Hong Kong Sex Photos in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Like virginity, innocence once lost can never be recovered. This was an overpowering sentiment that came across in Lee Ang’s erotic espionage movie Lust, Caution, which was the hot talking point in the Chinese-speaking world just a few months ago, thanks to the very vivid and elaborate sex scenes between Tony Leung and Tang Wei. Tourists from China were flooding cinemas in Hong Kong just to see the uncensored version. But the sensation caused by that movie has since paled in comparison to the sex photos leaked out of singer and actor Edison Chen and his string of celebrity partners in bed. The questions “did they do it for real” or “are the pictures doctored” were very soon replaced by the question “which actress is next in action?”. Not only did star gazing and porn surfing become one and the same for the first time in Chinese entertainment history, the daily fresh reports that fed the public’s obsession with these very private realms of the stars were resembling a long and drawn-out soap opera – a very star-studded series in this case, and a soap opera of very dirty linen.

With the sex photos spreading like fire in the internet, this has become a disaster on a national scale for the moral police. Hong Kong police was left helpless before data transfer in the information superhighway (as some tabloid put it, the police went simply ‘mo fu’  – there is no magic charm against the evil of unidentified netizens with a resource of these photos, who might possibly be extorting the parties concerned). Police commissioners were also inconsistent on the legal issues in the face of this unprecedented media scandal, saying at one point that anyone with those pictures on their computer could be in breach of the law, only to clarify later that it was not a crime to transfer the pictures to friends, which then prompted sending of picture files en masse between ‘friends’. And soon In mainland China, CDs of the pictures were even illegally manufactured and sold in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, sellers apparently enjoying brisk sales from school kids among other customers. It is not merely the career or marriage of some Hong Kong actresses at stake in this scandal. Life will simply never be the same again for the young generations of media consumers in Hong Kong and China as the many-splendoured world of their pop culture idols is suddenly reduced to some pornographic close-ups.

It is not that the Chinese society has been the most prudish in the world. I just snort when I see how western reports play up the news story by describing sex as a ‘taboo’ in Chinese society until now, as if the world’s most populous country has been reproducing by means of test tubes in the last 5,000 years. Come on, it’s 4 centuries ago that China produced the classic novel Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), an erotic story sexually explicit past the point of being instructive. And now Chinese celebrities are proving they can outdo Paris Hilton. There is certainly a kind of decorum in Chinese culture of course, which can be summarised in some old Chinese wisdom which would go: there are things you can speak of but not do, and there are things you can do but not speak of. The unsaid Asian wisdom however remains that if it is an indecent act by your neighbour, by all means talk about it. Hence the ‘paradox’ of how tabloids and gossip magazines in Hong Kong were splashing lurid photos of this scandal all over the place; makes you wonder how many of them should be fined under the Obscenity Act if is seriously enforced. Actually, the entertainment magazines in Hong Kong have long been notorious for planting spy cameras, to catch celebrities smooching in cars or even changing backstage. What stands out in the typical Chinese reaction towards this scandal is not merely the moralising but the way the public relishes prying into the sex lives of these celebrities in the process of moralising. There is simply no concept of privacy in our moralistic Asian society. In fact the way that the Chinese media has been reporting this scandal, despite all posturing of moralising, is not far removed from the reactions of any male net surfer checking out Edison Chen’s photo documentation of his exploits – first he goes: “filthy sluts!”; then he adds: “lucky bastard!”.

There is a Chinese saying that goes something like this: a wife is not as greal as a concubine, a concubine not as great as going to a brothel, going to a brothel not as great as committing adultery. Now I don’t mean to make any moral judgement here about sexual promiscuity. But it should be fair to say that this Edison Chen is quite plaintly a pervert, for the sheer amount of pornography he has produced. (Call it male instinct, right from day one I thought there is something spooky and loathsome in him, which made him perfect for the role of a triad member sneaking into the police force in Infernal Affairs II; but female fans would not listen.) Just as 1,300 sex photos leaked out from his pink laptop seem staggering enough, police investigation reveals that he has in fact several times of that to his name, involving a couple dozen women. Now photographing or filming your wife or girlfriend to heighten sexual pleasures is one thing. But to take pictures systemically of naked women spreading their legs or performing oral sex on you suggests an irksome egomania, not to mention a compulsive obsession with the genitals. Furthermore, such obsesssive documentation of sex is in fact taking over the sexual act itself in importance. It has gone beyond a documentation of two persons in the heat of passion. A pervert like this is not so much seeking satisfaction from the physical intimacy as seeking psychological satisfaction from the very thought of violating a woman’s body, which is why documentation is essential to him, serving as proof of the violation. Such behaviour is akin to a dog’s territorial pissing, a tourist vandalising walls of a scenic site just to say “I was here”, and a savage severing the scalp or whatever body part of his enemy as proof of his conquest.

