Book review

Chinese stardom in participatory cyberculture, by Dorothy Wai Sim Lau

Wikanda Promkhuntong

Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, Mahidol University, Salaya, Thailand

[0.1] Keywords—Blog; Celebrity; Chineseness; Ethnicity; Fan forum; Flickr; Martial arts; Participatory culture; Social media; Transnational cinema; YouTube

Promkhuntong, Wikanda. 2019. Chinese Stardom in Participatory Cyberculture, by Dorothy Wai Sim Lau [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 30.

Dorothy Wai Sim Lau. Chinese stardom in participatory cyberculture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018, hardback, £75 (224p) ISBN 978-1474430333.

[1] For scholars interested in East Asian cinema, stardom, and its relationship to film fans, this book is a much-needed work that links these areas together. Published as part of the Edinburgh University Press's International Film Stars series, Chinese Stardom in Participatory Cyberculture particularly focuses on the way participatory culture—or what Lau refers to as participatory cyberculture—can be used to expand existing discourses on Chinese film stardom. Lau specifically grounds her work in the context of Chinese martial arts cinema, linking martial arts stardom and the notion of Chineseness. Her emphasis on identity and ethnicity connects this book with existing writings on Chinese film stars, including those revisited by Lau, such as Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Zhang Ziyi. However, while the book emphasizes how Chineseness has been constructed and problematized in relation to martial arts stars, Lau focuses on the ways in which nationalism and ethnicities are negotiated by fans across different platforms rather than focusing solely on cinematic texts. This emphasis works to illuminate the importance of online culture in "decentering the production of star discourses" shaped by the long-established star system (McDonald quoted in Lau 2018, 4). The process of decentering industry discourses resonates with fan studies' focus on the power dynamic between fan and industry. While the book primarily focuses on star subjectivities instead of fan subjectivities, it highlights how fan practices can be drawn on to expand related fields, such as star studies and East Asian cinema, in productive ways.

[2] The first three chapters focus on martial arts cinema, which is, as Lau argues, a key genre of internationally successful Chinese cinema apart from the Fifth Generation's movies and related auteurs. The first chapter, a case study on Donnie Yen, offers ample background on martial arts stardom and the persistent question of stars' ethnicities in Hollywood. Yen's role as Chirrut Îmwe, a blind warrior-monk who assists the Rebels in a battle to steal the plan of the Death Star in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), acts as an entry point connecting the Chinese film star with an object of fandom well known to Western media scholars. Lau focuses on discourses relating to Yen generated by fans in five selected blogs. These fans elaborate on Yen's specific mode of martial arts practice, linking Wing Chun to the MMA style of fighting, which highlights the actor's unique on-screen martial arts traits. Fans also link martial arts to hip-hop through their cultural association of hip-hop with ethnic resistance to American cultural hegemony. In addition, fans frame Yen as a family man, discussing the occasion when he shared an image on Instagram of his son dressed up as Chirrut Îmwe and his daughter as a stormtrooper for Halloween. The image shared by fans highlights how Yen is a loving and caring father. This fatherly quality fits well with Chinese Confucian values, which emphasize the importance of family connections. The harmonious on- and off-screen star discourses highlighted by fans make Yen stand out from Jackie Chan, discussed in the following chapter, whose mediated private life has been marked with stories of love affairs.

[3] Chapter 2 explores fans' use of Flickr to construct Jackie Chan's public personas. This case study reveals different discourses about the star shaped by fans from various geographies. In the US, fans' reenactments of kung fu fighting on the Hollywood Walk of Fame revives the idea of ethnic Chineseness but also reduces Chan's body into a kind of spectacle used for fans' social relations. The absence of Chan's martial arts body is also evident in Australia, where fans wore Jackie Chan masks to participate in the Adelaide Flash Mob to celebrate the actor's martial arts prowess in 2010. Lau continues by exploring the way the actor's publicity team uses Flickr to promote Chan's charity work and various patriotic social functions. The Flickr publicity album has limited fan emotional engagement, which contrasts with Jet Li's philanthropist project, set up after the actor personally experienced a tsunami disaster while holidaying in the Maldives in 2004. Chapter 3 explores Li's active role in communicating with fans through the Facebook page entitled 李连杰 Jet Li, in which the majority of posts highlight Li's charity projects in different countries. The use of personal address and affective tone of voice in the posts work to create Li's authentic "charitable persona" (Lau 2018, 102). The focus on his philanthropic pursuits also shifts focus from Li's ethnic stardom and martial arts prowess to a new spiritual and cosmopolitan persona.

