Performing in China: Confessions of a White Monkey

In China, the image of white skin still pays dividends. Especially dancing white people.

Promoters for real estate opening parties spend tens of thousands of RMB to set the stage for potential homeowners. Magicians and mini-skirt wearing violin players are commonplace, but none earn even close as much as the coveted Anglo-Saxon musician/clown. The “White Monkey,” as some call the foreign performer, is the ultimate showpiece for any Grand Opening, be it for a multi-billion RMB high-tech zone or an apartment villa in the cabbage-picking boondocks.

Paid in Full

I’ll never forget my first “laowai” gig in the fall of 2008.

At that time I was a senior college student in a foreign study abroad program. Money was tight, I had an English teaching job in Wenjiang every Thursday (5 classes back to back) and two of the classes consisted of 45 screaming kindergarteners, who could barely speak Chinese let alone learn basic English words.

The gig was an anniversary party for the Great Wall Wine company at the InterContinental Hotel. If you could bottle wealth, I could have made a fortune from selling the air. The chandeliered lobby featured a seafood buffet and bottomless bottles of liquor served by scantily clad models. I remember not having a white collared shirt, so my agent provided a frilly disco-esque shirt and a pair of black leather shoes several sizes too small.

Elias' White Monkey gig

 Born to Rock

There were four musicians altogether:

  • A trumpet player from Singapore
  • American saxophone player
  • Canadian guitarist, and
  • Myself on bass guitar

None of us had ever practiced or rehearsed songs together. Naturally I was a bit nervous about embarking on such a half-assed endeavor in this classy venue.

“So we are playing Autumn Leaves, What a Wonderful World, a Paul Simon tune, all easy stuff.” The trumpet player instructed confidently.

“Oh, I played Autumn Leaves in college jazz combo, it’s like E minor, A minor, F# B7 etc.” I replied.

“Yeah well we have backing tracks so don’t worry too much.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know an mp3 without words, it’s like a sing-along” He replied, smiling and pulling back his ponytail.

I watched the lobby fill with bespectacled, balding Chinese men accompanied by women 20 years their junior.

The gig itself was painless, within a few bars of each song I figured out the general chord pattern and plunked out a bassline, which was muted by the overpowering backing track. After each two song “set” the crowd applauded and soon we were approached by tall girls in qipaos (traditional Chinese skirts) asking,

“Shuai ge, keyi pai zhao ma? “(Hey handsome, can we take a picture?)

Posing for photos, I felt like an instant celebrity in a pre-packaged Ren & Stimpy kind of way. If you wanted Rock-star-in-a–can this was the place for it. In this industry one’s musical skill is not determined by their chops but rather if your cable can reach the soundboard some 20 meters away from the stage.

Admittedly, the first couple “gigs” were exciting and new, but the novelty of the White Monkey Gig wears off quickly when one sees the sociological forces behind the whole fiasco.

Some people actually make a career out of this…

Class, Class, Class

Historically speaking, entertainers in China are typically members of the lower class. I’m sure you’ve seen a movie or three in which an underprivileged street kid joins a traveling theater troupe either to rise through the ranks or to be dealt a cruel dish of reality. Same goes for modern day performers, many with high hopes get stuck in the net of mediocrity.

Dream of becoming a famous cellist or classical musician? I hope you look hot in a mini-skirt and can play a techno version of the can-can on the violin.

Dream of leading a R&B group or jazz band on saxophone? Sorry buddy, only Kenny G covers are allowed.

Dancers at a real estate openingBy and large, musicians and entertainers bastardize their skills to get paid performing at Grand Openings around China. I’ve met dancers and musicians of extraordinary skill who are forced to conform to the cookie-cutter line-ups at these Openings. They go like this:

  • First, the Water Drum girls followed by a foreigner band and then a magician
  • Announcement, ceremony and then the saxophone guy
  • Foreigner band Take Two, followed by hot girl with a violin
  • Ending with angry looking models waiting to step back into Boss Wang’s BMW. Applause from the peasant masses or upper crust bosses
  • End show

Racism and The Hunt

White monkey performanceThe MCs and agents are actually unscrupulous pimps that will sometimes hold off paying you until:

  1. you give up
  2. accept less than previously agreed upon
  3. get intimidated into paying up in full

The phone call. (translated from Chinese)

“Hello Wei Lai we have a show on the 25th”

“I think I’m free, what time and where?”

