About ten years ago I was interviewed in Tokyo for a job as a fake Catholic priest, performing wedding ceremonies for Japanese couples who wanted the aesthetics of a Christian service without all the hassle of actually being Christian. In a room cluttered with tacky plastic religious paraphernalia I watched a training video of the company’s ‘top man’, an American Tom Cruise-lookalike in a cassock, ‘marrying’ a young couple. I was offered the job and it paid well but, fearing I might fluff my lines, collapse into giggles or, worst of all, come face to face with an ex-girlfriend approaching down the aisle, I turned it down.
That was the closest I ever came to accepting a ‘white monkey job’, a term used in Japan and China for a position that requires little or no skill and no qualifications at all, apart from the essential one of being a westerner. White monkey jobs range from modelling and acting (for people who wouldn’t be asked to model or act anywhere else) to being a fake company spokesperson. White men and women can even be employed as office staff who have no actual duties but simply lend the working environment a more sophisticated international ambience.
The phenomenon of white monkey work has been around for decades. In Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, when the economy exploded, traditional business etiquette began to decline and the marketing potential of foreigners became apparent (the ‘fairytale’ wedding of Charles and Diana is believed to have given fake Christian weddings a huge boost). Angus Waycott, in his memoir Paper Doors, confesses how he helped pay the bills in his early days in Tokyo by working as a catwalk model even though he was a grey-haired middle-aged man.
While TV and ad makers would naturally have preferred real stars and occasionally bagged them – Sean Connery’s Ito Ham commercial where he utters one word, ‘honmono’ (genuine), in his drawling Fountainbridge burr while holding a packet of meat remains a classic – they were happy enough to make do with any old halfway-presentable gaijin (foreigner). They still are today.
Immigrants account for only 2 per cent of Japan’s population, and the majority of them live in the big cities, so many Japanese have extremely limited exposure to other cultures. This, combined with the native bashfulness, has fostered an intense curiosity in, and a wish to observe but not necessarily engage with, foreigners. ‘Foreignness’ is often presented in a familiar and easily accessible form. A good example is the fake medieval English village called British Hills in Fukushima, where tea can be taken in the Ascot café or a pint downed in the Falstaff pub. There is no word for ‘cliché’ in Japanese.
In China, white monkey business is aimed at dealing with reputational difficulties. ‘Made in China’ still has limited appeal for quality-conscious consumers, so employing a respectable-looking foreigner as a fake CEO or distinguished client can help. I’ve heard of a foreigner who was paid to be present at the opening of a new development complex, and pose as some sort of ‘emissary of Obama’, feigning interest in the venture.
The real-estate business is a particularly fruitful sector for white monkey work. The boom years of the early 2000s saw a huge number of ambitious new housing estates shoot up around provincial Chinese cities, which were given utopian names such as ‘Dream’, ‘Paradise’ and ‘Heavenly’. In reality, they were often drab, remote, unappealing – and expensive. If sales prove sluggish, both business and face must be saved. Foreigners are hired to pretend to be company engineers or executives for photo shoots, or just to loiter around the housing complex looking as if they belong, transforming it into an ‘international city of the future’.
The TV work for white monkeys is a bit different in China too. National pride and cultural point-scoring are key elements. Anyone taking a bit part as a foreigner in a China TV drama can expect scenes that start with them acting in an aggressive and condescending manner towards a local and end with them being summarily humiliated.
If this all seems a little exploitative, it is well to consider that white monkey work can have many benefits. The comic-strip series ‘Charisma Man’, which ran in the magazine the Alien, portrayed the adventures of a weedy Canadian burger-flipper who is transformed into a muscular super-stud on arrival in Japan. Charisma Man traded on his foreignness to earn money more easily and acquire girlfriends more beautiful than he could have hoped for back home. His employers and partners seemed happy enough. So who is exploiting whom?