Sunday, February 17, 2008

Edison Chen is Quite a Poker Player!


Heartthrob Edison Chen Asks for Decency

February 15, 2008 3:48 p.m.

HONG KONG -- If Chinese heartthrob Edison Chen really did take 1,300 photos of himself in compromising positions with a dozen or so starlets, it was a bad idea.

Over the past two weeks, someone calling himself "Kira" has posted hundreds of photos online that purport to illustrate the sexual exploits of Mr. Chen, a 27-year-old actor, hip-hop artist, Pepsi pitchman and "newcomer" in People magazine's 2006 Sexiest Man Alive issue. The starlets include some of the biggest draws in Asia, including Gillian Chung, one half of Twins, a squeaky-clean pop duo featured in recent promotions for Hong Kong Disneyland.

The result: China's first big Internet celebrity sex scandal. Hong Kong's newspapers splash the photos liberally across front pages, with sensitive portions blacked out. On popular Chinese-language Web sites, which call the hubbub Sexy Photo Gate, bloggers pore over the photos' authenticity, comparing portions of the explicit images to existing shots of Mr. Chen's bedroom and the starlets' known tattoos.

In Hong Kong, it has become the talk of the town. Trevor Wong says he complied when his aunts, curious about the buzz, asked him to show them the original photos on the Web at a Chinese New Year family gathering last week. "Strange, right?" says the Hong Kong advertising executive. A few days later, his 82-year-old grandmother asked to see them, too.

"We talked about it, and it felt OK," he says.

In this part of the world, Sexy Photo Gate is much more than your average Paris Hilton affair. In mainland China, which tightly monitors Internet content through a series of blocks often called the "Great Firewall," the rapid spread of the images challenges the effectiveness of government controls. In Hong Kong, aggressive moves by police, which have arrested nine people involved in distributing the photos, has made the scandal an unusual rallying point for protecting civil liberties.

Nobody is questioning the authenticity of most of the photos. But Mr. Chen and the other stars have neither admitted nor denied taking them. Instead, Mr. Chen posted a video on his blog telling people to stop looking at the pictures and to delete them. "Let's help the wounded heal their wounds," said a haggard-looking Mr. Chen, sitting in front of a white wall.

On Monday, Ms. Chung held a press conference that was so jammed with photographers, who were stacked to the ceiling on stepladders, that one yelled: "If anyone moves, we're all going to die!" Ms. Chung, who has been marketed with a cute, chaste image, admitted in her 70-second speech to the sin of being "naive and very silly."

Fans waved lit-up signs that read, "We will support you forever."

Responses to the controversy have been surprisingly candid, for societies that are often conservative about sex. Psychologists offer tips in the local press to parents on how to discuss the matter with children. Mr. Chen, who has long cultivated a bad boy image, has been labeled a hypocrite after his plea for decency. Several bloggers doctored photos of him to resemble Osama bin Laden, a reference to his spartan video statement, shot in an undisclosed hideout.

Mr. Chen was raised partially in Canada before kicking off his Chinese entertainment career in 1999 after being noticed by a scout while clubbing in Hong Kong. In recent years, he turned entrepreneurial, founding Clot Inc., a hip-hop themed design, promotion and entertainment production firm, as well as lending his image to ads for Samsung cameras and Levi's jeans, among many other brands.

The photos of Mr. Chen and Ms. Chung first surfaced in Hong Kong online discussion forums on Jan. 27. The Emperor Entertainment Group, a powerful player in the region's celebrity industry that was behind the rise of both Ms. Chung and Mr. Chen, immediately condemned the photos, calling on the Hong Kong police to take action. The police dispatched a team of 19 investigators to root out the source of the material, quickly identifying 30 computers likely involved in distributing the photos.