“Sunday evening in Deyang. *(note location is likely to be 1-2 hours outside of whatever city is named)

“There are no Blacks or Chinese in your band?”

“No… why?”

“Oh nothing, who’s singing?”

“A girl from Spain, I think you’ve seen here before.’

“Oh right the skinny one”.

“Yeah,… ok so what’s the payment?”

“1200 RMB for two sets of 3 songs.”

“Sounds good, see you then.”

No blacks, no Chinese? What the hell? What if I was an American born Chinese that only knew how to say ni hao?

Anyone who looks remotely Asian wouldn’t be approached for these jobs. A white guy who only knows power chords would be picked for a gig over a guitar virtuoso with an Asian face.


White monkey gig backstage
Performers backstage at the gig waiting between shows

These days agents are a bit more opened minded about people with dark skin, however they are looking for a certain kind of dark-skinned musician; one with excellent music skills, good attitude and doesn’t seem “too African.” And sometimes they’re looking for the “Too African” stereotype.

Have Fun With It

A good friend of mine wrote a rock song about Sichuan Shao Kao (street barbeque), entitled “Basi De Hen” (Sichuan dialect for “Super cool”) which he performed regularly in 2009 at a bar in Jinli Street.

The chorus went:

Zui hao chi zui hao wan, shao kao ni shi wo de ai ren (“The most delicious, the most fun. BBQ you are my true love“)

I played this song with him for a crowd of 10,000+ in a suburb of Chongqing and had the place roaring. The peasants jumped the barrier and reclaimed the seats cordoned off for” VIP” guests. The lethargic security weren’t able to control the mayhem. Fireworks went off on stage, fog machines belched smoke and soap bubbles. It was rock and roll, baby.

White monkey gig

If the setting is right, the audience will get into the music, especially the Chinese songs. Recently some friends and I performed a rendition of “Chun Tian Li” at a banquet dinner for a medical supplies conglomerate at a Chengdu hotel. The whole place was singing along, toasting baijiu glasses in the air and swaying their heads to the thumping E string on the chorus. The vibe continued throughout our bluegrass and funk tunes and we were asked for an encore. Perhaps there is room for baijiu banquet rock stars, after all.

Gotta Pay the Bills

My roommate, a Spanish-speaking university student about to graduate from Sichuan University said,

I can’t teach English and there are few opportunities for Spanish-teaching jobs. How else can I pay for rent? I’m forced to be an actor!

A good friend of mine and guitar player from Japan proclaims,

We’d never have these “Laowai gigs” in Japan. The people would just laugh at you. Why do the Chinese spend so much money on bad entertainment? Only professional musicians have performances in Japan.

Although I hate the system, it’s got me under its thumb. I sold out.

White monkey club gig

Alas, for now these types of jobs are my most lucrative income; the US stock market sunk, I graduated in 2009 into a jobless economy. I’ve worked in China for 2 years, as struggling writer and editor who will try anything aside from teaching English to make ends meet.

I try to justify doing these gigs by knowing that I’ll save money and use my experience in China to eventually work on environmental law and policy consulting in Asia.

For example, last year I saved up money up money from White Monkey jobs in hopes of doing independent media reporting at the G20 summit in Seoul. Unfortunately, my passport was stolen, so the trip was canceled, and using the refunded money I got a huge tattoo instead.

What say you? Are White Monkeys justified? Are they sell-outs? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

52 thoughts on “Performing in China: Confessions of a White Monkey”

      • That was me. Yes but this man is complaining about his situation and dramatizing everything he has experienced. He is not talented nor is he very intelligent from what I’ve gathered from his rant. Which was offensive in many ways by the way.

        • i was tongue in cheek with my “rough out here” comment.

