Asia when he made a brutal and hilarious YouTube satire of the Chinese TV drama “Empresses in the Palace,” about Qing Dynasty concubines. The combination of a white guy speaking fluent Mandarin while making erudite commentary on Chinese pop culture proved irresistible to the Chinese-speaking Internet.

It was a hop, skip, and a jump until young people began recognizing him in the streets of Taipei, asking for autographs. Hedges is now a bona fide celebrity in Taiwan, and to a lesser degree, Hong Kong. He is known in mainland China — but YouTube is blocked there, shrinking his potential audience by many orders of magnitude. (Taiwan has a population of 23 million; China, 1.4 billion.)

It is all the more astonishing to think that such sudden and extreme success happened almost accidentally, given that the Taiwanese audience was not his original target. 

“We started the show for mainlanders, exposing the dark side of mainland China and making fun of things that are kind of ridiculous,” he says. But when the Qing drama satire took off, they didn’t look back. 

“I got a text message saying ‘You’re famous,’” Hedges recalls. The video was posted on PTT, a social media platform in Taiwan run by university students. 

“If it gets over a certain amount of views, it baohongs,” he added, verbing a Chinese term. The word is composed of two parts, “explode” and “red.” It happens when something gains extreme popularity. “Our video was baohonging on PTT that day.”

Hedges incorporates gifts from fans into his photoshoots: here he pours High Mountain tea from Taiwan in a set given by an admirer. Better known as Hao Yibo to his fans, Hedges became an Internet sensation almost overnight in Taiwan for his witty Chinese-language web commentaries. 

Hedges incorporates gifts from fans into his photoshoots: here he pours High Mountain tea from Taiwan in a set given by an admirer. Better known as Hao Yibo to his fans, Hedges became an Internet sensation almost overnight in Taiwan for his witty Chinese-language web commentaries. 

Today, at work in his midtown Manhattan office, Hedges is wearing what appear to be white karate pants, a polo shirt, and Seinfeld sneakers — trademarks of the insouciant geekiness that has enamored him to millions of young people.

In Taiwan, for example, he began a speaking engagement at a mall with a kung fu demonstration. Apple Daily, one of the island nation’s most popular tabloids, has a video online quizzing him on obscure Chinese characters, and he rises to the challenge by writing them out, one after another. His dating advice to young people is the kind of thing your grandfather would say. “You can call me old fashioned,” Hedges says, smiling into the camera, before recommending that a young man act a bit more like a Jane Austen-era gentleman.  

Throughout 2013, after the initial success in March, Hedges’ videos have parodied corrupt Chinese communist officials, explored the antics of Chinese tourists, the influence of Bruce Lee, the ten ugliest buildings in China, and oddities about life in Taiwan — all with a witty script, playful graphics, and more often than not, an incisive message. Tens of thousands of views are a minimum, while the more popular videos get over one million. 

All this paved the way for his first trip to Taiwan in early 2014, where he held a number of public events. But before he even hit the streets, he was recognized on the plane by the stewardesses. “One of them said ‘Hello Mr. Hao, how are you?’ when I was on my way to my seat… I didn’t know to what degree I would be known. Before I even got there, I was being recognized. I thought, ‘This is going to be an interesting trip.’” Halfway through the flight, they invited him into the kitchen for a short party consisting of juice, airplane snacks, and numerous selfies with funny poses. 

Hedges’ 2014 Chinese book, I am Hao Yibo, gave fans a chance for a deeper exploration of what drives him — mostly overcoming adversity and believing in oneself to achieve one’s goals. “People come up to me and say ‘I’m more confident now because of your message. You’ve helped me.’” He regularly gets emails from grateful fans. 

Hedges was born in Hong Kong. He studied Chinese culture and language — including Mandarin, Cantonese, and the classical form — the equivalent of Middle English to what we use today — at the University of London. He spent a year in intensive language immersion in Taiwan over 2008 and 2009. Now a New Yorker, most mornings at 7 a.m. he participates in an advanced class of kung fu (the Shanxi-style Praying Mantis form); throughout the day he drinks Taiwan’s famous High Mountain tea, brewed in a set given by a fan; and in the evenings he does Falun Gong meditation. The practice is persecuted in the mainland, which likely informs his understated remark that “I don’t like the Chinese government’s human rights abuses,” made in an interview at a coffee shop with Taiwanese media.

Hedges reaches millions of Chinese-speaking viewers through viral videos produced at a studio in midtown Manhattan.

Hedges reaches millions of Chinese-speaking viewers through viral videos produced at a studio in midtown Manhattan.

Success often builds on itself, and Hedges parlayed his newfound prominence in the Taiwanese world into a series of interviews with some of the most famous personalities in the country. These include Eddie Peng, a beloved actor; Tsai Yueh-Hsun and Shiou Chieh-Kai, director and actor in the popular police drama “Black & White”; Chinese-Canadian singer and Vancouver resident Qu Wanting; and A Xi, the fourth most popular online celebrity in Taiwan. (Hedges, it turns out, is third.)

Soon Hedges was starring in Taiwanese commercials. A collaboration with 7-Eleven, which is ubiquitous in Taiwanese cities, produced a video in late March about Hao Yibo’s secret powers of teleportation. The nearly six minute ad ends with him teleporting into a 7-Eleven to eat their “new traditional noodles with minced pork and soybean paste,” which actually look delicious. That clip has 500,000 hits online and, after being played on loop in 3,000 stores, have garnered many more views in the real world. (Go to tasteoflifemag.com/haoyibao to watch.)

Being a novelty — the white guy speaking Chinese — helps win over an audience, but not everyone who speaks Mandarin is an Internet personality. “There’s a certain novelty factor, but the novelty is backed up with a well researched script and show. You’ve got to have the whole package,” Hedges says.

Cultivating his fans, and paying respect to them, helps. When accosted on the street, he always pauses for a photo. A hand-painted paper fan he received from an admirer features on the front cover of his book. The small cup in which he brews tea every day often shows up in his videos. “One person drew me a picture, so I put it in one of the scenes in the 7-Eleven commercial.”

During his first trip to Taiwan, he was surprised when asked to summarise his philosophy in some “words of wisdom,” by the young filmographers at Taiwan Normal University. He recalls the scene with a smile. “I’m only 28. What do I know about this stuff? But I came up with a sentence: ‘The World is Big, Be Intrepid.’” which rhymes in Chinese. They got excited, started the camera rolling, and had him say it again. 

“Everyone was fussing over it, even though it’s something I just kind of made it up on the spot,” he said. “But when I thought about it, it does sum up a lot of the things I think.” So after the initial laughter, he says, the slogan became something he took in earnest. Poignant, given that the same dynamic would explain why his fans number so many.

Photography by Laura Cooksey.

Originally published on Taste of Life magazine.