I'm Not a Communist, But I Play One on TV

Life and times of a token white guy – by Jonathan ‘Cao Cao’ Kos-Read


The guy with the world’s biggest dick was on Howard Stern once.

Everybody was fascinated. Who wouldn't be? His dick was 14 inches long, as thick as a baby's arm. And everyone had questions: could he get it all the way in? Had he ever fucked a guy? Did erections make him light-headed? Pressing, important burning questions. But all the guy wanted to talk about was his novel – a long thing about intergenerational conflict and the struggle between morality and family and … or you know, something. Nobody was listening. They just wanted to know about his dick.

And honestly, I often feel the same way. I have a job that people think is interesting – both in an amusing way, but also as an odd sideways window into Chinese culture.

I play white guys in Chinese movies.

So I often get asked to write about it. But there is a problem. Before I came to China twenty years ago, I swore to myself I would never write that book. I used to browse the China section of bookstores – back when they existed. I wanted history, translations, novels. But the shelves were stuffed with “I went to China, did some random thing then wrote a stupid book about it”. River Town is the most famous example – and one of the few not awful ones – but they're all basically the same: I went to China and studied kung fu and got changed, I went to China and taught English and learned about myself, I went to China and did something even more boring and learned/changed/whatever. It's like a little sub-genre where people use China as a mirror for whatever neurosis they had coming in. It's not even like they're not genuine, they're just monotonous.

People could get away with it then because China was so unknown. No one had any idea what it was like and so people who went there were genuinely adventurous.

And I like to write about other things. I wrote an ancient China murder mystery novel for example! But nobody is interested. They just want to know what it's like to shoot a sex scene in Beijing, make zombie movies in Mongolia, and play kung fu cowboys.

And I get that. So it’s been a long time since I lashed myself to the mast of my ship. The sirens have been twittering in my ear and the ropes are breaking, and finally I too have succumbed. So here are some excerpts from my take on:

“I went to China, did some random stuff and learned and whatever.”


My bisexual orgy

I wondered if I could kiss a dude. I was on a Chinese web series. And it was during a two-year interval when Chinese directors had just started shooting narrative stuff for web distribution. For TV and film, there is a vast department of fussbudgets who squint at all content for broadcast. They're very thorough. And they gut Chinese entertainment – you can’t shoot stuff people want to see. Cop shows are out because it would imply there was crime. Spy shows are out because no foreign spy could ever succeed. Comedy's out because you can’t make poop and fart and sex and government jokes. That leaves “killing Japanese in WWII”, which makes up about two-thirds of the filmed output here. And that gets dull quick.

But the Internet! It was an opportunity to redo the restrictions without going up against an entrenched government ministry! It was still fast and loose and people started to test boundaries! And Chinese patriots rose up on the Internet in a political firestorm to demand … just kidding.

They shot ass and boobs and stuff.

And that was how I found myself in the bisexual orgy. It was my final scene in what was a pretty good, daring show. I'm drowning my sorrows at losing the girl in a drunken fit of screwing and booze. On my left, millimeters from naked, are two eighteen-year-old Chinese models in nipple covers and g-strings. In front of me, also technically not naked is a Chinese dominatrix who occasionally moonlights making porn in Hong Kong, and and on my right, disconcertingly, are two dudes.

Now, I don't want to get into a “methinks he doth protest too much” monologue. I have no problem with gayness. I'm totally, 100% pro everything, zero hang-ups … or so I thought.

Because, when the camera started rolling, I had no problem feeling up the girls and the dominatrix but straight up, I felt super uncomfortable touching the dudes. I tried to rub their backs. I even went in for a kiss but pulled back at the last minute – all the time with my roving and hypocritical hands on the girls.

Now, what would have happened if the director had yelled cut and said “Jonathan, you're bisexual, you can't just touch the girls, you have to make out with a dude.” What would I have done? I'm not actually sure.

