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To Ni Ni, the World Is a Stage

By Quan Zhang

On Ni Ni: Gucci dress and sunglasses, and Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso One Duetto watch in pink gold.
 
On Ni Ni: Gucci dress and sunglasses, and Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso One Duetto watch in pink gold.

AS THE SPREAD of the novel coronavirus culminated in a state of emergency in China, Chinese actress Ni Ni made a decision. She would use her face (the word “face” is homograph of the word “reputation” in Chinese, as face is metaphor for reputation in English) to mobilise local manufacturers of protective clothing and masks in her hometown, Nanjing, to produce these necessary medical supplies for the Han Hong Love Charity Foundation (HHLCF).

As a celebrity volunteer at HHLCF, besides donating money, Ni forms part of the charity organisation’s data collection team, which collects, verifies and organises hospital requests for emergency aid. She then liaises with domestic and foreign manufacturers with the adequate capacity to produce medical resources badly needed in the pandemic.

In February, when the pandemic hit the hardest, those who could help believed in “giving their all.” This impetus stemmed not only from collective empathy for those suffering, but also, to a large extent, from individual experience. And Ni herself, having experienced having the lives of loved ones on the line shared that she “couldn’t possibly not respond” to those distress calls.

Now, the Chinese have largely surmounted the crisis, but the nation nevertheless remains wary yet contemplative: To thrive today, a firm commitment to the notion of community, which best safeguards collective interests, may perhaps be the answer.

Loewe dress.
Loewe dress.

SINCE TURNING 30, Ni had begun actively engaging in public welfare projects. She has participated in the spiritual movement “Power to Go,” served as the World Wildlife Fund’s water conservation ambassador and joined the HHLCF. “I think at some point in time, you’ll realise that you can’t focus solely on your own growth or turn a blind eye to things happening around you.” she says.

Her countless confrontations, head-on, with asymmetric information (when a lack of information fails certain parties and benefits others disproportionately) on the internet led her to understand an immutable facet to fame — a deep, inescapable entanglement with the society’s collective values, ones that are constantly emerging and repeatedly reconstructing in the process. This allowed Ni to become mindful of her actions. For one, she feels a responsibility to “speak out.” She had previously seen public service as an obligation that principally benefits those who receive it, and that those acts of public service “didn’t require shouting about.”

But in the current media landscape that is constantly and rapidly shifting, vastly diverse public opinions tend to challenge the effective allocation of limited resources in the economy. So public figures, with their large followings, should not be silent. Even if the social category they represent is limited, in any case, the famous can still urge audiences to express opinions and explore issues such as social responsibility, privilege and class.

Marisfrolg top and skirt. Staccato heels.
Marisfrolg top and skirt. Staccato heels.

The message is clear: Dare to speak up, for it’s crucial for people to protect their right to speak. And the quality of such expression — whether absurd, typical, or even brilliant — must be perceived in the name of freedom of expression. Once acknowledging her irrevocable place as an individual in a larger society, Ni found enlightenment. “If you don’t use that little influence to let everyone know what people, things or issues deserve attention or help, then, what’s the point?” she says.

Yet, becoming a public figure — more specifically, an actress — has obscured a part of Ni’s personal reality. As a daughter, Ni has often felt distant. Her career affords little spare time for her to tend to family affairs. She often observes the daily lives of her parents and relatives from afar. Once, she said in an interview, when she returned to her hometown, Nanjing, one year during the winter solstice, she had expected her parents would make her favourite dumplings stuffed with pork and leek. But the dish wasn’t part of the menu that evening. She was puzzled. Her parents had wanted to keep things “fresh,” they explained, because they hadn’t seen their daughter in a long time. These minute situations laid bare a stark disjoint between Ni’s familial longing and her parents’ unconditional love, and triggers Ni’s anxieties over her identity as a daughter.

“If you don’t use that little influence to let everyone know what people, things or issues deserve attention or help, then, what’s the point?”

In some sense, Ni’s anxieties are a process, symptomatic of a gruelling career in show business, where she has to constantly reinvent herself.

Since last year, Ni has returned home more frequently. There are various reasons for that, but the most logical one is, she says, that “it’s about time.” Like many others, Ni has confronted moments when she realised that “parents are actually very fragile”. Outside a surgery room; inside an intensive care unit; the lives of loved ones dangling by a thread; and the tears Ni has shed — are experiences that have transformed Ni’s outlook to life. Such lived experiences may seem ordinary, yet they are in fact crucially revelatory: This famous star has her own normal, everyday concerns.

Gucci bodysuit, hat and sunglasses. Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso One Duetto watch in pink gold.
Gucci bodysuit, hat and sunglasses. Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso One Duetto watch in pink gold.

