Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
Chen Hsin and Zhang Zhun walked back to the hotel. They chose a somewhat deserted route, walking side by side where there were people and hand in hand when alone. Nearing the building, Chen Hsin put on his cap. Together, they cut through the small parking lot in front of a sailors’ pub and headed straight for the hotel back door. As soon as the pair stepped through the doorway, they found their way blocked by a mob armed with cameras and microphones of all sizes.
Spotting the actors at once, the mob swarmed around the two men, clamoring at the top of their voices, “Chen Hsin! Chen Hsin!” The couple was dumbstruck by the situation. They stood rooted to the spot, dazed, as the crowd of entertainment reporters rushed to question Chen Hsin.
“Chen-laoshi! You’ve been dating Miss Feng Yunting in secret for half a year. What made you decide to go public now?”
“Chen-laoshi! Miss Feng told us that the two of you have no plans to get married. Is that true?”
“Chen-laoshi, please tell us how you’re feeling right now!”
Camera flashes kept going off, their searing bright lights shining straight into the actors’ faces. Well-practiced from years of experience, Chen Hsin lowered his head and shielded his eyes. Zhang Zhun, however, was caught by surprise and did not know how to react. Stung by the harsh strobing lights, his eyes watered, and tears began falling uncontrollably.
Most of the reporters did not recognize Zhang Zhun. In their tussle to get to Chen Hsin, the crowd jostled the older actor out of the way as if he were a mere spectator, pushing him farther and farther away. Amidst all the noise, Zhang Zhun’s phone started ringing. He answered it mechanically. On the other end of the line, Zhou Zheng sounded very much like an animal with a trampled tail. “Zhang–laoshi, are you with Chen Hsin right now?!” he yelled with urgency.
Zhang Zhun was about to say ‘yes’ when he realized that he could no longer find the other man in the crowd. Despite being in the same space, the two of them seemed to belong to completely different worlds. “No, I’m not…” Zhang Zhun had no choice but to cave under the helplessness within him. “We’re not together…”
Zhou Zheng said something in response and ended the call. Meanwhile, the crowd surged into the hotel’s in-house café with Chen Hsin trapped in their midst; he was probably giving an interview at the moment. Left in the lobby all alone, Zhang Zhun stared at the blinking elevator buttons with vacant eyes. After a long while, he reached out and pressed for the elevator with a light, fleeting touch.
Once he was back in his room, Zhang Zhun switched on the TV out of habit. Feng Yunting’s face appeared on the screen. She did not look particularly dressed-up, and was still in the same outfit she had worn to the hot pot restaurant. She must have been caught by the media when she drove back before him and Chen Hsin. The young actress looked very evasive as reporters hounded her with questions. “Why are you here, Miss Feng? Rumor has it that you’re secretly dating Chen Hsin-laoshi. Are you here to visit him?!”
Zhang Zhun dug around for his remote control. As soon as his fingers closed upon the device, he began changing channels in a fit of hysteria. He switched through several channels, but Feng Yunting’s face continued to haunt him from the TV screen. Before his eyes, she relented little by little. Initial evasiveness softened into passive, half-hearted replies before melting into a sweet, blushing admission: “No, we haven’t decided to announce it yet. We don’t want to place too much pressure on each other… Yes, our relationship is very stable right now… That’s right…”
For Zhang Zhun, watching the young woman was just like watching a performance. Bitter laughter escaped him as he shook his head at various points of Feng Yunting’s interview. She did not speak the truth, whereas he could not tell the truth at all. Just then, a reporter from an online network piped up, “If we’re not wrong, Chen Hsin-laoshi should be working on a gay film right now. Sources say that it’s going to be really explicit. Does this bother you in any way, Miss Feng? Are you actually here to ‘supervise’ the production?” Amused laughter rippled through the crowd.
“Of course not,” Feng Yunting replied, charming and docile. “It’s just acting. There are times when I have to work in similar situations as well. We’re both very understanding of each other. Besides, as you just pointed out, it’s a gay film. If my ‘supervision’ were ever required, it would be for a non-gay film at least.”
Feng Yunting’s reply endeared her to the crowd and lightened the mood at once. Another reporter asked, “Have you met with Chen-laoshi’s co-star yet? Do you ever feel jealous?”
Feng Yunting chortled at the question. “Zhang Zhun-laoshi and I are pretty close. In fact, we just had hot pot together.” Covering her mouth in shyness, she adopted a jesting tone as she declared, “I’m not worried about him and Chen Hsin in the least!”
Zhang Zhun held back the feelings surging within himself, and a deep ache throbbed in his chest from the strain. In time, the pain gave way to numbness, and indifference crept into his eyes as he continued to stare at the TV. Feng Yunting’s interview ended. It was followed by a review of her career through a series of documentary footage. The commentary was full of praise for her diligence, as well as her grace and cleverness. By all accounts, she was a rare breed among the new generation of actresses due to her rather spotless reputation.
The doorbell rang. Zhang Zhun cast a cold glance at the door, but did not answer. “Ge, it’s me!” his visitor called out from the other side. It was Xiao-Deng; he had come armed with snacks in his left hand and a USB stick in his right. Zhang Zhun opened the door for him. The young assistant flicked his eyes toward the TV as soon as he stepped through the doorway. “Ge, what’s this you’re watching? Looks like crap to me.” He plugged in his USB stick instead. “I brought your favorite show, A Chinese Odyssey.1 We haven’t had time to watch it this year!” Then, the young man crawled into bed with his snacks, propped up the pillows for Zhang Zhun, and patted the bedding for the older man to join him. With great reluctance, Zhang Zhun lay down beside him.