          I think there are other ways to look at the foreign performer phenom put here. So many examples … Da Shan and Jiang Nan fall into one category, my man Captain Morgan and Big Tenz fall into another … fake bands into yet another … Djs (Shadow and Krush anyone) into yet another … I think it could be interesting to explore.

          Maybe show some historical examples, if they exist, of foreigners performing abroad for the mere reason that they are foreign. German polka bands in Africa? Native American circus in Europe? Indian floating sages in Babylon? Chinese operettas in the WIld West? At first glance it seems that East Asia likes the foreign circus a little more than we might in the West … but anyone seen an “ethnic performance” in the US recently? World music anyone?

  1. This is definitely a fair analysis. Good post, Elias.

    I’ve done many, many gigs like this although it seems that white monkey DJs tend to have it marginally better off than band members. No backing track.

    About a year ago I had a gig in Chongqing at the opening of an outdoor mall and they had a laowai band perform as well. Before their set they were hyping up the crowd in English (“Are you ready??!”) and when they started playing it didn’t look right. Everything appeared out of sync. It took about a minute for me to confirm that not only were none of their instruments amped (except for the singer on the microphone), but they weren’t even musicians. Guitar player holding his instrument all goofy and clearly not know how to play, keyboard player mashing keys randomly, etc.

    I was just standing there incredulously while a crowd of Chinese people clapped. It was hard for me to believe that hundreds of people were staring RIGHT AT THEM and couldn’t decipher what was going on, but that was apparently the case. That was the only time I’ve seen a foreign band outright fake their entire performance though.

  2. Bueno. I didn’t think so many of the “J&B Cowboy” Shots would be on the post. But they the only ones professionally shot and they really captures the essence of the degrading antics on behalf of both performers and the audience.

    As the article mentions, I am a bass player, never-have-I-ever nor did I plan on signing for a crowded barroom. Yet things changed quickly back in 2009 when I had to learn a rendition of “Mambo Number 5” don a cowboy hat, bandana ( I wore a Zapatista knit scarf for a class mockery) and serve as Emcee for a night of debauchery.

    Anyhow I’m interested in using this as a “jumping off” point for further discussion on sociological issues raised in this piece.

    Update: Haven’t done any music gigs since the summer, but 2 weeks ago I was flown to Xian to be a “Wine expert” from Spain, no wait, they changed it on me last minute,

    “You can be French today right Wei Lai?”

  3. I know anything goes here, and it’s usually (always) crass before class, but I’m still amazed at how people just eat the p** poor entertainment on offer right up. And how much return on the Yuan is all this generating anyway? Tens if not hundreds of thousands of RMB dropped on hokey ‘entertainment’, or real French/Spanish/Whitey endorsement, attended by boat loads of freeloaders!

    Sign me up!!

    • Dude – get a grip. I am sure you are doing the best you can with your skill set and attributes. I have done a lot of promo gigs. You have written in blogs. Both possibly are below our stations. I have been playing for 40 years. Forcing our lofty lowai tastes on a culture that has is recovering from onw of the worst eras in modern times is pointless. The market decides. Kitch is fine for those who appreciate it.

  4. Guys, the opening of Lan Kwai Fong took White Monkeyism to new heights. The free drinks were appreciated, super models were in abundance, but my feeling at the end of the night was that it was all just very, very sad…

  5. When I read these types of critiques about the imperfections of cultures in flux, I invariably reflect on the authors. As is usually the case, we revile against others with characteristics we find most uncomfortable in ourselves. The question becomes: Are we living up to our own potentials and aspirations? Or should we just have another beer, qet ready for our own important jobs, and lob gobs of ridicule on others with lower callings than ours? If you don’t like the band, storm the stage and do somethng better. If you can do that, then do it, and you won’t have to go “teach” those brats tomorrow. And stay on that career path, white shirt or not.

    • So Cherry, you subscribe to the belief that anything lame in another culture cannot be ridiculed or criticized? I thought the article did a good job of detailing how ridiculously stupid this stuff is, while also having a sense of humour and saying LOOK HOW ABSURD WE, THE WHITE MONKEYS ARE. Cherry, you coulda saved yourself some time by just typing LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT. That kinda ends any discussion, doesn’t it?

