They are the bane of Hollywood actors’ lives, and have even spawned a reality TV show in the UK. But paparazzi are a relatively new phenomenon in China, where only around 20 photographers go by the name. But the undoubted king of China’s paparazzi is Zhuo Wei.
Zhuo, who recently appeared on the cover of Vista magazine, has become famous in his own right. His celebrity prey are familiar with his scoops, and China’s entertainment companies display his photo in their offices to alert young stars to who he is.
Knowing what he looks like won’t always work: on one occasion he spent 18 hours in a haystack to get a photo of Tom Cruise, who was shooting Mission Impossible III in Shanghai. But Hollywood stars are not his standard fare. More often he is chasing local stars, sometimes posing as an interior decorator or a house buyer to get near their homes, sometimes trawling the area around Beijing’s Workers Stadium, where many celebrities like to party.
His work does not always go appreciated. One angry celebrity once came down to the offices of the newspaper where he was working and set the editor’s car on fire.
The term ‘paparazzi’ is derived from the Fellini movie, La Dolce Vita, where a character called Signor Paparazzo was a photographer. In China, the paparazzi trend did not really emerge until 2003 when Zhuo joined a Beijing magazine called Big Star.
Zhuo – whose real name is Han Bingjiang – began his working life in a state-owned enterprise in Tianjin, where he was a factory secretary. He had loved films since his youth, and took the risky step of leaving his ‘iron rice bowl’ job, to write promotional materials for a movie company. In 2000 he joined the Tianjin Morning Post, in its newly created ‘entertainment news department’. His lively pieces soon caught the public eye. In one case he knocked on five hundred doors to find a star’s childhood home, and pieced together a story from the neighbours’ reminiscences.
Over 100 blockbuster ‘photo stories’ shot him to national fame at Big Star, and allowed him to establish his own studio – with a team of likeminded photographers.
Since 2006 he has worked for the Southern Metropolitan Weekly. In an interview with Vista, he told the magazine that many of the stars’ managers have come to realize that paparazzi shots can increase their clients fame and earnings; they have thus become more or less complicit with the trend, building a relationship with Zhuo and other top photographers.
That doesn’t mean the job is always easy. In order to get a photo of Zhang Ziyi’s much-talked of dance scene in the movie The House of the Flying Daggers – no photographers were allowed on set – he and his colleague hid out in a nearby vantage point for three days. With a long lens and lengthy patience, they finally got the photo.
Sometimes it is a lot work, for not a lot of dosh. Zhuo says he earns around Rmb30,000 ($4,380) per month from selling photos to newspapers, magazines and websites, most of which goes to pay for his three studio employees. More galling, his photos get used illegally by thousands of websites and magazines; although Zhuo reckons this is unavoidable since lawsuits are “time-consuming and expensive”.
But is there a purpose to what this Agatha Christie-reading paparazzi does? He thinks so. “Many Chinese tend to equate stars with moral superiority,” he told the China Daily. “This is not the truth. I admit there are upright stars, but many of them lead the life that could hardly be defined as that of role models.”
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