Before them, the movie played out: Lady Spring looked out of the screen with her alluring gaze while Stephen Chow’s2 sour remark resounded in the room, “Long is the night and gone is the mood for sleep.” Xiao-Deng munched on his chips with a silly grin on his face. Even as he laughed at the antics onscreen, however, he was also watching Zhang Zhun. The white glare from the TV screen washed over Zhang Zhun’s face, and there was no hiding the wetness covering his cheekbones. When he noticed Xiao-Deng’s gaze at last, Zhang Zhun wiped away his tears with an awkward swipe of his arm.
“Ge, don’t…” Xiao-Deng reached out to tug at the older man’s arm.
“It’s nothing…” Zhang Zhun pushed him aside, shaking his head. “I was just thinking about how things turned out in the end between Zixia and Joker.”
“Ge…” Xiao-Deng was still trying to get a word in, but Zhang Zhun would have none of it.
Terrified that his own ridiculous feelings would be dragged into the open by the younger man, Zhang Zhun put on a show of feigned impatience. “That’s enough,” he snapped. “Go away. I’m not in the mood for the show anymore.” A sudden bout of anger surged through Xiao-Deng. He snatched out his phone to make a call, but Zhang Zhun stopped him with a yell, “What do you think you’re doing?!”
In truth, the young man did not know what he was doing either. He did not know what he could do. He felt for his big brother; yet, even as his heart ached for the older man, he could not tell why he pitied him. Immense powerlessness overcame Xiao-Deng. As if trying to vent his helpless frustration, the young assistant yanked out his USB stick with all his strength and swept out of the room with a final parting shot, “Ge, wake up!”
Too late. Alone once more, Zhang Zhun hugged his head in despair; there was no waking up now. Static flickered on the screen, filling the room with the apathetic buzz of white noise. He had to stop obsessing over these delusions, Zhang Zhun warned himself. Yet, even as he tried to regain his senses, he could not help reaching for the remote control again as if he were possessed.
The screen flashed, and Chen Hsin appeared with his unruly hair and soulful eyes. He was so handsome on camera that he looked like a different person from the man Zhang Zhun knew. The man staring into the lens right now was the very stuff of countless dreams – an expensive commodity for mass consumption – and not someone for Zhang Zhun to call his own. “I don’t like it when the media pays too much attention to my personal life.” There was no sign of any emotion in Chen Hsin’s face, and it was easy to mistake his lack of expression for arrogance. In reality, he was simply exhausted.
“You’ve announced your relationship with Miss Feng, so why are you saying that things aren’t certain between the two of you?” Chen Hsin did not answer the question. There was no doubt that he was a much more difficult interviewee than Feng Yunting. The reporters braced themselves and pressed on, “Just moments ago, you admitted that you’ve fallen passionately in love. Are you implying that Miss Feng isn’t the target of your affections?”
Zhang Zhun’s throat went dry with nervousness, unable to believe Chen Hsin would ever say something like this. For the briefest moment, Zhang Zhun was even seized with the urge to send him a text and make him stop. But the impulse died in the very next instant as his eyes fell on the white characters in the top right-hand corner: “previously recorded.” Zhang Zhun found himself ridiculous and laughable. Here he was, teetering on the edge of reason, a hair’s breadth away from a bone-shattering descent into madness, while Chen Hsin remained his calm, collected self onscreen. “It may be your business to interview me, but I am under no obligation to disclose everything about myself to the world. My feelings are no one’s business but my own.”
At this, a cutting question rang out from the back of the crowd: “Does this mean that you’re someone who’s irresponsible in love?”
Chen Hsin’s façade cracked at last. Ferocious and taunting, he glared hard at the reporter as he spat out his reply, “Responsible to whom? Me, I’m only responsible to the one I love!”3
“Who do you love then?” The question slipped from Zhang Zhun’s tongue and caught him unawares. Shocked by his own words, Zhang Zhun rushed to clamp his hands over his mouth. Almost at the same time, the broadcast was interrupted. Two lackluster men’s fashion commercials later, the news came on. Desperate to watch Chen Hsin’s interview in full, Zhang Zhun began flipping through the channels once more with renewed hysteria. Yet, try as he might, no other face appeared this time besides the stiff countenance of the news anchor.
- A Chinese Odyssey (1995): This two-part film series has been mentioned before in the footnotes for Chapter 13.1. It is one of the most iconic comedies by Stephen Chow, and should not be confused with its 2016 remake.
- Although the series contains a lot of slapstick humor, it has also left its mark in popular culture as a heart-wrenching story about the futile love between its main characters, Zixia and Joker / Monkey, both of whom sacrificed themselves for each other, only to end up with diverging lives and destinies.
- Stephen Chow: Veteran Hong Kong actor, film director and producer, best known for his comedic works. His full name is Stephen Chow Sing Chi, and he is one of the main Chinese cultural icons of the 90s.
- Celebrity responsibility: Chen Hsin’s reply is extremely remarkable and daring for its flagrant disregard for any social or cultural expectation that has been placed upon him as a celebrity. By prioritizing his personal life and his lover, Chen Hsin presents himself as a rebel.
- In the context, the reporter’s question is primarily focused on Chen Hsin’s attitude towards love (i.e. asking if he behaves responsibly in a relationship). However, the reporter’s chosen expression ‘负责任’ (be responsible) also implicitly alludes to the belief in many Asian societies that celebrities have a moral and social obligation to uphold pristine public images.
- East Asian celebrities, in particular, are often subject to harsh scrutiny by their societies, and are expected to answer to the public on all aspects of their lives. For example, celebrities often have to make public apologies just for being in a relationship, because of (1) the extreme distress they may have caused to their fans, and (2) the damage they may have caused to their managing companies.