Needless to say, such photos represent the male gaze on the woman as a sexual object or instrument. The camera becomes the most powerful weapon in the hand of a man who is shooting his willing victims one by one, like murder by numbers. There has long been a perfect allegory for this in the 1960 movie Peeping Tom by Michael Powell, whereby the serial killer literally kills with his camera. Of course, in this case what Edison Chen is helping to kill indirectly would be the career or marriage of his past partners in bed. Perhaps in each of these cases, the actress or whoever was having fun play-acting to the male fantasy, presuming that it would all remain within the privacy of bedroom walls and hard disc memory. What they forget to their own detriment is that photography has the power of immortalising a single act, making it larger than life and impossible to erase from public memory. That aside, what Edison Chen has helped to kill is the erotic fantasy of many male fans over the likes of Cecilia Cheung and Gillian Chung. You may think surely the reverse is true? Well granted, a woman fully clothed is not as sexy as a woman dressed in a revealing dress. Imagine a woman dressed fully in a formal outfit, say a police uniform, that would hardly be enticing. But say she slowly unbuttons to show some skin beneath the formal outfit, and even strips to show some lacy undergarments. That would be exciting, wouldn’t it? But say she strips down to the nude before you can say: wait a minute, slow it down. Suddenly we remember the good old wisdom: Less is more! Men like women to yield to their desires, but hey, they also need space to give a free rein to their power of imagination – allow us to first do some mental undressing of the desired woman! The chase is part of the fun. Georges Bataille summarised it best when he talked about women as objects for the aggressive desire of men: “In so far as she is attractive, a woman is a prey to men’s desire. Unless she refuses completely because she is determined to remain chaste, the question is at what price and under what circumstances will she yield. … Putting oneself forward is the fundamental feminine attitude, but that first movement is followed by a feigned denial.” Initial refusal only enhances the value of a woman as object, whereas the minute she gives herself freely, game is over. That is also why something like the schoolgirl image of Gillian Chung in the duo Twins was so popular; it is a cultivated image of a virginal young lady, yet to be corrupted, a perfect object for the male fantasy. Not surprisingly, when she first apologised in the wake of the scandal, she simply claimed that her sexual involvement was due to her being ‘silly’ and ‘naive’ – what a calculated ‘turn-on’, these are clearly two desirable qualities in a girl that avail herself for manipulation by men, not least sexual. Unfortunately, not many seem to buy that. The fact remains that whereas men who are playboys in our society are all the more revered for their virility, women who have fallen are simply spoilt goods. In show business, men can be anything any time, but women are best marketed either as sweet and innocent young things or seasoned erotic symbols, the role is sealed with the image.  Bataille said that “prostitution is the logical consequence of the feminine attitude”, I guess men like the filthy sluts, but we also need the comfort of women who are exclusive products, or at least yielding only at much higher price.

The devaluation of Hong Kong celebrities now can also be understood by borrowing the word ‘aura’ from Walter Benjamin (Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit). Until now, the constant spying on celebrities by Hong Kong magazines had served to create an impression that these stars are elusive – in physical appearance, that is, while the magazines are able to reveal all trivialities of their personal lives so much so that readers begin to feel they have the right to know everything. Such spying (and the celebrities’ hiding) helps to whet our appetite for we tend to think the celebrities must be good-looking cos they are so hard to see, as the song goes. But just like a Britney Spears upskirt, suddenly fans are given far more than what they asked for. Suddenly even the celebrities’ most private realm of the senses has turned into images as good as commonplace property of every household. Such indecent exposure has now led to a loss of ‘aura’ which the celebrities have hitherto enjoyed from carefully laboured public relation exercises of photo shoots for magazine covers with the best angles and best lighting, as impressions of the stars are now stripped down to numerous images of raw sex which go through no quality control and are circulated endlessly to infinity. As Benjamin said of the effects of photographic reproductions: “By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.” Suddenly it strikes viewers, after satisfying their curiosity, that the physical bodies of the celebrities are really nothing that special, which we ought to know in the first place since the faces are what make celebrities unique. The breaking of moral taboo on display of sex in this case also marks the passing of an age of innocence, just about as revolutionary as the secularisation of religious cult images which Benjamin described: “Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult. One may assume that what mattered was their existence, not their being on view. … Certain statues of gods are accessible only to the priest in the cella; certain Madonnas remain covered nearly all year round, certain sculptures on medieval cathedrals are invisible to the spectator on ground level.” The exhibition value of photography quickly displaces its cult or personal, sentimental value. In this case, it is the sanctity of sex which some people like to guard with religious fervour, even in a secular society like the Chinese which has never been ruled by a church with a concept of original sin.

