How a lad from Britain became one of the top three video personalities in Taiwan.
By William A. Reeves
Hao Yibo, better known as Ben Hedges to his Caucasian friends and family, became an overnight Internet sensation in Asia when he made a brutal and hilarious YouTube satire of the Chinese TV drama “Empresses in the Palace,” about Qing Dynasty concubines. The combination of a white guy speaking fluent Mandarin while making erudite commentary on Chinese pop culture proved irresistible to the Chinese-speaking Internet.
It was a hop, skip, and a jump until young people began recognizing him in the streets of Taipei, asking for autographs. Hedges is now a bona fide celebrity in Taiwan, and to a lesser degree, Hong Kong. He is known in mainland China — but YouTube is blocked there, shrinking his potential audience by many orders of magnitude. (Taiwan has a population of 23 million; China, 1.4 billion.)
It is all the more astonishing to think that such sudden and extreme success happened almost accidentally, given that the Taiwanese audience was not his original target.
“We started the show for mainlanders, exposing the dark side of mainland China and making fun of things that are kind of ridiculous,” he says. But when the Qing drama satire took off, they didn’t look back.
“I got a text message saying ‘You’re famous,’” Hedges recalls. The video was posted on PTT, a social media platform in Taiwan run by university students.
“If it gets over a certain amount of views, it baohongs,” he added, verbing a Chinese term. The word is composed of two parts, “explode” and “red.” It happens when something gains extreme popularity. “Our video was baohonging on PTT that day.”
Today, at work in his midtown Manhattan office, Hedges is wearing what appear to be white karate pants, a polo shirt, and Seinfeld sneakers — trademarks of the insouciant geekiness that has enamored him to millions of young people.
In Taiwan, for example, he began a speaking engagement at a mall with a kung fu demonstration. Apple Daily, one of the island nation’s most popular tabloids, has a video online quizzing him on obscure Chinese characters, and he rises to the challenge by writing them out, one after another. His dating advice to young people is the kind of thing your grandfather would say. “You can call me old fashioned,” Hedges says, smiling into the camera, before recommending that a young man act a bit more like a Jane Austen-era gentleman.
Throughout 2013, after the initial success in March, Hedges’ videos have parodied corrupt Chinese communist officials, explored the antics of Chinese tourists, the influence of Bruce Lee, the ten ugliest buildings in China, and oddities about life in Taiwan — all with a witty script, playful graphics, and more often than not, an incisive message. Tens of thousands of views are a minimum, while the more popular videos get over one million.
All this paved the way for his first trip to Taiwan in early 2014, where he held a number of public events. But before he even hit the streets, he was recognized on the plane by the stewardesses. “One of them said ‘Hello Mr. Hao, how are you?’ when I was on my way to my seat… I didn’t know to what degree I would be known. Before I even got there, I was being recognized. I thought, ‘This is going to be an interesting trip.’” Halfway through the flight, they invited him into the kitchen for a short party consisting of juice, airplane snacks, and numerous selfies with funny poses.
Hedges’ 2014 Chinese book, I am Hao Yibo, gave fans a chance for a deeper exploration of what drives him — mostly overcoming adversity and believing in oneself to achieve one’s goals. “People come up to me and say ‘I’m more confident now because of your message. You’ve helped me.’” He regularly gets emails from grateful fans.
Hedges was born in Hong Kong. He studied Chinese culture and language — including Mandarin, Cantonese, and the classical form — the equivalent of Middle English to what we use today — at the University of London. He spent a year in intensive language immersion in Taiwan over 2008 and 2009. Now a New Yorker, most mornings at 7 a.m. he participates in an advanced class of kung fu (the Shanxi-style Praying Mantis form); throughout the day he drinks Taiwan’s famous High Mountain tea, brewed in a set given by a fan; and in the evenings he does Falun Gong meditation. The practice is persecuted in the mainland, which likely informs his understated remark that “I don’t like the Chinese government’s human rights abuses,” made in an interview at a coffee shop with Taiwanese media.
Success often builds on itself, and Hedges parlayed his newfound prominence in the Taiwanese world into a series of interviews with some of the most famous personalities in the country. These include Eddie Peng, a beloved actor; Tsai Yueh-Hsun and Shiou Chieh-Kai, director and actor in the popular police drama “Black & White”; Chinese-Canadian singer and Vancouver resident Qu Wanting; and A Xi, the fourth most popular online celebrity in Taiwan. (Hedges, it turns out, is third.)
Soon Hedges was starring in Taiwanese commercials. A collaboration with 7-Eleven, which is ubiquitous in Taiwanese cities, produced a video in late March about Hao Yibo’s secret powers of teleportation. The nearly six minute ad ends with him teleporting into a 7-Eleven to eat their “new traditional noodles with minced pork and soybean paste,” which actually look delicious. That clip has 500,000 hits online and, after being played on loop in 3,000 stores, have garnered many more views in the real world. (Go to tasteoflifemag.com/haoyibao to watch.)
Being a novelty — the white guy speaking Chinese — helps win over an audience, but not every Caucasian who speaks Mandarin is an Internet personality. “There’s a certain novelty factor, but the novelty is backed up with a well researched script and show. You've got to have the whole package,” Hedges says.
Cultivating his fans, and paying respect to them, helps. When accosted on the street, he always pauses for a photo. A hand-painted paper fan he received from an admirer features on the front cover of his book. The small cup in which he brews tea every day often shows up in his videos. “One person drew me a picture, so I put it in one of the scenes in the 7-Eleven commercial.”
During his first trip to Taiwan, he was surprised when asked to summarise his philosophy in some “words of wisdom,” by the young filmographers at Taiwan Normal University. He recalls the scene with a smile. “I’m only 28. What do I know about this stuff? But I came up with a sentence: ‘The World is Big, Be Intrepid.’” which rhymes in Chinese. They got excited, started the camera rolling, and had him say it again.
“Everyone was fussing over it, even though it’s something I just kind of made it up on the spot,” he said. “But when I thought about it, it does sum up a lot of the things I think.” So after the initial laughter, he says, the slogan became something he took in earnest. Poignant, given that the same dynamic would explain why his fans number so many.