Frumpy? Zhang Ziyi?
She speaks English with a funky Beijing accent. The beaded Armani gown she wore to the Oscars was frumpy. She squats on the floor like a Chinese farmer when she goes shopping.
So say Hong Kong media, which just love to bash Zhang Ziyi, the movie world’s hottest young Chinese actress.
Although Hollywood is enthralled with the spunky beauty who starred in “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Zhang’s critics in this movie-mad city enjoy picking her apart. And the criticism can be downright vicious.
“Zhang Ziyi’s Armani evening gown made her look so flat-chested it was scary,” the Sing Tao Daily, a major Chinese-language newspaper, said in a headline about the 27-year-old actress’ appearance at the Oscars earlier this month.
Zhang, who declined to provide comment for this story, has said previously the venom has to do with Hong Kongers’ deeply entrenched bias against mainland Chinese, who are viewed to be bumpkins and gold diggers.
“They think, ‘How can you be an international movie star? You are only from China.’ For them, China is like the countryside,” Zhang was quoted as saying in an interview with The Sunday Times of London in 2004.
Hong Kong was a British colony for more than 150 years before it was returned to China in 1997. The city, a global financial center, is much more cosmopolitan than mainland cities, and the population is better educated and more affluent.
A good example of the disdain for mainlanders is found in a 2004 article about Zhang in Next magazine, a popular weekly glossy known for its hard-charging paparazzi.
The publication printed a photo allegedly showing Zhang squatting down to browse the bottom shelf in a store. A snarky picture caption said, “Miss Zhang displays the special trait of our motherland’s compatriots,” that is, squatting with her legs splayed. In China, people are often seen squatting in China in crowded public places where the ground is too dirty for sitting and there’s limited seating.
Zhang’s rapid rise and ongoing success may also feed envy that has made her the favorite dart board for Hong Kong’s newspapers and magazines, whose hyper aggressive celebrity coverage makes U.S. supermarket tabloids look like National Geographic magazine.
Many of the Hong Kong publications made sure their knives were extra sharp for the Oscars, where Zhang presented the award for best editing.
A headline in the popular Apple Daily ripped into Zhang’s English: “Zhang Ziyi presents awards with Beijing-accented English.” The story added, “She still can’t change her English with a Beijing country accent. She didn’t pronounce the ‘r’ in the winning movie ‘Crash’ properly.”
Sing Tao Daily said Zhang read her cue card with “quivering lips” and her pronunciation of “Crash” sounded more like the toothpaste “Crest.”
The Ming Pao Daily noted the Zhang forgot to hug or shake hands with the award winner, though the paper conceded that her English was improving.
The Zhang bashing didn’t stop there. Hong Kong writers also savaged her Giorgio Armani outfit: a black beaded bustier with a crystal-encrusted gray skirt.
“Lacking in youthful vigor,” read a photo caption in the Oriental Daily News, a mass-market Chinese-language paper. Apple Daily hissed, “Zhang Ziyi two decades behind the times.”
Zhang’s performance could have been an ethnic Chinese pride-pumping moment, and that’s how it was treated by media in mainland China and Taiwan.
“Zhang Ziyi’s English rolls off her tongue,” said the Liberty Times, one of Taiwan’s three biggest dailies. Another Taiwanese paper, the Min Sheng Daily, said “Zhang Ziyi’s English is no longer poor.”
She made her big screen debut with famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s “The Road Home,” released in 1998. Her next film was “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the Oscar-winning kung fu hit of 2000. In her short career, she’s made 11 films, including the Hollywood movies “Rush Hour 2” (2001) and “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
Thomas Shin, a film critic and editor at the Hong Kong Economic Times, doesn’t buy into the Zhang bashing. He feels she is a solid actress, and when he interviewed her she left a good impression.
“She’s very nice and she’s a very smart woman,” he said. “She’s really sincere,” he added. “She says what’s on her mind.”