Frankly, one would not get so excited about the whole thing at all if one is not remotely a fan of Chinese entertainment. Hong Kong media continues relentlessly to chronicle the Edison Chen saga like scavengers (the latest episode centering on the identity of 8 women from affluent families, published in the magazines with photo silouettes and nicknames). The western media has generally been less than excited about this case, partly because Asian eroticism without any white player is of little interest, sex in the middle kingdom would be as alien as sex in the animal kingdom to them; anyway the concern in respectable media of the western world would be over invasion of personal privacy rather than public moralising. That said, it is fun to compare how different European media report the Edison Chen scandal differently. Le Monde, being French, simply relishes the potent mix of glamour and dirt as entertaining news, especially with rumours of extortion and celebrities’ mafia links: “Sexe, célébrités, mafia… les ingrédients sont dignes d’un thriller, le casting, lui, est prestigieux”. Der Spiegel, being German, immediately politicises the whole issue with a macro-social perspective, before falling into essentialist philosophy – first it describes the Chinese authorities as desperately fighting western influence and internet technology which defy traditional taboos on sex, and then it speculates if Edison Chen has deliberately started the whole thing himself as a publicity stunt. (Oh well, we should see it coming, Karl Marx with his great historical dialectism was born of German soil; it’s also typical of the general western view of the Asian society as backwards – yet to democratise, yet to secularise, yet to liberalise, all state-controlled and hence devoid of any capacity to think and behave as individuals unless western influence comes to the rescue.) The article seems just short of proclaiming Edison Chen a hero or martyr in a country which happens to forbid pornography by law even in this day and age.

It has been commented that China generally exercises more censorship over political content in the internet than sexual. While Cecilia Cheung’s commercial for a feminine cleansing product (which seemed a nicely timed self-mockery) was pulled in China possibly due to dispute on medical claims rather than her sex photos scandal, there has been a blatant ban in Chinese television not only on a skincare commercial by actress Tang Wei but any video of her. It is not just for her sex scenes in Lust, Caution though; the criticism seems to be that her character in the movie “glorifies traitors” and “insults patriots”. (Never mind the original story by Zhang Ailing was written half a century ago; and actor Tony Leung being a man and so well established is simply spared.) There is in fact a new directive on film licensing and censorship announced by China’s broadcasting bureau in early March stating that movies should give priority to “healthy development of the young and social effectiveness”. One can only speculate as to how much of this has been inspired by the Hong Kong sex photos scandal. But certainly even during the Chinese New Year period, it was noted with disgust that media attention on news of Edison Chen’s scandal was rivalling public concern over the winter disaster in China – which had left thousands freezing with water and electricity supply cut off, and prevented many from returning home for the reunion dinner, the most important annual ritual in Chinese culture. (Members of the public who condemn those involved in the sex scandal get so emotional that in Hong Kong, even Gillian Chung’s appearance in a charity concert for the winter disaster was met with protests from the audience; they have simply no forgiveness for such ‘sinners’.)

But the conservative and the socially conscious in China should take comfort in the knowledge that people still have other things to talk about than the sex life of celebrities. Like how some would point out in Chinese internet forums, why should we worry so much about the lives of these rich movie stars who still can afford to ‘burn’ dollar bills? One unlikely entertainment star who has been the talk of the town in China’s web sites during the Spring Festival was Zhao Benshan, a farmer turned comedian who has appeared for about two decades without fail every year in Beijing’s CCTV Spring Festival special, playing the role of an old farmer. While some would now criticise him for being an outdated cliche no longer representative of rural folks of China today, others still praise for his satire of modern life in China, saying he has a thing or two to teach movie director Zhang Yimou (currently busy preparing for the Olympics ceremony), who has been indulging in fetish of martial arts chinoiserie these days and dreaming only of winning an Oscar from across the Pacific, no longer relevant to real life in China. Zhao incidentally is also a performer in the folk art of song and dance known as er ren zhuan, arguably an intangible cultural heritage. Personally, I find it so nice to know that there is a huge population of simple folks who may still enjoy rustic and old-fashioned entertainment despite how the world has changed.   

Not that China does not have its own unique form of obscenity. In Chongqing city or municipality, there is a man who shares the same first and last Chinese names with Edison Chen. It is purely a coincidence from the world’s fastest growing urban centre, with a population of 31 million, and the poor man has been so harassed by people poking fun at him that he must be hating the name given by his parents. Anyone, this is a megalopolis which has recently boasted new luxurious villas at the hefty price of 50 million yuan each, and it may just enter the Guiness book of records soon with a new public toilet of capacity for 1,000 people at one time. Not only does the concept go against the logic of usage (why would people want to converge from far away to do their business en masse?), its design is in a style shamelessly stolen from Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona. It’s amazing the kind of strange vision some people produce by way of making a name for themselves.

Meantime Edison Chen has made a public apology over the incident and withdrawn from the Hong Kong entertainment industry indefinitely. It is a necessary gesture in respectable Chinese society to give a nod to morality even as the floodgates of internet and other media cannot be retracted, and the images will take a long time to fade from public memory. (Tabloids also say that his apology was timed with a holy day of a white dragon temple in Thailand, probably to save himself from people who want his blood.)  Chen may yet have hope of finding a new career in Hollywood with his role in the Batman movie filmed in Hong Kong, but the careers of ladies associated with him are apparently going down the john, and he will get no thanks for making this special administrative region of China look sexier than Gotham City.

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