Naked Edison Chen and Friends Light Up the Web

In June 2007, according to media reports, a Hong Kong actor and singer named Edison Chen took his pink Apple Powerbook laptop into a Central district computer shop called eLite Media to be repaired and inadvertently set off a firestorm that has rippled across the city into China and well beyond.

What happened next has demonstrated beyond any doubt the complete inability of anything besides a society as closed as Burma to police the Internet, and rendered Hong Kong’s colonial-era obscenity laws irrelevant, as well as raising questions over everything from intellectual property theft to police overprotection of media stars to the morality of the territory’s Cantopop stars. Whatever else it has done, it has preoccupied Hong Kong’s media to a remarkable degree and presumably galvanized Internet users in one of the world’s most wired cities into a full-on chase for celebrity smut.

The 28-year-old Chen is one of Hong Kong’s most popular entertainment figures, having appeared in 25 motion pictures since 2000, including the immensely popular Infernal Affairs series, and recorded seven albums. In his naughty little pink laptop were an estimated 1,300 photos, many of them allegedly depicting Chen in various stages of in flagrante delicto with at least seven* female celebrities.

An employee of the shop spotted the photos, said to have been taken between 2003 and 2005, and copied them. From there it was but a short trip to the Internet, to the presumed embarrassment of Chen and certainly the women, some of whom cultivate a public image of chaste cuteness. In the process, a lesson has been delivered: be careful what you film because it will appear on the Internet.

The pictures first started to appear on the Internet on January 26. The story has since raced across all of Hong Kong’s newspapers and magazines and onto the web, with the Wikipedia narrative of Chen and his friends Cecilia Chung, Bobo Chan and others helpfully posting an extract from Google Trends showing the popularity of Chinese-language searches mounting into the tens of thousands for the various parties. Chen, a Canadian-born Chinese who dropped out of Hong Kong’s International School before starting his acting career, hurriedly decamped for Boston while issuing public statements apologizing to his fans and pleading with “everyone to stop forwarding the images on the Internet” so that “the innocent can rebuild their lives.” He was reportedly dropped from the cast of a new movie on Feb. 6 because of the scandal.

But it was the reaction of the Hong Kong police that was most startling. In a city where casual obscenity, barely concealed prostitution and vulgarity abound, the reaction seems more in line with busting a serial killer or going after triad bosses. The force mobilized a team of at least 19 officers, according to the Assistant Commissioner of Police, and assigned them to crack down on the dissemination of the nude pictures, going after local Internet service providers to eradicate all traces of the photos under the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance, a British-era law that provides for fines of up to HK$1 million and imprisonment for three years for “Publishing or possessing for the purpose of publishing an indecent article without complying with the statutory requirements.” Too late. The story had already metastasized to China, the United States and anywhere else with access to the Internet as websites started publishing the pictures. Rangoon might be safe, since the generals in Burma do not allow any form of free speech.

Like governments everywhere, Hong Kong has been unable to define obscenity beyond Article 4 of the ordinance, which describes “obscenity¨ and “indecency” to include “violence, depravity and repulsiveness,” recalling US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s phrase defining obscenity in his 1964 concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio. Stewart famously wrote of smut, "I know it when I see it.” The court pretty much left it at that, as has Hong Kong.


Whatever it was, apparently the photos Chen had snapped of him and the starlets, Gillian Chung, Mandy Chen and Candice Chan, in addition to Bobo and Cecilia, plus his 18-year-old girlfriend, Vincy Yeung – the niece of Emperor Group tycoon Albert Yeung doing all manner of things motivated the police to look for the culprits. Police have met with more than 200 people responsible for major websites, urging them to delete the pictures because of their criminal nature, according to local media.

In particular, the shock to Hong Kong’s entertainment system revolves around Cantopop, a genre in which manufactured talent churns out sweet nonsense to the entire Chinese-speaking world. Training for Cantopop starlets starts in the pre-teens and depends very seriously on a virginal image – something hardly consistent with Chen’s photos of the young women. The right kind of exposure is crucial, but one bad mention is enough to make or break a career.

In addition to the original Chen photos, indefatigable Photoshoppers also went to work, grafting some of the Hong Kong entertainment world’s most recognizable female faces onto nude bodies in suggestive positions in an attempt to capitalize on Chen’s own pictures. We have not actually looked, of course, but if you were to consider this link you could decide for yourself which are the real Chenography and which are clearly altered.

The blogging world so far seems completely unintimidated by the police action, which has seen eight people arrested for disseminating the photographs on the web. More than 100 new photos purporting to be Chen’s girlfriend, Vincy Yeung, were posted Saturday as well as new ones of Cheung, who is now married and has a child.

Sin Chung-kai, deputy chairman of the Legislative Council’s Information Technology and Broadcasting Panel, told the South China Morning Post that the new photos suggested there could be more than one source. “It shows that people are challenging the police’s authority,” Sin told the newspaper. Uh, yeah.

Leung Kwok Hung, the radical Hong Kong Legislative Council member known universally as Long Hair, led about 25 people to protest at the Police headquarters in Wan Chai on February 2, demanding that the police clarify whether or not possession of the pictures was a violation of the law.

The bigger problem for the police, it seems, is whether the law even matters.

*correction. The number was misstated in an earlier edition.

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The sleaze behind the sleaze of Hong Kong’s sex photos