The photos appear to have been stolen from Mr. Chen's pink Apple MacBook after he brought it to a Hong Kong repair shop. Police arrested several people who had posted the images online, and charged one 23-year-old repairman with accessing a computer with criminal or dishonest intent. Hong Kong law forbids publishing obscene or indecent material -- stolen or otherwise -- in a public place, including the Internet. Police announced that they had caught the source, or at least were very close.

The photos kept coming. They included pictures of actresses Bobo Chan and Cecilia Cheung, as well as the niece of Emperor Group's chairman. An online mystery man calling himself Kira taunted the police, claiming to be the source of over 300 photos that had already leaked and promising to deliver 600 more photos, plus a 32-minute video of Mr. Chen with Ms. Chung.

Police have employed some tough rhetoric. Commissioner Tang King-shing warned that sharing the photos via email, and even storing them on a personal computer, might be illegal. The public balked. "If many people send spam emails with pornographic pictures to Police Commissioner Tang King-shing's email, will he be arrested?" asked Sin Chung-kai, a member of Hong Kong's legislative council.

The police later amended Mr. Tang's statement, saying that looking at the photos or emailing them between mutual friends isn't against the law, although posting them to Web sites is.

The police's exuberance in cracking down on naked photos of celebrities has triggered a popular backlash from some Internet users, who feel the cops are curbing their rights in order to serve the powerful. These critics have embraced Kira as a modern-day Robin Hood, playing catch-me-if-you-can with the cops, as he trickles out new graphic shots via email, chat rooms and file-sharing programs. To date, photos of Mr. Chen with eight different women have surfaced.

In Hong Kong, which has a long tradition of freedom of expression, some 250 protestors hit the streets last Sunday at an "Internet users' march," to chants of "the police abuse their powers, the little people suffer calamity!"

Most of the 200 participants in the march were at pains to distinguish their concerns about police powers from the lurid fascination with celebrity nudity. Some in the mostly male crowd marched with their faces partially obscured by masks or posters.

Protest organizer and Hong Kong University law student Sidney Fong, 22, stressed he was objecting to what he called the government's selective prosecution of Internet crimes. "This is absolutely not a pro-porn protest," he says.

Veteran pro-democracy agitator and lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, who also marched, calls the police action "prejudice on the small potatoes."

In mainland China, where the government has a long tradition of censoring the media, the ideals of keeping the Internet clean have run up against the practicality of stopping the growing interest in Sexy Photo Gate. Just last month, authorities promised to continue a multi-ministry crackdown on online pornography, saying that their efforts last year led to the detention of 868 people and the deletion of 440,000 postings. After Mr. Chen's photos emerged, authorities in one Chinese province warned residents that sharing the photos could bring a three-year prison sentence. They haven't announced any arrests.

Yet the incident has been widely discussed on mainstream Chinese Web sites. On bulletin board Tianya, a discussion thread called "Edison Chen and Gillian Chung's Bedroom Photos! Is it true or not?" has been viewed nearly 28 million times, and features nearly 155,000 posts. Following the crackdown by Hong Kong police, some people in the territory have even turned to mainland Web sites to share the photos.

Government inattention during the recent Lunar New Year holiday, China's biggest annual break, may be one reason. Han Yingxiang, the deputy director of the online police in Jilin, says that the censoring activity has just begun, but is difficult because the Internet "is widely used and the population of Netizens is too large."

Bloggers have taken the photos' proliferation as proof that attempts to police the Internet will fail. "Each new release of a picture is clearly a response to the tough image that the police tries to cultivate," wrote one commenter, who called himself "Buddha's Head," on mainland Chinese online forum KD Net. "Put simply, this is nothing other than a direct challenge to the authority of the police."

In response, a person named john_mo, left a poem echoing Mao Zedong's famous call to let a "hundred flowers bloom," which encouraged ordinary citizens to express their views publicly.

It read, in part: When one IP address is shut down, a hundred thousand spring up/When one identity is shut down, a hundred thousand spring up.

--Bai Lin in Shanghai contributed to this story.

Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at and Jonathan Cheng at

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