      • In other words-check yourself. What bothers you about this kitch, are your own failings. My observations, after 3 years in China, are that the lowai population is culled from “party schools” from all over the planet. And not from the top of the class. They may have reached their level of competency, and this includes performers of all stripes. So party on. But for many, this will be their best efforts.

    • the whole foreign performer thing just puts everyone in contact with the most superficial and degrading parts of society in general: greed, duplicity, disdain, indifference

      I have two friends who were able to transcend that (at least to my outside observer eye) by treating even the most demeaning environment into a performance that made the shallow pigs that “rule” most clubs and discos behave themselves out of shame.

      basically being real and caring deeply about the performance shamed shallow humans into clapping and being civilized while deeper individuals took inspiration away with them. I have seen that happen at the most ridiculous shows here.

  6. I see the author of the piece, is just slumming in entertainment to “eventually work on environmental law and policy consulting in Asia.” May I ask what law school he went to? Or did he teach himself law, while teaching himself the bass? What is he better at, complex legal issues or music theory?

  7. Friend Cherry, i think you logged into the wrong forum. The OTHER Chengdu forum is the one for insults. Relax friend. No point getting all hot and flustered. Try decaf…..

  8. There are some good parts of being a foreign performer: travel around China, meet new people, make good money etc. For years I was traveling to different places almost every weekend. It got old, but many of those trips rank among my best memories of being in China.

    Sascha and I actually met through what was basically a monkey gig, I think in 2006 right? He was the contact for Coors who was organizing a tour of China featuring VJs and dancers which I got brought into by Tenzin.

    It used to be so much of a bigger industry compared to now. Now it’s mostly real estate gigs with bands from what I understand. It used to be club gigs all over China. Clubs were desperate for foreign dancers, DJs, MCs etc 5 years ago. That has changed a bit.

    For me, it was a fun thing to do for a few years, to travel around the country while I was learning Chinese and get paid for working a few hours per night. Lots of good memories and stories.

    • hey man, I hope you will read this after all these years lol. I’m interested into Dj-ing across Asia, could you please give me some infos? who could I contact? thanks

      • It’s much more difficult now than it was 5+ years ago: there’s little interest in musicianship and there are tons of Russians and Ukrainians performing in China which undercut most DJs from Europe or the States. Feel free to get in touch though, chengduliving at gmail.

  9. Homework: Who invented “being white” as the “perfect ideal” world wide? Why do people in China consider white people as pretty? Where do the categories “white, black, asian…” come from? Who invented them?
    Also, maybe you are discriminated against sometimes, but being actually racist towards others includes having the power to do so. You are a white male from the West. You have pretty much every privilege people on this planet can have. Do the people in China you accuse of Racism have those same privileges? I strongly doubt that.

    Oh, and just to be clear: I’m white myself and lived in China for quite a while.

  10. First off I’m glad to see this is sparking controversy and critique.

    Cherry’s initial comment was well-phrased and touches upon people not living up to their true potential. This is something everyone faces and it is important for all of us to continuously raise the bar on our goals and expectations.

    I see many people falling into the “China Trap” cutting corners on their hopes and ambitions in order to live a carefree and comfortable lifestyle. This is the essence of the “White Monkey” job. Image is everything and Skills are secondary.

    I think there are people better qualified to write on this subject considering the fact that NO this is Not my JOB. I work for a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) consulting firm sponsored by a Hong Kong company.

    So what’s next? I need to post my résumé in order to prove that I’m not just an American from a party school thats fallen into the “China Trap”.

    Ask Sasha, my initial article was focused more on the and academic points of this sociological sham. He told me straight up to pick the personal observation or academic route for this thing and not to “straddle the fence”. So here you have it, a personal observation just like one from thousands of other foreigners with “China blogs”.

    Rachel Dewoskin touched on the concept of white monkeyism (with more flair) in her book “Foreign Babes in Beijing” where she was a star actress in a Chinese Soap.

