A gripping exposé of the “rent-a-white-guy” industry

It’s November 2012 and President Xi Jinping is proposing his vision for a “Chinese Dream” based on national rejuvenation and individual prosperity. One of those paying close attention is Yana, a bright and ambitious woman who we meet talking of “fresh ideas” for the “stale, behind-the-times” business environment in Chongqing.

Yana’s special plan? Recruit foreigners to act as front men and women (or “performers” as her firm’s advert states) for remote developments that could use an extra dose of cosmopolitanism and “class.” Some people, including director David Borenstein, may deem her rent-a-white-guy agency “brilliant marketing,” others as slightly sleazy fraud. Perhaps it’s simply an acceptable part of doing business in China. Any way you cut it, there’s plenty to cringe at in Dream Empire, from hapless foreigners phoning in performances for quick cash, to Yana introducing an African band as “primitive drumming and dancing.”

But Borenstein’s illuminating documentary, clocking in at just over an hour, delves beyond the tragi-comedic value of watching expats offer a Caucasian face to the biggest building boom in Chinese history, and soon becomes a character study in ambition and the seeds it sows. Yana, a Xinjiang migrant who comes to Chongqing with little more than dreams and pluck, proves an engaging subject who opens up as the film progresses; Borenstein, who arrives with a grant to study urbanization, then ends up drifting into Yana’s orbit via a series of foreigner gigs, is a faithful confidante to her growing concerns.

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Dream Empire is a story from our issue, “Beyond Go.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


Han Rubo is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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