Tue, Oct 07, 2014 - Page 12 News List

The orphan of Argentina

After starring in one of Argentina’s highest-grossing films in recent years, Taiwan-born Ignacio Huang struggles with typecasting, identity issues and institutional racism

By James Baron  /  Contributing reporter in Buenos Aires

Ignacio Huang on stage with co-star Viviana Cantin who plays his wife in China Pampa.

Photo courtesy of Ignacio Huang

The mezzanine at Bar Imperial in Buenos Aires’ Palermo barrio is deserted when Ignacio Huang (黃勝煌) arrives five minutes early.

That’s hardly surprising. Buenos Aires is in snooze mode at this neither-nor time of night. Portenos, as the city’s denizens are known, rarely sup before 10pm, and it’s not uncommon for them to sit down to dinner close to midnight.

Our appointment at 8pm might be considered gauche, but Huang is not concerned with the city’s snooty protocol. The Taiwan-born actor is not your typical porteno. On the back of the 2011 hit comedy-drama Chinese Take-Away (Un Cuento Chino), he attained instant celebrity across Latin America. The movie scooped multiple prizes at Argentina’s showcase award ceremonies, with Huang nominated in three categories, and was the highest-grossing domestically produced film of the year.

“My world changed at that moment,” Huang says. “I would walk down the street and people called out and wanted to take pictures with me. I went to Cuba for a film festival and coming out of the theater [after the screening] was the most shocking moment of my life. Everyone was reaching out to me and asking to take pictures. There was” — here he pauses, grasping for the right metaphor — “a rain of flashes.”

The experience, Huang says, was pivotal. “Before that I used to tremble before I went on stage. After, I didn’t tremble anymore.” Here he explodes with the charming, nervous guffaw that punctuates much of his conversation, and shrugs, almost surprised at himself.

Better known by the diminutive Nacho or Nachito to his friends, Ignacio Huang was born Huang Sheng-huang in Taipei. His father was a textile merchant from Hsinchu who moved his family first to Paraguay for two years, then to Argentina, after his business in Taiwan went bankrupt.

As with many ex-pat Taiwanese in Latin America, the whiff of a business opportunity was the catalyst for the decision. In the 1970s and 1980s, Paraguay was a surprisingly popular destination, due in part to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government’s coziness with the staunchly anticommunist regime of dictator Alfredo Stroessnor.

Huang remembers Paraguay’s capital Asuncion as a sleepy place and its citizens as a lethargic but friendly bunch in comparison to portenos. It is noticeable that despite the recurring ambivalence he demonstrates over his identity, Huang here employs the first person plural.

“We are horrible people!” he says, laughing loudly. “We are mean because we are vivaracho,” he says. The term is nuanced, denoting a subtle range of characteristics related to intelligence. Though Huang is alluding to guile and a certain degree of fickleness, the description also carries a sense of whimsy. “We like to speak a lot of lies,” he says. “Cheating and changing our mind very quickly.”

Before falling into acting by chance, Huang graduated from the University of Buenos Aires in 2000 with a degree in graphic design. He worked in that field for a couple of years and would frequently come across stock photos featuring Asian models.

Curious about the possibility of finding work as a model, he searched for the agencies that supplied these photos, but discovered they came from companies in the US. He signed with a modeling agency, but soon found out it was a scam. The experience did, however, include a strut along a catwalk and the chance to ham it up for the camera.

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