Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A filmmaker shares his experience in the once-lucrative business of hiring foreigners to lure homebuyers in China’s building boom.
On stage, David Borenstein assumed many identities. He’s been a “celebrated clarinetist,” a member of the “famous” American band The Travelers, and at one point, an Olympic athlete. His audience—local Chinese officials, investors, and potential homebuyers—watched in awe and cheered even though he, by his own admission, wasn’t very good.
But skills never mattered.
What did matter was that Borenstein was, without a doubt, a foreigner. As a twentysomething Miami native living in Chongqing during China’s housing boom in the early 2010s, he took on these “white monkey gigs” to pay for film classes. He performed with other foreigners at events organized by real estate companies to sell property in brand new, shiny cities—ones that would quickly become ghost cities, sitting empty not even a decade later.
Though, “perform” is a bit of a stretch; in some cases, he was paid to show up in a suit and look ... well, white. Borenstein is what the Chinese call a laowai-for-rent, and at the time, he was a hot commodity.
Now a filmmaker in Copenhagen, Borenstein is gearing up for the U.S. premiere of his latest film “Dream Empire” at the Miami Film Festival next week. The film documents his experience in the industry, and that of Yana, a migrant worker who started a company renting out foreigners like him. Like the developers who made up her clientele, Yana banked her success on the house-building frenzy.
“You put a foreigner in front of a building and everything is different,” Yana says in the documentary. New developments in the third- and fourth-tier cities on the outskirts were being advertised as “international cities” that would follow the path of Shanghai and Beijing, where foreign investment and businesspeople would help create a bustling economy. And to show that the developers and local officials indeed had those foreign connections, laowais were bused in from nearby cities and presented as famous artists or top executives from rich and “exotic” countries. They were really just random people that agents picked off the streets.
“This is a film that, in my my mind, was made during a period of contemporary Chinese history,” Borenstein tells CityLab. “China was celebrating its inclusion in international organizations and increased [foreign direct investments], and foreigners doing business there.”
Unbeknownst to both him and Yana at the time, all those empty promises were creating a housing bubble on the brink of bursting. Borenstein spoke with CityLab to describe his experience as a foreigner for hire.
What did it mean for foreigners to show up at these real estate events?
Local governments were really trumpeting this idea of what they call internationalization, which became synonymous for “developed.” When a development said it was high end, basically it signified it was going to be connected to the international economy. From city to city, all these small towns that had new developments, the word "international" was often in the name.
In these shows, the developers and relevant officials would come out, and directly after they speak, they would bring foreigners up on the stage. To me, it felt like we were a symbol of authority. I've done some reading that shows this has a bit of history in China going back all the way to when Marco Polo was used as a tool for local leaders to show their authority. During the Qing dynasty, emperors and officials would collect foreign goods and presents as a way of showing that they were the masters of the universe.
So you guys were sort of like a prop, then. What was one of the more outrageous roles you had to take on?
There was a classic menu of roles that you were asked to play, from businessman to architect. The craziest thing asked of me, not by Yana but by another agent, was to pretend that I was a consulate general from the Xi’an American embassy. They even made me a fake U.S. State Department badge, and they wanted me to say at this opening that Barack Obama was fully in support of this real estate development. Luckily that fell through. [Laughs] I'm not sure how I would have felt after going through with that, or even if I would've.
Here in the U.S., this kind of false advertising can get you in trouble. How aware was Yana that she was essentially in the business of helping officials and developers trick people into buying overhyped properties?
In China, there's this kind of knowledge among everyone that they don't know what to believe. A lot of people have given up and normalized this idea that developments and the performance of governments have an incredible amount of propaganda around them. What Yana probably saw herself as was just a small part of a very big industry called the "city image industry"—there's a name for it—which is a very normal thing.
What does this “city image industry” look like?
Basically, it's a handful of marketers promoting cities, especially the new ones built in the late 2000s. The cities have these kind of spectacles that they put on for visitors, competing against each other to show the highest GDP growth and high levels of economic development.
One gig I did with Yana that never made the film was this kind of fake Olympics. One of the best ways to show that a city has made it on the map is by holding international sporting events. And often, Yana would get a lot of foreigners to pretend to be athletes. At one event in a very remote area of rural Chongqing, there was this water-sport competition. She brought, I think, 30 foreigners, and half were reporters who had been paid to film it. There wasn't much of an audience—just villagers—but these officials came on stage and gave these speeches about how this was a proud day in the history of sports. Then we went and did a river race that looked utterly unprofessional.
But the “press” filmed it, and the video came out pretty professional. They caught the better moments, and that is precisely the city image industry: various marketing industries coming together to make cities seem as though they could attract an international sporting competition.
What proportion of the gigs that Yana booked would you say was in these big real estate spectacles?
Her company was not specifically geared toward them, but about 80 to 90 percent of her business were these kinds of real estate gigs. When that bubble started having problems, she sold her share of the company. Her business partner Jimmy is still running it, but now the share of gigs is changing. Probably like 50 percent, or even less, deals with real estate events. He's taken that company and geared it more toward fashion—things you'd normally expect foreign models and performers to be in.
In part it had to do with the cooling of the real estate market, but do you think there was another force at play?
In the mid-2000s, (former Chinese president) Hu Jintao glorified joining organizations like the World Trade Organization and becoming international, but that kind of discourse was replaced by a growing nationalism. Starting with Xi Jinping, there was a shift away from this fetishization of internationalism, and that hit Yana's business quite hard. Xi started to push, on all different levels, the need to emphasize traditional culture. You saw it with architecture. He plainly said, “I don’t want to see any more architecture in these crazy foreign styles.”
After the film, Yana went back home to her parents for a while and kind of regrouped. But then she went back to Chongqing, and when I saw her in the summer, she no longer owned a business, but she was working in a Chinese cultural performance company. That's pretty interesting. You see things like that happen in China all the time: the leader says one thing and the whole country seems to follow suit.