Because the odd thing, the thing that most people back in America don't get is that gayness isn't a moral issue in China. It's not evil to be gay. It's just embarrassing.

You don't get the nut job religious condemnation, but importantly you also don't get the moral validation for supporting a just cause when, for example, you play someone who is bisexual and REALLY GO FOR IT. You just get shrugs and snickers.

So I was writhing around on this bed in China in the 21st century. The cameras were rolling. I was trying to be a serious actor. But I chickened out.

I had my chance to kiss a dude for freedom. But I blew it.


Cheap foreign labor

The latest US election is hinging on whether Mexicans are criminals and rapists. Yes, say Republicans. No, say Mexicans. The issue, framed in the crappiest way possible, is “fucking stupid Mexicans can't get work in their shitty country so they come steal jobs from real Americans. Let's build a WALL to keep those assholes out!”

Now, it's easy to criticize that view at a distance. But then it happens to you.

This big Chinese movie called my agent and said, “We want Jonathan!” She asked for an outrageously high price and they said “Okay!”, getting me in a pissed-off mood right away because it meant we could have asked for even more.

It's about Bruce Lee’s kung fu teacher, Ip Man. It's representative of a big change in Chinese attitudes. Twenty years ago, Bruce was the hero because he MADE IT IN AMERICA. Now, though, his teacher has eclipsed him because he did the honorable thing and stayed in China thus preserving real honorable kung fu yada yada.

I signed the contract and they sent me the script. And immediately I got even more pissed off. There was ANOTHER FOREIGNER in the movie and his part was OBVIOUSLY BIGGER than mine. So I texted the casting director, “Hey, cool script, who's this other foreigner?” No response. I waited a day and texted again, “Yeah, just wondering who’s playing Frankie?”

No response. Total silent diss. I was irritated on the flight to Shanghai so I dissed them back by sulking in my hotel room before the shoot.

The next morning, I got into the van, got to the set, and immediately understood. There, on our location, in the middle of his entourage and looking a little bewildered, was Mike Tyson.

Honestly, I was intimidated. My teenage years were Iron Mike demolishing people in ten seconds. I walked over.

“Hi, I'm Jonathan. We're in the scene together.”

He lisped out, “Hi, I'm Mike,” in that startling voice he has.

“Yeah, I know who you are.”

He shook my hand. I'd never been that close to so much physical power. It was overwhelming. Like shaking hands with Grendel.

And so the question arises: what was Mike Tyson doing in a Chinese movie?

American stars have been trickling into Chinese movies starting about five years ago. The producers hire them because they want the cachet. But can't afford the big stars. So they mostly get guys on the decline and second rankers. Those guys come partly because they need work and money, but more really to rejuvenate their careers. Because to be a leading actor in Hollywood now you need Asian Box Office. So just this year, guys like John Cusack, Adrian Brody and Nick Cage all shot here. Definitely stars, but they don't shine like they used to. This is a path back. And they come with a massive pay cut.

Cheap foreign labor stealing jobs.

And the result of this was that I spent three days hanging out with Mike Tyson. And I mean really hanging out. When you're acting, you're in a little bubble with your co-actor. Chaos swirls around you but you just sit and talk quietly. Mike Tyson, to my immense surprise, is, like, the fucking nicest guy. To give you a sense of it we:

1) Talked pre-schools. 

We have daughters the same age. With Iron Mike, I compared Montessori methods, and talked about letting kids find their own way, blah blah. Concerned over-anxious parent stuff.

2) Talked philosophy. 

“How come you didn't become a trainer after boxing?”

“Not my thing.”

“Yeah, the best coaches were mediocre players. They had to be smart because they didn't have that magic.”

“Nah, there's something more important. A lot of coaches failed and they're living their dreams through you.

3) Talked deep stuff.

“I watch a lot of industry girls hit thirty and get spit out and have to learn how to build a new life. That seems to be kinda, ahhmm, like you…”

“Yeah, that’s me. Always startin’ over.”

“What are you doing now?”

