by Kai Braden
Over the last seven years I have worked in Asia as a Eurasian-American male model. A California boy at heart, I have lived in Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong, each on four-month modeling contracts. I have been blessed with the opportunities to travel, quite often, to these cities for photo-shoots, whether it be for months at a time or just a few hours. Because I model in these cities, I see a different side of things I never imagined before…
The “Land of Smiles” was the first Asian country to contract me as a model. My Thai modeling agency found me through my New York agency, and then offered a contract based on my body of work (modeling portfolio) and ‘stats’ (body type and measurements). Soon after, I applied for a working visa and got on a plane.
Within the first few weeks, I noticed that Thai people were so welcoming, between the smiles and bows, that it often led me to question their motives. Bangkok, particularly, was a mixed bag of smiles, roaches, tourists, tuk tuks, and spicy food. Every time I walked around a corner, I was surprised. It is a city that can be full of danger, yet good people at the same time… I just had to pay attention and choose my own direction. I will say, however, that because this was my first experience living in a different country, I often felt alone. The language barrier makes it especially lonesome, because English is not a prominent language in Bangkok, as it is in other Asian cities.
Working in Bangkok can be fruitful for commercial models. The super-campy cheese-ball advertisements are everywhere: on the BTS sky-trains, on the 7-Eleven registers, and on the television screens above the Siam Paragon escalators. I shot a commercial where I sang my heart out in Thai over a KFC burger. It aired incessantly and I was stopped in the street multiple times, by people singing that damn KFC jingle back to me, as if they wanted a live encore— a fond memory of how friendly and open the Thai community is. I learned how outgoing the Thai people can be through observing the way they expressed themselves when they saw me in person, after having seen me on television. Most of the time I just laughed it off, but if they were lucky, I’d give them my “Glee” moment.
Singapore, on the contrary, seemed initially unwelcoming and bureaucratic, and was especially upon my arrival. I would best describe this country as if it were a steam room at a very fancy spa. Firstly, it is unbelievably hot and humid. Secondly, it is crowded with different types of people… and different smells that linger in the air. In a steam room, there is usually a sign with very strict spa rules. Here, you get fined for having more than one open pack of cigarettes, flogged for spitting on the street, and executed for drug abuse.
I can’t help but laugh when remember the moment I felt the need to flush my pack of gum – that I found in the bottom of my bag – down the toilet, after exiting the plane and walking toward Customs. I was so nervous after seeing the immigration forms with the image of a skull and crossbones for drug possession, that I didn’t want to know the punishment for the possession of chewing gum… I’d heard rumors.
I soon learned however, that Singaporeans show a strong sense of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Well, at least in terms of working in the fashion industry. When I was booked for a New Balance advertisement, I thought it would be ‘easy breezy’. Little did I know that I would be covered, head-to-toe, in Nutella mixed with crushed coco-puffs, while I ran around a small studio like a hamster on a wheel. The purpose of this madness was to mimic an upcoming mud run at the Changi Exhibition Centre, sponsored by New Balance. It took me ages to scrub that sweet deliciousness off my skin, along with ridding myself of the sugar-related headache that came with it. This experience changed my initial impression of Singapore as a country controlled by endless rules, where the greater good weighs more than the individual. Now, I am surprised at how creatively free certain individuals are in their way of thinking— such a liberal state of mind within the Singaporean culture.
What brought me to Hong Kong, however, was fashion. This Chinese metropolis is a major fashion hub, and for an Asian city, Hong Kong is expensive due to its cost of living. I think many Americans, who haven’t traveled to Hong Kong, imagine it to be a cheap place to go on holiday, but are proved wrong upon arrival. Between the interior design for space efficiency and the fact that the water heater had to be turned on manually anytime I wanted to take a hot shower, I initially felt so out-of-place within this Chinese-influenced lifestyle.
My first impression was that apartments are shockingly small in this city. If I recall correctly, my first three words were “Oh, hell no!” Trust me, I have lived in closet-sized apartments in Brooklyn but my Hong Kong model’s apartment was an airplane bathroom turned downtown Chinese-style. I am not at all exaggerating when I say that there was no separation between the toilet and the shower, whatsoever. To be blunt, I could very easily take a dump, while simultaneously washing my hair (and in cold water if I forgot to turn on the water heater switch). The bathroom was so small that I had to sit diagonally on the toilet seat in order to place my knees together in front of me. To top it all off, I paid more for that shower/toilet, or “shoilet,” if you will, than I would have in New York City.
But fortunately for me, the opportunities that continuously bring me to Hong Kong keep me busy and out of the apartment. In one week, I even had three “wives” to juggle. Of course, these “wives” were only mine for a half-day editorial shoot. Since bridal magazines flood the newsstands outside every MRT station, it is common to book a wedding editorial.
I’ve noticed that the magazine and advertising clients like to pair me up with a Caucasian “bride,” more often than other races… I wonder if it’s because I have a mixed ethnicity. From this perspective, it is apparent how ‘White’ culture has influenced Hong Kong’s media to a great extent. Media shapes culture, and vice-versa. So, the more time I spend in this city, the more I notice how prevalent and influential the White culture is within the Chinese culture.
My experiences in Asia continue to entice me because these situations shed a new and different light on these places, whether it be singing on the street with strangers, running in circles, covered in food, or “marrying” multiple women. I find it funny that each time I get on a plane at LAX for yet another job in Asia, I have no idea what I am getting myself into. Oh, and did I mention I just recently flew to the jungles of West Sumatra, Indonesia, to race bulls in rice patties for a commercial shoot? I’ll save that for my next article, coming soon! In the meantime, keep updated with my blog.
Kai Braden, author of “Picture (Not) Perfect: A Male Model Memoir,” is currently based in Los Angeles. He is pursuing an acting career in Hollywood while simultaneously traveling back-and-forth to Asia for modeling jobs. Keep tabs on what he is doing via social media!
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