Allan Wu, host of Amazing Race: China Rush, now lives in Shanghai. [Provided to China Daily]
US-born TV host who was once lost for words found his voice in China
As a child in San Marino, California, Allan Wu had no vision of himself as a bridge between his family’s ancestral culture and its new one.
“My parents were first-generation immigrants from Shenyang in Northeast China,” he says. “But I was born in America and I wanted to be an American – ‘to be like everybody else’.”
Today the community where he grew up is about 30 percent Asian, “but back then there were just a handful”.
So young Wu struggled to learn English because it was not the language at home, and he resisted his parents’ urging to learn Chinese because that was not his vision of himself.
“I was an ESL (English as a second-language) student through at least the second grade,” he says. “I remember an exasperated teacher finally asking, ‘What language CAN you speak?'”
Fast forward to a recent week in Beijing, when the host of TV’s Amazing Race: China Rush bounced into China’s capital with snappy banter that flowed freely between English and Mandarin.
At one appearance, one-time VJ Wu was exhorting a crowd of US expats at the Temple Theater to chant “You peng zi yuanfang lai, bu yi le hu. (We are happy when friends visit from afar.)” He was in town to help launch Project Pengyou, a campaign to rally American “China veterans” to support US President Barack Obama’s 100,000 Strong Initiative.
That effort is designed to boost the number of US students in China from 13,000 to 100,000 in four years.
Wu himself first came to China not as a student but an actor wannabe. He had been working as a model with the Ford agency in Los Angeles, with some VJ gigs on the side. “I liked representing the Asian community in the States,” he says, but he grew tired of being “a token” in a fashion shoot with eight Anglo-Americans, three Latinos, two blacks and him.
“I wanted to be an actor, and I wanted to work in an environment where I was part of the majority.”
So he snagged a $100 flight to Asia as a documents courier, and auditioned to be a VJ for music television in Taipei. “I had to introduce a Smashing Pumpkins video” – and got the job despite one small problem.
“Your Mandarin is absolutely atrocious,” Wu recalls being told. “But we see something in you.”
That “something” could have been his gift of the gab, or the raw zest for life that makes images of the muscle-shirted actor leap from his webpage.
Resisting one last tug from his life in Los Angeles – “I had just gotten my personal trainer certification so I didn’t have to do the ‘waiter in between acting gigs’ thing.” – Wu made the leap to Taiwan.
“It was really hot and humid, and my mother asked me, ‘Why do you want to come here, after we sacrificed so much to come to the US and give you the opportunities there?’
“It was so, so ironic,” he says, laughing at the memory of himself as a child, so determined to be a US citizen, not Asian.
“But she was very supportive when she realized how serious I was about the opportunities on this side of the Pacific.”
He felt very alone at first, but buckled down to study Mandarin and savored the “cool” job at MTV, where his main responsibility was interviewing foreign artists like Julio Iglesias and Mariah Carey as they came through Taipei. But when his one-year contract was up, he was off to Hong Kong looking for movie roles.
“That was back to the starving actor life again. I just didn’t mesh with the place as quickly as I did in Taiwan, and while I was still trying to learn Mandarin, suddenly Cantonese was a whole new challenge.”
He planned to move on to Shanghai within a year, but fate intervened.
Wu had some part-time work in Singapore – he hosted the CommunicAsia show for a Japanese telecom giant, among other gigs. “On one trip I was checking out some agencies – there are great photographers out there, etc – when one agency rep said to me, ‘When I look at you, I see dollar signs.'”
That was flattering, Wu says with a monster grin, “but I told her that I’d done the modeling thing and what I really wanted was to act.” So she introduced him to a talent manager in Singapore, and suddenly he had a contract to make Chinese television dramas.
His new employers were “keen on new faces”, he says, and he found himself playing the lead in what turned into a blockbuster Chinese drama even though he still could not speak Mandarin very well.
“Those were some really dark days, messing up my lines all the time.” But he relished the challenge. “That’s an intense way to learn language, being in somebody’s face all the time and having to say the lines.” The producers eventually decided to dub him, which was commonly done anyway, but Wu was disappointed that they did not use his own voice. He won that chance back, “but not until about my third drama there”.
It was a great job, Wu says, but then he learned that the producers of television’s The Amazing Race were auditioning potential hosts for an Asian version of the show. He was itching for the job.
“There were a lot of people gunning for that – hit show, fun concept, lots of travel. I had been a contestant on Fear Factor – eating bugs, the whole thing – so I was a big reality-show junkie.” The candidates were narrowed down to three, and Wu says he got picked both for his on-camera skills and because once, during a sudden thunderstorm, he delighted a producer by roaring onto the set on his motorcycle, dripping wet.
After a few seasons he was approached by another company about doing an Amazing Race show for China. Once that group secured the rights to do the show officially, Wu was again ready to pack for Shanghai.
In the meantime he had spent 10 years in Singapore, married the actress Wong Li-lin and become half of a celebrity couple. He also became the father of two children.
At home he often found himself talking like his parents. “It was that cross-culture irony again,” he says. “The whole time in Singapore, I’m saying to the kids, ‘You gotta speak more Chinese.'”
After agreeing to host Amazing Race: China Rush, Wu jokes that he laid down an ultimatum: “You don’t want to learn Chinese. I’ll bring China to you.” And a few months ago, after the show’s second season, the family was settling in Shanghai.
“We are looking for candidates, contestants for season three now,” he says. Meanwhile, he was emceeing a concert for Project Pengyou and helping the organizers figure out how to get more US students to come study in China.
“Most stereotypes are not rooted in hostility but in a lack of interaction.
“And exposing young people from all parts of US society to China’s culture is a big step forward,” he says.