“I like the acting.”


“Yeah man.”


“Cuz when I'm actin I don't have to be me.”

That was SO not what I expected, like, a smart, thoughtful, insightful guy. I really liked him, in the same way any Republican would probably like any INDIVIDUAL Mexican he met. And that's the rub. It's not his fault he's here. It's smart. It's what he should be doing. I know I can't fight it. I just have to work harder. And in the long run its good for my industry; a rising tide floats all boats. But my first reaction when these guys come over and take parts that I used to have a shot at is always that Donald Trump-style visceral gut paranoia.

It is what it is.

China basically sucked for the last hundred and fifty years. But now it's stepping back up into the position it has held for most of human history. And with that shift, the first real scattering of people is fluttering over in this direction. They're dropping into China because this is where the money and the excitement and the opportunities are. And more come every day.

Maybe China should build a wall too, or, ermm … another one.


I want her to be fat

I have to admit, right up front, that I didn’t write most of this last part. It was written instead by some random Chinese guy.

Below I have translated the best bits of an article entitled “Showbiz’s Biggest Foreigner and How He Was Molded By His Young Wife Into a Chinese Style Husband”. It’s from a Chinese magazine and it’s about how I met and fell in love with my wife. I got it as an email attachment with a cute note that said, in Chinese: “Hey, we were just like super inspired by your story so we wanted to profile you in our magazine but, you know, our deadline was like, super soon so, like, we didn’t have time to interview you.”

It’s so awesome I’m worried you’ll think I added shit to make it funnier but I didn’t. What you read below is really a verbatim translation. So kind of like Long Duc Dong in Sixteen Candles and Han in Two Broke Girls, this is how Chinese see Americans.

Cao Cao’s Love Story

Endless, repetitive, monotonous work was drowning Jonathan in feelings of suffering and helplessness. He was desperate to find a girlfriend. He begged all his friends for introductions to Chinese girls. But he found fault in each one. None were good enough.

He fell into depression. His friends criticized him for being too picky. Finally when he pleaded yet again, his friend shot back exasperated, “Well what kind of girl do you want?!”

Jonathan said, “I don’t want a naïve girl. And I don’t want one who follows orders. I want her to be fat. "

“Ha ha,” his friend said, “I actually know such a girl. Her name is Li Zhiyin. She is a junior at the Capital University of Finance. She is fat." 

In short order, Jonathan and Li Zhiyin were shepherded to a Sanlitun coffee shop by this friend. Jonathan had made a special and extraordinary effort of personal grooming. And when he saw Li Zhiyin for the first time he saluted her in the Chinese, double-raised-fist style. He said in ancient Chinese, “I am Cao Cao, please forgive any obstreperousness or importune mistakes made by my humble self.”

Here it drags for a bit. But then disaster strikes:

Li Zhiyin began to feel this American young man was serious and honest so her initial wariness was dropping away.

But then Jonathan told her a story, “When I first told my friends I was coming to China they told me I must bring toilet paper.” Jonathan laughed heartily at the ironic humor inherent in this. “According to these American friends of mine, China –”

But before Jonathan could finish, Li Zhiyin’s face turned a dark shade of angry red. She said, “It is true! Our Mother Country is not rich! But we will Self Empower, Self Strengthen and Self Stand Up!” Then Li Zhiyin stood erect, and proudly and angrily stomped out of the coffee shop. Jonathan desperately followed her saying, “I did not mean that those friends are correct! I was telling you a funny story!” Li Zhiyin threw off Jonathan’s hand and said with ire, “If I made a joke about America, what would you do?!” Then she gave Jonathan a dangerous, strong and proud glare. Jonathan was struck speechless and frozen by this.

“This,” Jonathan thought, “is a proud girl. I must change the angle of my thinking to be with her.”

We hook up, and everything is great for a while, but then, again (if only my real life were so dramatic) disaster.