    But she went to Columbia so I suppose you don’t have a problem with her?

    Trolling my bass playing or aspirations to work on creating holistic solutions to contemporary environmental problems is pretty sophomoric, Cherry.

        • Sascha knøwz how to edit g00d ;P

          It was best for this piece to be based on personal reflection rather than trying to go the “ivory tower” route with footnotes, Foucault and filler…

          As for the “race” card. The point of this is that I’m fed up with the “white makes right mentality” that I see played out so much in China. It is western imperialism that made all these cookie-cutter categories.

          I’m a privileged white male, there is no way to change my background or my appearance. I’m reminded of this everyday I spend in China. I hope that this fallacy of fashion and deception that is the “White Monkey” job is a short lived phenomenon. But as the conclusion states, I’ll take money now again from “The system” and use it to fund counter-culture elements of my life. If I wanted a guilt-free lifestyle that coincided with all my political ideals I’d have to drop out of society, join a co-op farm surrounded with people who think like me, eat like me and perhaps even smell like me. I’ll take adversity instead.

  11. A few of my Chinese friends have read this and they think it’s hilarious that we can call ourselves “white monkeys”.
    (the author would like to disclose that in the past he has been a “dancing monkey”, and was handsomely compensated). When you can’t laugh, it’s time to leave…

  12. While the outlook appears to be grim for the talented in China, it looks like the demand for untalented musicians is booming. So in some ways, it’s not all bad- there is always someone that benefits.

  13. Cheers Elias for pointing out the flawed perception of these performances. I’ve never sung in a hotel but I’ve been cowed into singing “Skater Boy” for an audience of 7,000 on local television. The word “tokenism” is usually associated with oppressed or under-represented cultures so it’s interesting to see it turned on white upper-middle-class culture in general and still have the safe stifling effect on creativity and freedom of expression. If we are to talk about living up to our own standards though, personal gratification is the way to measure it- are you satisfied by your role in these showcases, or left wanting? However I’d be careful about drawing a connection between your career and academic goals and any justification of what you’re doing in China for money-there are other ways to get funding, including grants and scholarships that don’t require you to dawn a frilly costume and dance around like a tool.

  14. Agreed. More grants! I haven’t tooled around in quite some time, but with xmas approaching I know people who are making upwards of 10,000RMB in this month alone. As James points out there is a demand for unskilled musicians. Contrary to what Cherry might think I’m not one of them. I know a handful of highly skilled musicians in the band called “Red Water” who, pardon the pun, water down their talent to appeal to their clients.

    And yes Tabitha by no means am I going to fund graduate school by making an extra 1000RMB every two or three months. Honestly, some of the gigs were rewarding, like playing real live country music on top of the construction site near Computer City for an audience that included the Mayor of the Chengdu.

    Yet often times you leave a gig feeling like you either got violated or you violated someone else. By in large the whole fiasco is very whorish, and I think most other “White Monkeys” would agree.

    • I totally agree with everything you’ve stated here. I’ve done a hundred, at least, of these things since I fist moved to China 2 and a half years ago. But I’ll keep doing them, because it’s easy money and it’s good supplemental income. I know people who have successful businesses here who do this on the side for fun and extra money. If there’s a market for it, just do it if you’re fortunate enough to be able to. I try my best to just go with it and really have a good time, but usually I’m with people I know and I’ve been playing with for a while.

    • Thought you might appreciate this: I had a gig to play piano at a store opening. Showed up there and they had a brand new grand piano, still had the plastic on. I did my first set and it wasn’t too bad…it was the worst piano I had ever played in my life…but when it came time for my second set they were blasting rap music over the loudspeakers. I sat and waited for them to turn it off and they asked me why I wasn’t playing. I said I was waiting for the music to be turned off so I could start…they said, “Just play.” It was clear then that my job was to be seen and not heard. People came by and took pictures, but I don’t think anyone heard a note that I played.