DUE TO THE CORONAVIRUS, Ni has spent more than a month in Nanjing this spring. This is the longest vacation she has spent with her parents since launching her career. Ni has returned to her role as a daughter.

She spent time with her parents, watching family and spy dramas together that her folks enjoyed tremendously, which sparked an idea. “Why don’t I do something to make them happy? [I] immediately contacted my team, telling them that I wanted to act in a family or spy drama,” she says.

During the same period, Ni also noticed her mother’s ailing memory, and her father’s chronic backaches. One day, she went out to fetch a parcel. Passing through empty streets, Ni felt a tinge of melancholy.

It was too quiet.

She would return to Beijing in early March.

Gucci top. Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso One Duetto watch in pink gold.
Gucci top. Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso One Duetto watch in pink gold.

BEIJING SYMBOLISES Ni’s public domain. Here, she’s constantly in a “presentation of the self”. She performs this self through an array of acting works, publicity events, marketing campaigns, critic reviews and such, all of which are content produced in cognisance of consumption patterns in an industry that delights in watching the female star.

And they also reveal some cultural conventions of this era. For instance, at the photoshoot of this cover story, when Ni’s image, designed for her by the stylist, appears in front of the camera, she begins a collaboration with T China to shape a certain character. Ultimately, no matter the visual style or the interview, once readers receive an affirmation that guides their perception of Ni, they connect all the dots to produce the final, familiar image of her. This “presentation” or, in other words, form of “human design” can thus be seen as a tool to allow people to relate with an individual. And the ensuing consumerist logic is self-explanatory.

Ni is aware of the part she plays the “construction and consumption” process. “This is the affiliation that a career affords you,” she says. In the past nine years, she has made almost no mistakes in presenting her public image, focusing on a healthy diet, body management, and skincare. In this era, all of these are buzzwords of the body, and they are symbols that enable the system of consumption. Ni often complies. “Because my position is different, so the way I see things is naturally different,” she says. She has learnt to adapt and has naturally elicited a positive response from market forces and benefitted from it. However, even if there are rules to the game, Ni still retains her autonomy in presenting what she wants — on occasion deliberately making herself less “beautiful,” in defiance of the industry’s beauty standards.

Gucci dress, sunglasses and bag. Jaeger-LeCoultre Dazzling Rendez-Vous Moon in white gold and diamonds.
Gucci dress, sunglasses and bag. Jaeger-LeCoultre Dazzling Rendez-Vous Moon in white gold and diamonds.

LATELY, NI HAS STARTED exploring other career opportunities. The buzz surrounding her debut role has subsided. The television series “The Rise of Phoenixes” (2017) and “Love and Destiny” (2019) had made her feel “worn out by the thought of performing.” Ni needs to break the cycle.

Last year, she starred in the American-born, Taiwan-Shanghai based playwright and theatre director, Stan Lai’s play “One One Zero Eight” (2019), which ran over two hours and required her to play two roles at once. As to whether the show improved her acting skills and broadened her horizons, Ni responds, “It’s just a play, let’s not get too idealistic.” She hasn’t been saved from her woes, and it’s expected. She remembers Lai’s words: “Theatre is a repetitive process. Only when one masters it can one begin attempting to distil some lessons from it.”

So far, she has performed 17 shows, a far cry from Lai’s dictum that 100 shows make the foundation of a theatre performer.

Ni is definitely a hard worker. But hardworking performers are everywhere — and Ni is no more distinguished. Backstage at last year’s Golden Rooster Awards (the “Chinese Oscars”), Ni rejected media interviews, because she didn’t have a participating work in tow. Such blunt candour is what makes Ni special. It shows her great restraint when it comes to her public role. After all, there is never a completely transparent star — what celebrity would want to share too much? What Ni can present and wants to show has perhaps already been brought to the table. “There’s the element of luck in how I present myself and in the results of that presentation,” says Ni. “So I’m someone who has no right to say that I’m not lucky.”

On the cover of T Singapore’s “Art, Design & Technology” July 2020 issue, Ni Ni wears a Gucci dress, a pair of sunglasses and shoes, as well as a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso One Duetto watch in pink gold.
On the cover of T Singapore’s “Art, Design & Technology” July 2020 issue, Ni Ni wears a Gucci dress, a pair of sunglasses and shoes, as well as a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso One Duetto watch in pink gold.

Ni often questions herself: How much effort did I put into this? Was it to the best of my abilities? Do I have any regrets? However, once the inner monologue ends, Ni becomes a spectator yet again. She observes her “presentations,” as though scrutinising a mask in hand. She doesn’t wish to take off her mask for now; so perhaps when she does take it off, you won’t even know it.

Photographs by Fan Xin
Styling by White Fan
Translation by Terence Poh
Hair by Wen Zhi
Makeup by Tai Ling