Thursday, April 15th, 2010
While watching the Ronald Cheng - Charlene Choi controversy unfurl late last month, it was hard not to think of the great speech by the Hyman Roth character in THE GODFATHER, PART II. Lamenting the death of his partner in organized crime, Moe Green, Roth said:
Someone put a bullet through his eye. No one knows who gave the order. When I heard it, I wasn’t angry. I knew Moe, I knew he was headstrong, talking loud, saying stupid things. So when he turned up dead, I let it go.
And I said to myself, this is the business we’ve chosen. I didn’t ask who gave the order.
The matters of a marriage, for the most part, should be dealt with privately by the couple. If some sort of abuse is taking place, then the authorities, quite rightly, should intervene. But, for the most part, what goes on between two people in a marriage should stay between the two people involved. It’s a part of common human decency to respect the privacy of a married couple. After all, some form of the Golden Rule (”do onto others as you would have done onto you”) exists in most of the World’s cultures. Among the circle of Chinese people that I know, uncharitable things are often said of people who gossip about the marriages of the butcher, the baker or the candlestick maker. We’ve all seen those types of characters in TVB dramas. They’re never played by the beautiful TVB fa daans. They’re invariably played by lower profile supporting actresses. Why, then, was the secret marriage of Ronald Cheng and Charlene Choi such a hot topic?
Simple, because of the business they’ve chosen. The business, according to multiple Chinese media reports, that made Charlene Choi millions last year in accumulated fees, royalties and endorsements, provided her with enough money to buy three properties that generate rental income and will allow her and Cheng to avoid a nasty dispute over alimony. “I can afford my own lifestyle and he can afford his,” Choi declared on March 29th at an event promoting her Twins reunion concerts.
While wealth and prosperity does certainly soften the blow of having your private life dragged through the mud, the public intrusion into the marriage of Charlene Choi and Ronald Cheng feels worse than the public intrusion on Sexy Photos Gate protagonists Gillian Chung and Edison Chen. At first blush, it seems an insane notion. After all, Ah Gil and EDC had their most private of parts laid bare. The difference, however, is that in one case a private secret was revealed while in the other a lie was exposed.
Consider it this way: Ah Bing has a drug problem. He’s still able to function but he’s addicted to drugs and it’s affecting his life. He’s trying to shed his addiction but, because he wants to keep his job, he keeps his problem a secret. Some people suspect that he’s an addict and have started to question him. He denies the speculation because he wants to keep making a living.
Ah Mou also has a drug problem. He’s still able to function but he’s addicted to drugs and it’s affecting his life. He’s trying to shed his addiction but, because he wants to keep his job, he keeps his problem a secret. Only thing is, he’s an anti-drug advocate who makes his living decrying drugs. One day, a photo of him doing a line of cocaine is published in the newspaper and his career is ruined.
It’s a fine distinction but it’s why it’s easier to feel sorry for Charlene Choi than it is for Gillian Chung. Ah Sa didn’t exploit her marital status for professional gain. Her denials were about keeping her private life private. She didn’t do it to sell more tickets and albums. She didn’t do it to get more endorsement deals. For at least two years, it had been an open secret that she and Ronald Cheng were together in some form. It probably wasn’t a shock to most fans when Apple Daily revealed their marriage certificate.
On the other hand, in the face of the Easy Finder scandal, Ah Gil protested too much about how the pictures of her bare shoulder shattered her fragile, virginal, clean-cut sensibilities. The peephole pictures were indeed despicable but, considering what they showed, it was not a proportional response. As a result, when the Sexy Photos Gate images surfaced, most of her fans felt betrayed because it showed that she exploited the Easy Finder scandal for professional gain.
In Charlene Choi’s case, she was trying to keep the door closed on her private life. Gillian Chung opened the door to hers by overplaying her reaction to Easy Finder. The situations that the two Twins members found themselves in were caused by gross invasions of privacy but the fine line between a secret and a lie is why Choi will likely just keep moving on with her career while Chung had to spend the last two years in exile.
Public intrusion into the private lives of celebrities is the natural byproduct of fame. Celebrities get paid because they have created an interest in themselves so they have to live with it when that interest manifests itself in distasteful ways. Vicki Zhao probably isn’t enjoying the speculation about her baby and her Baby Daddy but the interest in her and her private life is part of why she’s in projects like MULAN and 14 BLADES. The interest is why she’s able to do endorsements for clothing lines, shampoos and cell phones.
Most of the time, the attention is harmless and does not amount to more than an annoyance. Most of the time, people can tell the difference between a private secret and a lie so no real damage is done unless a celebrity is caught in a lie. People can respect secrets. No one held it against Leslie Cheung for not revealing his sexual orientation with a “Yep I’m Gay” cover on Ming Pao Weekly. No one held it against Anita Mui for keeping her fight against cancer private until three months before her death.
People, however, do not tolerate lies. Jackie Chan’s popularity in Hong Kong has never recovered from the Dragon Seed scandal of 1999. His “good guy, say your prayers, drink your milk, take your vitamins” image was dealt a serious blow by news of his affair with Elaine Ng. Chan has five of the top 20 highest-grossing Hong Kong films of all-time yet, since making HK$27.5 million with GORGEOUS (his last pre-Dragon Seed release), he hasn’t broken the HK$25 million mark. In fact, his latest film, LITTLE BIG SOLDIER, made a desultory HK$1.8 million.
In the end, because Charlene Choi and Ronald Cheng were just trying to keep their marriage private, it’s hard to imagine their careers being damaged in the long-term. This is why this particular intrusion into the private lives of celebrities feels more repulsive than other instances. It feels like Choi and Cheng were forced to hold a press event announcing the dissolution of their marriage for mere weekend entertainment. Sadly, it seems most people didn’t recognize that a tragedy was playing out before their eyes. Two people who used to be in love were breaking up. Two people whose lives had to have been diminished because they felt like they had to hide that love. Tragic novels and plays could be written from these circumstances. Instead, it was consumed as fodder for the entertainment news cycle.
It’s a sad situation and you can point the finger at multiple culprits: the over-heated HK media, the celebrity-obsessed culture, the way EEG markets its talent and the general nature of the HK entertainment star-system. Ultimately, though, Choi and Cheng have no one to blame but themselves. This is, after all, the business they’ve chosen.
Image credits: Paramount Pictures (THE GODFATHER, PART II screen grab), Time Magazine (Ellen Degeneres cover), Sina.com (Twins, Ronald Cheng & Charlene Choi)