Taiwanese supermodel-turned-actress Lin Chi-ling shot to fame more than a decade ago, and is as popular as ever. Dubbed a phenomenon, she acts alongside Chinese cinema’s leading men and her adventurous side will never turn down a challenge. Here, our correspondent talks to Mandarin Oriental’s glamorous ‘Fan’
Once, she had dreams of working as an art connoisseur, but the entertainment industry had different plans for Taiwan-born Lin Chi-ling. In 2004, the then art-history graduate found herself in the frame when she landed a modelling job for a series of Taiwanese commercials. What happened next has been dubbed the ‘Lin Chi-ling Phenomenon’. Almost overnight, Chi-ling was catapulted to celebrity supermodel status and became a household name across Asia. Her face was splashed across billboards and in advertising campaigns for everything from Olay to Longines and China Airlines.
However, equally impressive is Chi-ling’s staying power in the notoriously fickle entertainment business. Over the past 10 years, she has elegantly sashayed from supermodel to bubbly TV presenter and, since 2008, big-budget-film leading lady, starring with top Asian actors such as Tony Leung, Andy Lau and Jay Chou. In her new film The Monk, released in 2015, her co-star is Aaron Kwok.
Chi-ling ranks seventh on Forbes magazine’s list of the Top 10 China Celebrities in 2014 – above Jackie Chan and tennis star Li Na. She is well known for her killer 5ft 9in figure and saccharine voice, but behind the gorgeous doll-like demeanor is a fun, gutsy lady who relishes new challenges, from acting roles to solo adventure travel to building schools in far-flung Chinese provinces through her Chiling Charity Foundation.
What are you currently working on, and what brings you to Shanghai?
We’re filming the final scenes of Chen Kaige’s martial-arts action movie The Monk, based on the Chinese novel Dao Shi Xia Shan (A Monk Comes Down the Mountain). It is being filmed around Shanghai and in the northern suburbs of Beijing. I’m also attending the 17th Shanghai International Film Festival [her new film, spy thriller The Trump Card, opened the festival]. And I’m excited about an art exhibition that I’m planning in Taipei in September . It will be a mix of art, fashion and design. I’m a fan of visual art and used to work at an art foundation, so it’s a pleasure to return to curating.
You were discovered at 15 by a model talent scout in Taipei. What was your life like before then?
As a child I was very guai (obedient); even my parents say that I was disciplined. They were fairly strict, so I studied hard and did as I was told. I was preparing for important school entrance exams in Taiwan, studying until 10pm each day, when I was scouted to become a model. However, my parents demanded that I continue my education and sent me to a private girls’ boarding school in Toronto, Canada. My overriding memory of that time was being freezing cold! But I survived and made good friends there. It helped me to grow up.
You graduated from the University of Toronto with a double degree in Western art history and economics. Why did you choose those subjects?
One was for my parents and one was for myself – it’s pretty obvious which was which. I originally chose visual arts, as I’ve always loved to paint, but after two years I switched to art history. After I returned to Taiwan, I took a job in an art foundation. I also taught camera work and arts and culture appreciation at a performing arts school. I thought it was important to encourage students to have their own sense of aesthetics and opinions about art, which is different from the way it is taught in Taiwan.
Everything happened so smoothly, as if I was being pulled into entertainment
When did you return to modelling?
I started part-time modelling after university. I thought when I get old, it would be great to look back and see myself in a commercial or two. And I thought the extra money would be nice, too. Right from the beginning, though, everything happened so smoothly. It was as if I was being pulled into the entertainment industry. Aged 24, I knew I couldn’t count on a long modelling career, so I needed to have another avenue of work. I started hosting a TV fashion programme in Taiwan, and suddenly I was jetting off to fashion weeks around the world, interviewing Karl Lagerfeld. I couldn’t believe it!
How did the so-called ‘Lin Chi-ling Phenomenon’ begin?
