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.
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, Baidu.com, 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.”