Edison Chen, a popular singer, actor and TV host in Asia, was hoping American audiences would discover him when Christopher Nolan’s newest installment in the Batman series, “The Dark Knight” is released in the United States sometime later this year.
Instead, Americans are getting their first taste of this young Hong Kong actor via one of the largest sex scandals to hit the Hong Kong/Chinese film scene in recent memory.
The scandal, now known as the “Edison Chen Incident,” exploded when digital photographs showing Chen apparently performing sexual acts with other Hong Kong celebrities, Bobo Chan and Gillian Chung, turned up on prominent Hong Kong Internet bulletin boards systems (BBS) and celebrity blogs.
The episode not only raises important questions about privacy and censorship, it is arguably the former British colony’s biggest scandal in years and has secured a place on newspaper front pages every day since it broke a couple of weeks ago.
Laptop repair gone wrong
In the days after the release of the photos, Hong Kong police investigating the case tracked the source of the photos to a computer service center where Chen had taken his laptop for repairs. Police arrested eight employees of the service center in connection with the photo release since the discovery, and announced that they believed over 1,300 racy photos of celebrities had been stolen.
In places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China, where the hunger for celebrity news is ravenous and invasive, the daily leak of new images has kept the story on the tabloids’ front pages, alongside breathless updates on the stars and ongoing legal proceedings.
While the tabloid buzz has currently settled on the stars already exposed in the photos, much of the discussion on Chinese and Hong Kong blogs has been speculation over which other actresses and musicians will be implicated. Rumors of a tawdry video showing Chen’s onetime girlfriend, Maggie Q., who Americans may know from Mission Impossible III, Live Free or Die Hard, has kept hundreds of thousands of Chinese netizens glued to online forums and chat sites waiting for updates.
Hong Kong singer Gillian Chung, left, told the press she was “naive and silly” after racy photos that showed her partially nude with Edison Chen were widely circulated on the Internet.
Police handling and privacy rights
Outside of the realm of the gossip reporting, an interesting debate over Internet rights and the Hong Kong police’s handling of the scandal has emerged. Concerns over the police’s ability to deal with cyber crimes first arose when they were forced to make an embarrassing retraction after new photos mysteriously appeared on Feb. 7 – a day after the police had confidently announced that the probable source of the leak had been caught.
Furthermore, the police have been under fire from both Hong Kong civil liberties groups and legislators after Commissioner of Police Tang King-Shing declared, incorrectly, that even the mere possession of the tawdry photos could be illegal and grounds for arrest.
Shing’s words proved to be inflammatory as netizens nervously wondered whether the police would indeed arrest or punish the tens of thousands of people who had already downloaded or seen the images.
Shing’s interview even sparked an angry protest led by prominent Hong Kong lawmaker and activist “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-Hung outside of police headquarters in Wan Chai. The protestors accused the police commissioner of fear-mongering and demanded he clarify his statements.
The seeming ham-handed handling of the case has left the police on the defensive as they now find themselves having to allay public fears about privacy and a perception of selectiveness in investigating high-profile Internet pornography cases more rigorously than others.
The latter problem can be fixed in the short-term through a recommitment to investigating and prosecuting cyber crimes. However, concerns over privacy and government regulation of the Internet will certainly, for better or for worse, draw eerie comparisons to the regulations that currently rule just across the border in mainland China.
Star’s image battered
Meanwhile, Chen, who had developed a large teenage girl fan base in Asia through his singing and acting roles, now finds himself at the center of a nasty public backlash against his carefully cultivated image.
There has been a growing public perception both in the local blogs and many public forums that whether or not these images were made consensually, Chen took advantage of the girls he appeared with.
While he has since issued a public statement via a YouTube video posted on his website (Chen has been in Canada since the scandal broke), it would seem that the damage has already been done. Since the images were leaked, Chen has been dumped from what was to be a soon to be released Stephen Chow (Kung-Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer) film.
While the Hong Kong glitterati have had their fair share of sex scandals, none of them compare in terms of the speed and voraciousness of coverage. It will be interesting to see if Chen can ride out the negative publicity engulfing him, and whether he can parlay it to jumpstart an ailing career, a la U.S. celebrities Paris Hilton and Tommie Lee who were caught in similarly compromising positions.