Yang Ge (杨歌) is the only prominent Chinese face in Russian entertainment. Her appearances on musical talent show The Voice Russia in 2017 and as a theater actress at Moscow’s renowned Gogol Centre established her fame in the largest country in the world. Yet as Covid-19 has wrought havoc around the world, she has taken on a new role: that of calling out racism and spreading a message of love.
On April 3, the Beijing-born performer posted a video on Instagram. She was dressed in a dragon-emblazoned leather qipao, seated next to a self-painted portrait of Chairman Mao. She strummed on a ukulele and sang delicately in Russian:
My name is Yang Ge, I’m from China where the coronavirus appeared. People are scared of me. People run away and scream.
The chorus continues: “Fuck this slant-eyed, fuck this slant-eyed.” And ends: “But I’m not to blame for anything, I’m actually a beautiful Chinese.”
It was Yang’s signature style: nonchalant confidence in her immense talent, diffused with a bit of satire — the mark of a performer who understands that she can pull off any act.
Yang composed the song stranded in Germany due to Covid-19 restrictions. Russia was one of the first to close its borders to Chinese nationals, leaving the Moscow-based singer and actress unable to re-enter the country. She wrote: “I am now stuck in Berlin with a Chinese passport, even though Russia is my second home. I don’t know when I’ll be able to return.”
When the coronavirus outbreak first began and hadn’t yet affected Russia, Yang openly discussed her experiences on Instagram: “People repeatedly insulted my mother and I in the store. I worry about her waiting for me in Moscow — she doesn’t speak Russian. Don’t hurt us please. We are not to blame. Proud to be #MadeInChina.”
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It has been over a decade since Yang moved to Moscow from Beijing, and her time in the Russian capital has seen her tear through the country’s entertainment scene. But Russia was never specifically in her plans — the journey began when she was accepted into VGIK, a famed Moscow film school. “Wherever fate wants to take me, I will follow,” she tells us.
“Her acting and art blends naturally with Russian culture, and she fits so perfectly into modern Russian theatre,” says Nadezhda Gafurova, a designer in Moscow. “She is brave — she took a risk in moving to Russia, and became the only Chinese actress to find success here.”
Yang’s breakthrough came as a finalist of TV competition The Voice Russia. In one show, she gave a high-octane performance of “Come Together” by The Beatles, done up in Chun-Li-style ox horn hair and a Chinese silk jacket. One clip of her cover on YouTube has received over 3.2 million views, and the most-liked comment reads: “This girl is just bomb.”
As a theater actress, Yang is part of Moscow’s Gogol Centre, an avant-garde theater helmed by renowned director Kirill Serebrennikov. As a director, her debut film Nu (牛) — about “a young Chinese girl looking for love and sex in Moscow” — won the Special Jury Prize at Moscow’s 40th International Film Festival.
While grounded in Germany, Yang directed a short film, which was recently featured in Vogue Russia. Entitled “Nothing Can Stop Us from Loving,” it clocks in at just about two minutes long. Her image is shown remotely through a laptop screen, spotlighting the disorientation and loneliness that has been brought on by the pandemic.
“Despite this virus that has stopped the whole world, love does not stop,” she explains. “Perhaps what has happened is a good thing — it is allowing us to reset our lives, to feel human again and teach us how to love again.
“It showed me that no matter where you are in the world, even if you’re stuck somewhere involuntarily, you should pursue what you want. It’s about living in the present moment.”
She has lived up to her words, spending her time in Germany creating doing exactly what she wants — not just directing, but also painting and penning songs.
This unburdened sentiment is diffused into her other views. Questions posed about identity and diversity go unanswered. But when asked about the future of the arts in China, Yang says that whether it’s China, Russia or any other place, it’s openness that holds the greatest power to shape a country’s culture and art. “If a place allows for openness — if individuals have the freedom to think as they please, to speak as they like and to do as they wish, the arts will benefit.”
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Despite her success in Russia, returning to her native country has crossed Yang’s mind. “If someone presents an opportunity to work in China, I would happily accept,” she says. “But I can also live contentedly in any place. Nobody knows what the future will bring, but just do what you like and love the people around you. My mom taught me to understand where my roots came from — that our work should not allow ourselves, our families or our country to lose face.”
While Covid-19 has made planning for the future an act ridden with angst and uncertainty for people across the globe, Yang is still hoping to honor a touring schedule that has her booked well into 2021, with performances planned in Lyon, Berlin, Hamburg and cities in the US.
For the moment, she is of course keeping a close eye on events in Russia, which is battling a severe outbreak of the virus. As of May 25, the country has jumped to second place in global infections, recording over 340,000 cases, many of them concentrated in Moscow.
Following a disheartening trend seen elsewhere, Chinese nationals and people with “Asian features” in Russia have been subjected to discrimination and abuse. In one video circulated on Russian media, a Buryat-Russian girl describes a “grandfather” who had hit her and told her to go back to China. At one point, Moscow’s public transportation workers were told to call the police and disembark all passengers if they suspected a passenger was Chinese.
But Anna Bolochagina, who has just returned to her hometown of Samara from Hong Kong, noted that most people in Russia don’t blame or hate China. “We don’t view Chinese people differently because of Covid-19,” she says. “We are all people who are finding themselves in a difficult situation.”
Bolochagina noted that in the popular Russian imagination, the only Chinese names that come to mind are Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Confucius. She concluded: “I am always for new stars and fresh faces.”
It’s perhaps too early to say whether Yang Ge will be the next addition to that list and help shake up perceptions of China in Russian popular culture. But for now, she thrives easily in both cultures and everywhere in between — even in these difficult times.
As she narrates in her recent short film: “I sat on the edge of the balcony, but I was not afraid. [The] coronavirus has pressed the pause button and stopped the world — but nothing can stop us from loving.”
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