Entertainment

Godfrey Gao: How the Asian Prince Charming Tackled Racism Growing Up

When I met first Godfrey Gao I wanted to hate him. He’s six-foot-infinity, his beard defies the laws of Asian facial hair, and his jawline could slice open a can of spam. Someone with such a handsome face must have a horrible personality, right?

Like most of the world in love with Godfrey, I first heard about him back in 2011 when he made history by becoming the first Asian male model to appear in a Louis Vuitton ad campaign. Since its inception in 1854, Louis Vuitton starved its audience of an Asian male face for over 157 years, but alas, in 2011 Godfrey Gao fell from the sky like a snack from heaven, quenched everyone’s thirst, and became an overnight Asian supermodel.

Despite his international stardom and fame, Godfrey in the flesh was fascinatingly humble. He walked with his hands behind his back, lowered his voice when he spoke to others, and his handshake was exactly what you’d expect from a children’s guidance counselor. Godfrey makes you feel like you’ve known him all your life.

It was 11:00 a.m. and Godfrey and I were seated at a small plastic table on the second floor of the quiet and tranquil Chinese American Museum. But by 11:15 a.m., a parade of children from hell decided to take a field trip to the museum. They stomped their tiny little feet on the hardwood floors and I could hardly pay attention to Godfrey. Unlike me, Gao was completely unshaken. Like a Buddhist monk with an amazing hairdo and six-pack abs, Godfrey was able to block out the sound of screaming children and focus his energy on our interview.

Although he’s made quite a name for himself in film and the modeling world, Gao admits that his current career wasn’t his first passion.

“Basketball is my first love,” Gao told NextShark. “I still play and I still do a lot of basketball related stuff. If I didn’t go into entertainment I probably would have played somewhere professionally, maybe in Asia. Right now I’m doing basketball camps in China with a few partners.”

I was impressed, but still not convinced that Godfrey wasn’t an asshole. “Don’t be fooled by the beard, damnit! It’s a great beard, but he’s gotta be hiding some secrets in that thing! Expose him! Expose Godfrey Gao!” So I changed the topic from basketball to racism to test his self-awareness. 

Gao’s newest project is “The Jade Pendant”, a film about a love story set against the background of the 1871 Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles, California. He plays the lead character, Tom Wong, along with South Korean star Clara Lee, who plays Peony, his love interest. Since racism and discrimination are central themes of the movie, I wanted to know whether Godfrey Gao experienced racism growing up.

“Oh yeah, I definitely [experienced racism],” he said. “When I immigrated from Taiwan to Canada back in ‘95, we moved to North Vancouver where there weren’t a lot of Asians. There were a few Asians here and there, but not a large community.”

Melly Lee

In 1995, Godfrey and his family immigrated from Taiwan to a town in North Vancouver. As one of the only Asians in school, he remembers the absence of an Asian community. The only glimpse of diversity in Gao’s childhood came from his time in ESL classes where he befriended Persians, Indians, Cantonese, and Taiwanese kids. This soft landing helped him adapt to life in Canada. A sense of normality. A feeling of home.

“When I moved on from ESL to the regular classes they were all Canadian — all White kids and I rarely saw Asian faces. At the time, they weren’t as mean as you might see on TV and movies, and I tried to include myself with them.”

“One thing I did was offer them candy. I’d always get candy from Asia and had bubble gum with me. I’d say, ‘Hey! You want some candy?’ and they’d think it was cool. So we kind of became friends like that. It started with me offering them candy and they’d always ask for seconds. Then we started being friends, playing basketball.”

However, things changed when Gao started high school, where he experienced racism for the first time.

“In high school, the older ones always looked at you as a yellow face. They’d think you were Bruce Lee or that you knew Kung Fu, so they always made that Bruce Lee sound to me. I got that every day, and it did get old but fortunately for me, it didn’t get to the point where I had to defend myself.”

Fortunately, due to his tall stature and being a black belt in Taekwon Do, Gao was never a target for bullying.

“I have small memories of discrimination, but nothing too big — mainly just the Bruce Lee noise thing.”

I could tell, from the tone in his voice and the way he lowered his gaze, that those racist Bruce Lee noises that his old schoolmates made bothered him. Having invested so much of himself to fit in and get people to like him — enrolling in ESL, giving away his candy just to make friends — Godfrey probably felt bewildered when his race became a target for harassment.

I can’t imagine living the Gao lifestyle. Trekking from country to country to work intensely for three months at a time must be an exciting, albeit stressful life. Where does Godfrey call home? What’s he like when the cameras are off and he’s lounging in his underwear on the coach? Does he enjoy himself a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and Stranger Things? These are the important questions, man!