  15. I got to participate in my first white monkey gig this weekend! I was hired to “DJ”, although very little expertise was required to do the job. I rode to the gig with 4 other foreigners who would perform as a band. The band was made up of a Ukrainian singer, a Polish guitar player, a French drummer and a Russian (maybe?) keyboard player.

    After I finished setting up my equipment, I was handed a USB drive and told that I would be playing the music for the band. When I was doing my sound check, the only band member doing the same was the singer. I looked over to see that the keyboard had no audio out, the electric drum set was turned down to an inaudible level and there was no guitar amp. I thought it seemed a little odd and immediately this article and the term “white monkey” came to mind.

    When it was time for the band to perform the singer gave me a thumbs up and I pressed play. The singer wailed away as the other 3 band members were quite passionately “playing” their instruments. It seemed the drummer and the guitar player at least knew how to play their instruments, but the keyboard player looked quite lost and continued to play during the drum and guitar solos of tracks.

    Later in the evening I witnessed more entertainment as a white couple danced to tango-ish music and then a rapper came out to drop some fresh “raw-shit” to a room full of families and children.

    At the end of the evening I was paid in full and had quite an entertaining time watching all these performances go down. I can’t imagine any of this being a crowd-pleaser in another country, but the Chinese guests seemed to be entertained. Maybe this kind of entertainment will fade in the future, but for now, I’ll gladly pick up these gigs for some extra loot.

    • I can’t believe you got to see a fake band perform on your first gig. Maybe it’s more prevalent now than a few years ago, which is surprising. I guess I had expected that with the economic development of Chengdu that eventually you would have real estate events attended by people who can decipher that someone mashing the keyboard during a drum solo isn’t actually playing the instrument. I get the feeling that they really cannot tell what is happening, rather than being able to decipher that foreigners are in the scene more or less as human props. Funny that they don’t notice or think about those things at all.

  16. I played over a backing track on xmas eve for some frank sinatra/ jazzy showtunes, but it sounded okay since I was using a fretless bass and knew some of the chords.

    The guy who was singing the one who really mattered (he had great voice) but the poor sap on guitar wasn’t plugged in.

    It was a fancy party for the über rich of Luxehulls who were slowdancing, drinking fine wine and steak and asking me about golf in america.

    I love the line: ” So you are from Boston, why didn’t you go to Harvard?’ Even the cabbies are up on that.

  17. I live in beijing. I think it sounds like a pretty fair assessment…Based on what I hear from friends that do/ have done performances. Don’t fully give in and keep working on the writing. I am sure there must be interesting things and stories for you to follow or write about beyond just a blog. What sort of writing do you want to focus on, Journalism?

  18. Just perform, you’re getting paid no? I think it’s fine if you’re playing an instrument and you’ve actually put a bit of effort into learning what you’re going to play. Otherwise, fuck it, you’re a white guy who plays bass, rare set of cards you’ve got there in Chengdu, I’d play them to the max

  19. Glad to see this article still reaching fresh eyes.

    @ Anonimus Yes I’m still writing, actually my preferred medium is fiction. Stay tuned for the drop of my national bestseller 😛

    @Paul Actually my set of cards aren’t too rare, I’d say there are is a pool of around 50 monkeys that keep business thriving out here in Chendgu/Chongqing. I have an office job, but as stated, take these from time to time to supplement my LOW income.

  20. I’m a foreigner magician living in China for 12 years, not everyone is white monkey untalented performer, there are different kinds of events.
    The phenomenon that Elias wrote about it start when a Chinese business man try to sale something with a status of “iinternational ” for example: I live on a residential neighborhood which is also name international, so when there’s a private party or opening sales day for these events they would hire foreigner performers.
    They’re not racist, they want to link their event with the performers Image.
    For example during the south African world cup the black performers were very busy while me not so much as them because I was to white.

    • Honestly though, most of these places don’t need highly skilled performers: they need white people who project an image of exoticism (in most cases they have no clue what a good DJ/guitarist/magician really looks like). I think it is a little racist but we (caucasian expats) are the beneficiaries of this fetish that China has, so it’s hard to really complain about it.


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