Struggling Artists Find a Second Chance in China

Bands like the Backstreet Boys have attracted huge crowds in China even as their popularity waned in the West. Zhu Liangcheng / Xinhua-Landov

Three years ago, during a stopover in Hong Kong on the way home from Australia to Poland, Slawomir Swierzynski and his bandmate popped into a karaoke bar in search of a drink. The place did not sell alcohol, but it did have a stage and microphone. So the two men—members of the band Bayer Full—jumped onstage and had a go. The local Chinese crowd went mad for their music. After performing three songs, the duo handed out several of their CDs to the audience and left to catch their flight.

A year later, Swierzynski received an e-mail out of the blue from a Chinese agent saying that Bayer Full's CD had made its way into the hands of DJs who were spinning it in discos across China. Now, after much negotiation, the 24-year-old band plans to release a whopping 67 million copies of its new album in China in January. It will be released under the more Chinese-sounding band name Bai-Fu, and many of the lyrics will be sung in Chinese. The band will begin touring a few cities in November, ahead of a more extensive tour in early 2011. "We really want to make a long-term investment in China," says Swierzynski. "We are looking at this as another stage in our career."

For creative acts like Bayer Full—which had great success across Poland in the 1990s but has since waned in popularity—China offers a new lease on life. With 1.5 billion prospective fans, China gives Western musicians, actors, directors, and visual artists a chance to kick-start or revitalize stalling careers. Part of the draw is financial; a 2007 report by Pearl Research estimated that China's 320 million people between the ages of 16 and 30 have a spending power of more than $135 billion, and they're eager to embrace new products, entertainment, and life experiences. With a rapidly growing middle class increasingly interested in the arts, China provides an opportunity for exposure on a scale practically unheard of in the rest of the world. For musicians like Bayer Full and Nashville folk singer Abigail Washburn, who completed her master's degree in China, singing in the local language provides a foothold into the music industry. Visual artists have found that studio spaces—so expensive and hard to come by in art capitals like London or New York—are easy to find, cheap, and spacious in China. Meanwhile, casting companies like the Shanghai-based Constellation Talent Agency have set up shop to help Western actors, directors, and writers get gigs. "It's easier to make a niche," says Richard Trombly, a former trade-magazine journalist who switched careers seven years ago when he moved from the U.S. to Beijing and now works as a writer and director in film and television. "Here you can easily make connections, get some experience on your résumé, and—if you market yourself right and have talent—you can really build quite a successful career."

With a growing number of films being made in China—last year the industry produced 500, compared with 100 in 2002—foreign actors face expanding opportunities. After graduating from New York's Bard College with a degree in Asian studies seven years ago, Kerry Brogan moved to China to pursue her thespian interests. Now, with more than 40 film roles under her belt—including those of a French nuclear physicist and a 16th-century Russian princess—Brogan has been dubbed the "hottest Western face in China" by one Chinese magazine, and gets 400,000 daily hits on her blog. "When I first moved here, I did not know what was in store for me and it was extremely hard," she says. "But I have had some amazing opportunities, and I still find it exciting to be able to pursue my career here." Volker Helfrich moved to China from his native Germany because his acting career was faltering back home. Since relocating to Beijing four years ago, he has been working steadily. He notes that roles for Westerners have become meatier, no longer confined to the stereotypical bad guy or naive tourist. "Moving to China might have been the best idea I ever had," Helfrich says. "Filming here is not as comfortable and easy for an actor, but it is a great chance to work in a different cultural environment."

That environment has provided inspiration for Western visual artists as well. "China gives you room for experimenting," says the Beijing-based Italian artist Alessandro Rolandi. "Life can be hard, distances can be uncomfortable, but there is constantly something happening." For one thing, both Chinese and foreign collectors have grown increasingly enamored of Chinese contemporary art. Though a natural correction occurred during the recession, the art market seems to be picking up again; in October Sotheby's held its best-ever Asian-art auction (which also included watches and wines), raking in $400 million in sales. "China is like a Willy Wonka factory for artists," says Joseph Foster Ellis, the first American to graduate from Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts with a degree in sculpture. The abundance of space and endless resources—in Jingdezhen, for instance, where porcelain is made, specialized stores sell only brushes for painting flowers, or one color of glaze—allow artists to create installations that would be impossible to make anywhere else. "That gives me a great sense of freedom in my art," says Ellis. It's an unexpected word to use when discussing China, but for artists looking for a new audience, that's exactly what's on offer.