“Speaking of that, I just finished season two of ‘Stranger Things’ and I loved it. I love how it’s very extraterrestrial and I love the characters. I’ve been hooked on that show ever since it came out. So yeah, I just Netflix and chill and I definitely play basketball when I’m free. To relax I like to hang out with friends, go to a speakeasy with a view, go to the beach and lay out in the sun. I take exotic holidays to Hawaii just to recharge myself because when I’m working, it’s always for three or four months on a production set so I just want to break free sometimes.

Melly Lee

“I DJ too. I used to DJ a lot back in Taiwan when I wanted to earn some extra cash, but not anymore. I love music and DJing has been one of my passions.”

However, he put everything over the top when he told me who he likes listening to during his off times.

“I’m digging a lot of R&B right now, especially Daniel Caesar.”

At this point, we’re basically brothers. When someone shares the same taste in underground R&B as you, that’s a sign you’re cosmic BFFs. You might as well be twins born from the same womb. Pretty soon Godfrey and I will be chillin at the bar, tagging our selfies with #MyBestBud. I can see it now!

“Yeah, you know what I’m talking about!” he said smiling from ear to ear. “Nice, I like that. He’s definitely one of my favorites right now. He’s coming up strong and he just had a performance in L.A. I’ve always been a big fan of soul, R&B, and acoustic live performances like [Daniel Caesar]. It puts me in the mood to relax.”

Melly Lee

This is the side of Godfrey I wanted to see. I’m so used to seeing him in glamorous photoshoots and selfies with celebrities that I forgot he’s just a regular ole’ Asian guy like the rest of us. As someone who has (lightly) followed the Asian male modeling scene for the past 10 years, I’ve always considered Gao a role model for his ability to break into a non-traditional career.

Godfrey understands the significance of his work and the millions of people who look up to him, but he doesn’t let his ego take control, and he’s confident in a future where he’ll become the next big Hollywood superstar. He’s currently working on three TV and film projects but he has a few dream roles in mind. Taiwanese James Bond, anyone?

“As far as an Asian James Bond, that would be killer! I would definitely want to be a superhero. That’s one of my goals. I watch a lot of action, martial arts, and comic book films.”

When asked to give some advice to any Asian kids out there who want to get into acting, but are getting pushed by their parents towards a “safe” career, Godfrey had this to say:

“Just try it out. Given the opportunity, just take it and be confident. I took this route when I was 19-20 and I was still deciding where I wanted to go with my career. It was either basketball or modeling/acting. So you just have to be confident and know how to sell yourself. I came from not knowing anything [about acting], stuttering every time I spoke, I didn’t get commercials, and I didn’t get TV roles. Always try things out, never give up, and explore.”

Melly Lee

Now for the most important question that everyone and their moms are probably wondering, as a man who’s been established as an international man crush Monday #MCM for a lot of people, is Godfrey Gao single or taken?

“I’m just trying to focus on my career right now,” he replied “It’s a good time to focus on all these roles and opportunities because the China market is booming and a lot of productions are happening between the U.S and China. If things happen along the way, I’ll be very grateful, but I need to take things one day at a time.”

I tried to find a reason to hate Godfrey Gao, but I couldn’t. Godfrey has the face, height, acting chops, and work ethic to be a leading Asian male Hollywood actor, but it’s his humble personality that’ll draw you in. He’s so goddamn charming, and I don’t even think he notices how likable he is.

Godfrey with his “The Jade Pendant” co-stars Tzi Ma and Clara Lee (via Melly Lee)

In the 24-hours that I was around him, Godfrey Gao was always the most polite person in the room. He might be the tallest Asian you’ve ever seen, but his demeanor was grounded and approachable. Godfrey was respectful to annoying reporters, kind to fangirls who wanted to rub up on his body for a quick selfie, and eager to thank his “Jade Pendant” costars as if they were the main star, not him. He’s exactly what you’d imagine a real Prince Charming would be like.

Melly Lee

My only concern with Godfrey Gao is that he might be too nice for Hollywood. In an industry where Harvey Weinsteins exist, it’s hard to imagine how a sweetheart like Gao could stand out in a White male dominated space. Can he do it? Can he break through the American market and evolve into a truly A-list Hollywood celebrity?

Yes. Fuck yes.

If Godfrey Gao can push through ESL, befriend the whole class with a pocket full of candy, and become the first Asian male model to star in a Louis Vuitton ad campaign, then I have all the confidence in the world that his star power will match the size of his heart.

Be sure to check out “The Jade Pendant” in theaters now! Click here for tickets. 


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