Unskilled in business, Jonathan was wracked with terrible difficulties maintaining his company for [those] three years. In the end, all of the money he had earned with his heart’s blood was lost.

After his bankruptcy, he was left only with a heart depressed and a mind frozen. In the beginning he had dreamed of giving Li Zhiyin a good life! Who would have thought that now he couldn’t even support himself?! Controlling the agony in his heart, he wrote a breakup letter to Li Zhiyin. It said that his business venture had failed.

“I even tried to return to being an English teacher but no one would have me!”

He remonstrated with Li Zhiyin to take care of herself, because he must go away - like an ancient, itinerant traveler, to float, to drift alone in the emptiness between the earth and the sky.

When Li Zhiyin saw his letter her heart was stabbed with pain. She rushed to his home. But his apartment was already empty! She called him. His cellphone had been turned off! Li Zhiyin wildly dialed all of Jonathan’s friends, every one. Finally she learned the truth – he had left on a quest to discover the true meaning and location of the Three Kingdoms Romance [from which he had taken his Chinese name].

Such an enormous country China! Li Zhiyin decided she would first go to Weiwang, the ancient and original Cao Cao’s ancestral home in Anhui, Haozhou. In Haozhou she bitterly and with great difficulty searched for three days. Finally deep inside Cao Cao’s famous tunnel for transferring soldiers, she found a cowering Jonathan, whole body covered in dirt, stained, face fatigued, depressed and defeated.

She yelled, “Jonathan!”

She lifted her bag and struck him again and again and again. Jonathan knelt on the ground cradling his head in his hands and accepted the blows.

Finally with no strength left Li Zhiyin ceased her blows. She yelled, “who told you to leave?! What will I do without you?!”

Jonathan, his eyes red-rimmed, said, “I am bankrupt! My own life, I can’t even support-“


“Tea,” Li Zhiyin said again. “It must be steeped in the hottest water to draw out the deepest flavor! People are the same. Only by facing the hot forge of disastrous difficulties can a man become strong and oriented to succeed. I Believe you can succeed!” said Li Zhiyin as she held his hand tightly.

“But if I can never succeed?” said Jonathan, his face pale and shadowed.

“Silly melon! In that case we will simply live a quiet life. The world is so big, how many people in the world can succeed?! If we can live with open happy hearts, this is enough! Return with me!”

Needless to say, I did. And our happy ending took place in the warm twinkling glow of blinking lights:

The very day that the interior decoration was finally completed, Jonathan brought his wife Li Zhiyin to take possession of their new home. The very moment they stepped through the door, the very first sight that passed Li Zhiyin’s eyelids was a large square pool in their living room. Within the water were seven brightly lit electric water lilies of seven different blinking colors.

“This is our ‘Seven Color Lily Pool’. In the future our life will be like these lilies – many styles, many poses, many colors,” said Jonathan as he looked at Li Zhiyin and tenderly smiled.

Li Zhiyin threw her arms around his neck in a deep and strong embrace.

There is much more awesomeness to this story, but the tyranny of the word count restricts me. So alas, I must chuckle alone.

And so, have we been enlightened?  Have ave we gained some deeper insight into the creative process, the mind of the artist?

Some say that the Chinese are not creative, that they simply copy the creativity of others. Psshhaww! Here I am the counterfeiter, stealing the work of another for my own dirty gain. The quiet tinkerer who created this piece was the true artist.

He googled the world, found truth and created beauty.


In summation

I've lived in China for almost twenty years, my entire adult life. For seventeen of those years I've made films. And so those questions: What did I learn? How was I changed?

There is a wonderful moment in the opening paragraphs of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when the narrator describes stories. Those of an average sailor, he says, “have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut.”

But Marlow, the man who travels to a distant and strange place, is different:

To him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out

only as a glow brings out a haze …

Jonathan Kos-Read is an American film and television actor, well-known in China by his stage name Cao Cao

This story is from the Anthill anthology book While We're Here, published by Earnshaw Books. Buy the book on Amazon