If you can put your ego aside and think like a generalist, it will serve you well.
An actor from Beijing named Li Lianjie played the lead part in a high-profile Hong Kong production back in 1991. Hong Kong, then the center of Chinese filmmaking, entered a golden age of kung fu films with the release of Once Once a Time in China, a biography of a great Chinese kung fu teacher. In addition, it catapulted the career of Li, a world-class martial artist who also happened to have acting chops. Many moviegoers will immediately recognize his name, Jet Li, as a result of his success.
Another Chinese immigrant was making waves in Hong Kong at the time Li was wowing audiences there. Faye Wong, or Wang Fei as she is called in Mandarin, began her singing career in the late 1980s with Cantopop, the backbone of the music business in the Cantonese-speaking metropolis. Yet, she was only one of several artists that produced repetitive music at the time. Also, she was not as “sophisticated” or “glamorous” as her Hong Kong counterparts because she was from the mainland.
Wong, fearing obscurity, dabbled in alternative music, incorporating elements inspired by bands like the Scottish post-punk outfit Cocteau Twins. She began appearing in both film and television productions. Wong’s risk paid off as she became a legendary figure in China’s music scene.
Li and Wong are the epitome of the classic rags-to-riches narrative, having gone from obscurity to fame in the span of a generation, from communist China to freewheeling Hong Kong. It’s true that “hard effort pays,” but in the fields of creativity and innovation, there are more nuanced lessons to be learnt. Our latest study, “Can you do kungfu and also act?,” goes into length on these issues. Improved social standing for newcomers to the creative sectors.
We analyzed Li’s story together with that of almost 1,200 other mainland Chinese actors who moved to Hong Kong between 1927 and 2012. We discovered that immigrants with lower social standing in their home countries were more likely to rise in social standing after migrating than were immigrants with higher social standing before leaving their home countries. But another important finding was that genre-hopping generalists had a greater chance of succeeding in their new environment.
To act like water
We scoured libraries, archives, and publications for details on Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese cinema. We used a system of codes to record information on movies, including who starred in them, who directed them, which companies produced them, and what genres they fell into. For mainland actors who had previously acted in mainland films, the year they first appeared in the credits of Hong Kong films was used as the year they relocated to Hong Kong.
We calculated the standing of mainland Chinese actors in the Hong Kong film business, as well as that of newcomers to Hong Kong’s acting scene and those already established there. The data was gathered from movie credits, which rank performers in order of significance, and the analysis spanned three years, which is the typical duration of studio employment contracts.
Our simulations indicate that mainland actors of high status who relocated to Hong Kong for employment suffered a loss of status. In addition, we discovered that low-status generalist Chinese actors were more likely to improve their reputation in Hong Kong than their specialized peers. Nevertheless, this only occurred when the generalists had shown success in China in genres that were equally well-liked in the host country. The ability to adapt and the willingness to work hard pay rewarded when the host market recognizes and uses such qualities to their full potential.
Consider Jet Li as a case in point. In the early 1980s, Li began his acting career with a string of films about Shaolin monks. Later in life, he branched out into patriotic films and even featured in a few documentaries, but by the mid-1980s, he had fallen into oblivion. Li continued to display the same adaptability and work ethic after moving to Hong Kong. His skill in action scenes was undeniable, but he also excelled in tragic moments and even slapstick humor, and he could easily switch between period pieces and modern blockbusters. His willingness to dabble in Hong Kong-style humor and his activity in the action and patriotic cinema genres, which are popular in both mainland China and Hong Kong, were undoubtedly factors in his success.
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The value of being foreign
It appears that teams with established, high-profile members can benefit by adding a generalist migrant to the team. They bring a wealth of unique perspectives to projects thanks to their extensive international abilities, knowledge, and experiences. Known for his mastery of Northern Chinese martial arts, Li was a game-changer in the world of Hong Kong kung fu films. While expert migrants may also promote innovation, this effect is typically confined to narrower fields.
Low-status generalist migrants, whose abilities are frequently underestimated or dismissed in their adoptive area, should take heart from our findings. Such adaptable emigrants have the potential to achieve success in the United States that they never would have had in their native country, at least in the fields of creativity and innovation. Migrants might be able to capitalize on their unique cultural background if they are given the chance and the correct frame of mind.