Taiwanese-Canadian actor Godfrey Gao was famous for being the first Asian international supermodel but he was much more than just a pretty face – he had a reputation for being one of the friendliest stars in an intensely competitive industry.
“He was known for being a very nice guy,” says Cecilia Pidgeon, a former celebrity editor at GQ China. “He had a very good reputation among other actors. He was always nice to his fans. All of the colleagues he worked with only had good things to say.”
His shocking death at the age of 35 yesterday from a heart attack on the set of the reality TV show Chase Me cut short a career that included a role in 2013 as Magnus Bane in the Hollywood adaption of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.
Born Tsao Chih-hsiang in Taipei, Taiwan, Gao moved to Vancouver in Canada as a child and became the first Asian model to star in a Louis Vuitton campaign in 2011.
After returning to his home country in 2004, he became part of a new generation of actors, who were born in Asia and moved back to establish their careers after emigrating abroad with their families. Along with Gao, Shawn Dou, a Chinese-Canadian actor who was born in Xi’an, and Eddie Peng, a Taiwanese-Canadian actor and singer from Penghu, have also achieved fame by returning to Asia.
“Because of the success of the mainland Chinese film industry, they all decided to go back to Asia to start their career there,” says Dr Ruby Cheung, lecturer in film studies at Southampton University. “For Chinese, Taiwan or Hong Kong-born actors who have emigrated, there are more opportunities there for them to become really big. If they started out in Hollywood, they would have to work extremely hard to achieve the same level of stardom.”
Gao started acting in Chinese TV shows in 2006, but his most popular role came in Remembering Lichuan, a romantic drama that aired in 2016. By then he had already moved into films with roles in Chinese blockbuster Shanghai Fortress and as the character of Ken in Toy Story 3 for the Mandarin dub.
Transitioning from TV to film is a traditional route for most Asian actors. Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing, Red Cliff’s Vicki Zhao and Liu Yifei, who will take the lead in the upcoming live action adaptation of Disney’s Mulan, all became massive stars in China this way.
It’s also very common for the Asian acting world to look to the modelling industry for new talent. Hu Bing, who was nominated for best actor at the 2010 Rome film festival, is one of China’s most famous models, while Taiwanese star Lin Chi-ling also started out on the runway.
But in the past few years, reality TV shows have emerged as one of the easiest ways to gain instant stardom. I Am a Singer, The Rap of China, Idol Producer and The Voice of China are all wildly popular and have produced overnight sensations. Then there’s Chase Me, the competitive sports challenge show broadcast on China’s Zhejiang Television, that Gao agreed to guest star on.
The actor is reported to have collapsed while on Chase Me’s set in Ningbo, China, after working for 17 hours straight. According to Pidgeon, long working hours are extremely common in the Chinese TV and film industry. “It’s normal because it’s a very competitive industry. You can get famous very quickly. So everyone works extra hours to finish a show fast. All these actors make a lot of money but actually they work really hard. Working overnight is normal.”
China, of course, is now becoming a major player in Hollywood too, with an increasing amount of investment from Chinese companies. This means there’s potential for more crossover artists like Gao, who appeared alongside Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.
The actor was not just a rising star with a career that was likely to take him to giddier heights but also a trailblazer for diversity and Asian representation in US movies. It’s a real tragedy that such talent was brought back to earth so cruelly.