Film star Yao Chen favors the roles of 'ordinary people', but as a goodwill ambassador she relishes the chance to do something extraordinary for the world's forgotten refugees, Liu Wei reports.
As an actress, Yao Chen adores Angelina Jolie.They have some things in common, like the signature big mouth, and they are now both goodwill ambassadors of United Nations' agency for refugees. On Oct 23 this year, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres presented Yao the certificate of appointment, thanking her for devoting herself to three years of work as UNHCR's honorary patron. "I'm very happy to have someone like you supporting the cause of refugees," he said. "Public awareness of UNHCR in China has multiplied." Before she became the first goodwill ambassador in China for the agency, the 34-year-old actress had visited urban refugees in the Philippines, refugees from Myanmar in Thailand's camps and Somali refugees in Ethiopia's camps as UNHCR's honorary patron. The visits totally refreshed her understanding of the common word "refugee".
"Sometimes we use the word to tease others in jokes, but I will never do that again," she says.
Yao vividly remembers a Somali refugee in the Philippines. She calls him "Doctor Moon". He went to the Philippines 24 years ago for study, and when he planned to go home he found it had been destroyed by war. But he did not apply to become a citizen of the Philippines, although he could have done that after living in the camp for five years.He told Yao that deep in his heart he believed he would return to his hometown－maybe tomorrow, or the day after that.
"His wish represents that of most refugees," Yao says, "they want to go home, anytime."
A UN mission is not an easy one to fulfill. Before she went to Ethiopia in 2012, she and her team were vaccinated. Everybody else was fine, but she had severe adverse reactions and fell ill. All the schedule had been confirmed, so she proceeded with the trip.
After the flight from Beijing to Ethiopia, the group traveled three hours on a UN charter plane and another three hours by jeep. On arrival at the camp, Yao felt as if her blood was boiling in the 48C air.
What she saw, however, was so harrowing that she forgot she was a patient herself. The camp was newly built, literally in the middle of nowhere. Gunshots had rattled the residents a week earlier. More refugees were arriving all the time, many forced to live in huts built from local brambles before tents could be provided.
Yao sat beside a mother, swarms of flies surrounding them. She was afraid to talk, fearing that the flies would rush into her mouth. The mother, however, was totally indifferent to the insects. Some flies stayed on her face and she had not the least intention to brush them off, talking on and on about her experiences like a machine.
"The scene was suffocating. For one minute I felt their lives were like those of the flies," Yao says of the people who are sometimes seen as an irritant by outsiders, but are most often ignored. "They lived in this world, or you can say they never did."
The scene also stunned Yi Lijing, a senior journalist who was covering the story. She spent the trip together with Yao's team. Most of the time, she observes, "Yao was trying to calm herself down."
"You can easily smell death there," Yi says. "It would be an emotional shock for anyone."
The shock might be especially devastating to Yao, who ended a seven-year marriage one year before that. But Yi says Yao did her best.
"The hygiene conditions were unpleasant, but she hugged kids and comforted them,"she says. "It would be understandable if she felt a bit scared or upset to touch or hug the kids－I saw flies lingering on a boy's wound and he did nothing about that－but she soon adjusted herself to the environment and seemed to have forgotten any hidden danger."
After the visit they became friends. Yi is a Buddhist and Yao is a Christian, but they found a lot of common ground in an experience they now cherish.
"We both found we had complained too much in the past.How stupid we were to complain that much when we actually lead such a better life than the people we met. She also better understands how to be a mom now."
Yao has a 6-month-old boy.
What such visits give the refugees, Yao believes, is hope.
"At least they find they are not forgotten. Some people in the world are concerned about them, which may help them go home one day and live a better life," she says.
After she came back to China, Yao shared what she experienced on Weibo, the social-networking platform.She has become one of the most followed there, boasting more than 50 million fans.
Her efforts to promote the agency and its cause helped make the organization No 4 in searches among charity institutions on China's largest search engine, Baidu.com, in 2012. She also persuaded the UNHCR to open a Weibo account to better communicate with Chinese netizens.
When most stars would like to use the social media platform to post pretty photos of themselves and their pets, and to promote their new works, Yao voices her takes on public affairs. She has shared pictures and videos of refugees she met, initiated various charity programs, and supported those unfairly treated.
Several days before our interview, a 10-year-old girl threw a 1-year-old boy from the 25th floor, raising a heated discussion on Weibo about juvenile delinquency. Yao posted six times to condemn the crime and insisted someone should be held responsible for the case.
She knew it was not a safe choice to comment on affairs involving crime and children, but she did. "I cannot pretend not to see it," she says.
Her friend Yi appreciates her courage." She refreshes many Chinese people's perceptions of an actress.
"'Who are you to comment on social issues? 'They used to think that way－and it is a pity that many still hold that opinion－but Yao is strong-minded in what she believes is right. She believes she is a citizen first, a person who lives in the same environment as everyone, who suffers the same when the air becomes smoggy and the water is contaminated."
Yi attributes Yao's kindness to her good nature and deliberate effort to be an ordinary person, although she has become one of the most successful actresses in China. In her latest film Firestorm, she is the lead actress with superstar Andy Lau. The film has grossed a record 250 million yuan ($41million) for its genre.
But in Yi's eyes, Yao is still the friend to meet at a shabby eatery. She seldom wears sunglasses or tries to disguise her face. Once they went to a noodle shop and soon a friend called, who knew where they were because some customers had quickly posted their photos online.
"As an actress she does not want a photo of her looking not that pretty online," says Yi. "But she would not risk losing a normal life to be perfect all the time. She tells me that she mostly portrays ordinary people in her films, and she says she would be unable to do that if she does not live their life."
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If you could talk to a late master in your field, who would you like to talk to and why?
Ruan Lingyu, the cinematic icon of China in the 1930s. She could not stand attacks on her personal love life and committed suicide when she was only 24. I would tell her not to kill herself, because compared to her artistic achievements, what other people said about her was trivial.
What do you appreciate most in women?
I appreciate those women who are kind. If a kind woman is also born with a good sense of humor, she will be loved by everyone.
If you were not doing your current job, what might you do for a career?
Maybe write a column? I recently wrote a short piece about my babysitter. My editor told me I could not write more than 1,000 words. I edited it over and over again. It is quite a demanding job to write. No, maybe I can not be a writer. I will fight with my editor.
what they say
She did not become an A-lister overnight. Before My Own Swordsmen (a TV series starring Yao in 2006) made her a household name, she even thought of giving up her acting career. She is fearless because she had planned for the worst.
She is an avid reader. We recommend books to each other. The last book she recommended to me was Alice Munro's Runaway.
Yi Lijing, senior journalist and a friend
Many actresses are so eager to be famous, but I don't see that in Yao Chen. She is not that ambitious or desperate. She believes the right thing will happen naturally.
At the same time, she is very sensitive and smart. She is one of those actresses who can act really well.
FENG XIAOGANG, director