Ac­tress on mis­sion

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, Li­uWei re­ports.

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Yao Chen reaches out to the world’s refugees in a new role with the UN.

As an ac­tress, Yao Chen adores Angelina Jolie. They have some things in com­mon, like the sig­na­ture big mouth, and they are now­both good­will am­bas­sadors ofUnit­edNa­tions’ agency for refugees. OnOct 23 this year, UNHigh 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 ofUNHCRin 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.

Yao­vivid­lyre­mem­ber­saSo­ma­lirefugee in the Philip­pines. She calls him “Doc­torMoon”. He went to the Philip­pines24yearsago­forstudy, and­when he­p­lanned­to­go­home­he­foundithad been de­stroyed by war. But he did not ap­ply­to­be­comeac­i­t­i­zenofthePhilip­pines, 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 hishome­town— maybe to­mor­row, or the day af­ter that.

“His wish rep­re­sents that of most refugees,” Yao says, “they want to go home, any time.”

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, soshe­p­ro­ceed­ed­with­thetrip.

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 48 C 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 res­i­dent­saweekear­lier. Mor­erefugees were­ar­rivin­gall­thetime, many­forced to­livein­huts­built­from­lo­cal­bram­bles be­fore tents could be pro­vided.

Yao sat be­side a mother, swarm­sof 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 theyn­ever did.”

The scene also stunned Yi Li­jing, a se­nior jour­nal­ist who was cov­er­ing the story. She spent the trip to­gether with­Yao’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 sev­enyear 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— Isawflies 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 isaBud­dhi­s­tandYaoisaChris­tian, 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 amom­now.” 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 in­sti­tu­tion­sonChina’s largest search en­gine,, in 2012. She also per­suaded the UNHCR to open aWeibo 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.

Sheknewit­was­no­tasafe 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 that­way— 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 smog­gyandthe­wa­teris 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 ($41 mil­lion) for its genre.

But in Yi’s eyes, Yao is still the friend tomeet at a shabby eatery. She sel­dom wears sun­glasses or tries to dis­guise­herface. Oncethey­went­toa noodleshopand­soon 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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