It’s no easy leap marketable foreign face to kung fu acting career in China
“If I was at a party and someone asks me what I do…I just say I’m a student. I would never say the things that I’m doing.”
“It’s not realistic,” says Amy Lyons, an aspiring kung fu star from Australia. “You don’t see a movie about Top Gun and be like, ‘Oh, hey! I’m gonna be a fighter pilot tomorrow!’”
But Lyons is far from being the first wannabe foreign media star in China. Beginning with Canadian freelance performer Mark Rowswell (more popularly known in China as 大山) in the late 1980s, the presence of foreign performers in Chinese media has since grown to the point where China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has imposed restrictions on the number of foreigners allowed to be involved in domestic TV and film productions.
In the internet age, this presence has extended beyond the big screen to social media platforms, where groups such as Israeli Raz Galor’s Foreigners’ Research Institute (歪果仁研究协会) create video content featuring foreigners in China for Youku, Weibo, and Bilibili.
Unlike these men, the younger, blonder, and much less experienced Lyons is perhaps not typical of those hoping for a big break in mainland action cinema. Before arriving in China five years ago, Lyons says she was a different person. High-achieving and risk-adverse, Lyons graduated from Pymble Ladies’ College, in a suburb of Sydney, with a degree in marketing, then got a desk job at a bank.
“I used to know how many minutes were in a day, ’cause I would count them down,” she recalls.
Growing up, Lyons claims to have already had some connections to Asia. She remembers cooking various sorts of Asian foods with her mother: kung pao chicken and their own original creations of stuff in the fridge, mixed with rice.
“People ask me here [in China] can I use chopsticks. I’m like ‘I’ve been using chopsticks since I was two,’” Lyons boasts.
In high school, Lyons started studying Chinese language and culture, practicing Chinese characters while watching The Bachelor, her “guilty pleasure” (she claims to have seen every Bachelor series from five different countries, and also once participated in Chinese dating show Fei Chang Wan Mei). After watching Ip Man, based on the life and career of the eponymous 20th-century Wing Chun kung fu master, Lyons decided to try it out herself, and joined a Wing Chun school in Sydney.
When Lyons moved to Beijing in February last year to continue her language studies at Tsinghua University, she started sharing her kung fu fantasies with friends. However, she initially found that she was much more in demand as a 网红 (wanghong, internet celebrity). Having acted in videos with The Foreigners’ Research Institute, Lyons makes regular uploads on video-streaming platform Miaopai. She has also found work as an emcee for cultural events in a country where one can build an entire career from having a foreign face.
Actual kung fu prowess was going to take more preparation, which Lyons has now started to tackle. After moving to Beijing, she started learning Shaolin, a northern style of kung fu. Soon after, she registered at a school in Beijing’s eastern suburbs that is specifically trains actors; three times a week she take a four-hour class there, broken up into an hour of running, two hours of cardio, and an hour of abdominal workouts. A few months ago, she was introduced to a small media production group that’s now offering her her first gig.
In March, Lyons will go to Yongchun County in Fujian province to study White Crane style of kung fu for three months to prepare for her role as a villain in an upcoming series about an ancient piece of magical jade that’s been scattered over China.
Lyons visited her shifu late last year, but says that she still has really no idea what to expect. In her imagination is Kill Bill 2 “when she goes to study under the tutelage of Pai Mei, who’s in China somewhere,” Lyons says. “She just studies there for like a year and just becomes really bad-ass, so this is my opportunity to have that experience.”