[4] As the first three chapters focused on the interconnected discourses of male martial arts actors, chapters 4 and 5 instead shift to the stardom of actors Zhang Ziyi and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Lau's case study of Zhang highlights the different pressures female stars face as compared to male stars. Zhang's fans highlight off-screen stories of her English language skills and news of her relationships with different male public figures on YouTube, while criticisms of Zhang, posted on YouTube in response to a video clip featuring paparazzi beach photos, illuminate conflicts between the star's public image and the "cultural integrity and national honor" (Lau 2018, 119) expected of a Chinese actress. While these online criticisms place Zhang in a marginal position—as an actress who can perform martial arts but cannot fulfill the cultural expectations held for a Chinese female star—Zhang's supporters negotiate her star position by emphasizing her hard work to improve her English language skills.

[5] Chapter 5 highlights how fan discourses are also important to the construction of Kaneshiro as a pan-Asian star. Instead of focusing on Kaneshiro's inauthentic accents when speaking in different languages and dialects, fans in internet forums emphasize the visual appeal of the half-Taiwanese, half-Japanese actor. Kaneshiro's complicated appeals are revealed through fans' attention to his attractive appearance instead of his acting ability, particularly when he is compared to stars like Keanu Reeves and Johnny Depp, whose good looks have caused their acting abilities to be undermined. Influenced by the fans' own identities and cultural associations, and resonating with other case studies where fans perceive their favorite star's ethnicity to be fluid, fans emphasize Kaneshiro's connection with Japan despite the actor's limited discussion of his Japanese roots.

[6] Overall, Lau smoothly sews together the case studies to develop interconnected inquiries into the ethnicities of film stars and related discourses on age and gender politics. However, while the focus of the book on Chinese film stars is well argued and nicely concluded in the final chapter, I also hoped to read about the writer's reflections on the development of the field of East Asian star studies and broader contexts on stars' cross-media presence and transmedia constructions. A related book is Leung Wing-Fai's (2014) monograph Multimedia Stardom in Hong Kong: Image, Performance, and Identity, which uses the term "multimedia" to emphasize the connections between popular culture and different media industries that shape Hong Kong actors' stardom. Nevertheless, Lau's employment of fan-generated content to explore stars' public personas emphasizes fan-star relations, a perspective missing from previous works on East Asian film stardom. Future works on the crossing of different media industries by the new generation of pan-Asian stars and fans, as well as reflections on fan studies' approaches to stardom as opposed to those of transmedia stardom studies, would be welcome additions to both fields.

[7] Lau points to works on postcinema and postcinematic conditions in her introductory chapter. Her use of the term "cyberculture" instead of "online cultures" or "transmedia cultures" suggests that the idea of the cyber, perhaps in relation to cybernetics, could be expanded further to discuss the bodies and figures of stars whose public images and reputations are shaped through multiple electronic personas. This could perhaps develop the idea of stardom beyond individual ethnicities and bodies to the interconnectivity between icons, figures, spaces, and human/nonhuman connections.

[8] On the whole, Chinese Stardom in Participatory Cyberculture, which links studies of Chinese stardom with those of participatory culture, should certainly be added to scholars' reading lists for its contribution. The book is timely given that fan studies scholars have been increasingly engaging with related fields, including celebrity studies, and aiming to focus more research outside Anglo-American and European contexts. For media and fan studies scholars, the study of fan-generated content may not be a novel approach; nevertheless, the case studies provided support fan studies' interest in exploring fans' power in negotiating and problematizing industry discourses. This is particularly crucial in contemporary East Asian cinema contexts, in which ethnic stars are still dependent on dominant film industries for their breakthroughs and global exposure.


Leung, Wing-Fai. 2014. Multimedia Stardom in Hong Kong: Image, Performance and Identity. London: Routledge.