Lin Chi-ling with Jay Chou in 2009’s The Treasure Hunter
Even now, that is still a big question mark for me, although it does sound impressive! I’d say it was good timing. In 2004, the media in Taiwan were expanding fast – from three TV channels to around 70, so the need for new talent was huge. Until that point, models were just faces – nobody remembered your name. I was fortunate that, through my work, people were willing to listen to me and accept that there was more behind the face, that I had thoughts, interests, a serious profession. The whole journey has taken me by surprise, though – and I still feel excited when I see myself on billboards.
With acting you need to dig deep inside yourself and expose your heart
Do you prefer acting or modelling?
Acting. Modelling is more superficial. With acting you need to dig deep inside yourself and expose your heart to perform convincingly. I’m still learning, but I’m enjoying it and, for me, it’s more of a long-term prospect.
How did the transition to acting occur?
I never thought I’d be an actress. When [Hong Kong director] John Woo approached me and asked if I wanted to be in his film Red Cliff, my response was, ‘Are you sure?’ But I’m always willing to take on new challenges. I don’t want to regret being afraid to try. I believe in throwing myself into something one hundred per cent. If I try and don’t succeed, that’s OK. If people don’t like it, that’s OK, too, as at least I’ve had a go and expanded my life in the way I want.
What do you consider a highlight of your career so far?
Red Cliff, my first movie, was a turning point. Prior to that I was injured in a horse-riding accident while filming a commercial in China [in 2005, she fell from a horse, suffering six broken ribs and a punctured lung]. For half a year, I felt lucky to have survived and planned to quit the entertainment business to return to teaching or join an art gallery or auction house. But then the movie offer came. I’m not particularly ambitious, but everything happened in such a way that it seemed I was being given a mission to complete. Opportunities are hard to come by in this industry, and if I’m blessed with one I have to show my respect and go for it.
Chi-ling playing the role of Xiao Qiao in her first film, the Chinese epic Red Cliff, in 2008
In your film debut, Red Cliff, what was it like to star alongside an acting legend such as Tony Leung?
Very daunting. He was my idol and so I had to put aside the feeling of being a fan, and try to remain composed. But Tony is such a gentleman – he put me at ease and helped my first character be who she was. He doesn’t instruct, but he has such a strong presence. I had no prior acting experience, but when I acted with Tony on set he was so convincing that the roles felt natural. Another movie I really enjoyed was the romcom Say Yes! with Huang Bo. We’d never met before the movie, but we just clicked and it was a lot of fun.
Outside of work, I believe you love travelling. What is your favourite holiday memory?
In my twenties I backpacked for two months in Italy from north to south. I travelled by train, stayed in youth hostels and ate simply. It was wonderful. Often the simple things are the most special. I love to get away, especially by myself and without much planning. I’m also a big foodie, so my travels usually involve good food.
Why did you become a ‘Fan’ of Mandarin Oriental?
I often stay in Mandarin Oriental hotels – in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong and China. I’m looking forward to visiting their new hotel in my home city of Taipei, too. Every day is work, work, work, so a hotel where I feel truly at ease is important. Returning to Mandarin Oriental is like coming home, but one where you feel really pampered by all of the little extra touches. There’s a wonderful sense of peacefulness when you step inside, no matter where you are in the world. I also relax by using the facilities – the pool, sauna, Jacuzzi, spa.
Tell me about your Chiling Charity Foundation, which Mandarin Oriental supports through your role in the ‘Fan’ campaign.
I’ve been blessed with a lot and feel obliged to give back. I started the Foundation three years ago to help children in poverty, or in emergency situations like earthquakes, by providing medication and education. Children are the foundation of society and a good education can drastically change their lives, which is why for example we work with children with disabilities to help them learn to speak before the age of six. Our projects are mainly focused in Taiwan and Sichuan Province, China, where we are building schools with dormitories. Children have to trek through the mountains for two hours to get to school, and then two hours back home. Many are forced to quit school and work at home, but because they are smart and want to learn, it seems incredibly unfair. With the dormitories we build, the children can stay at the school during the week and return home at the weekend.