Why a Little-Known Chinese Awards Show Draws the Likes of Natalie Portman, Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone

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The Chinese ceremony, held in Los Angeles for the second time, lured Natalie Portman, Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone — but not Johnny Depp, who was a no-show

“Has anyone got his cell phone number?” Huading Awards host Daniel Newham asked from the stage, as spotlights panned the room in vain for lifetime achievement honoree Sylvester Stallone. 

That isn’t typical host banter, but the 2016 Huading Awards, held Thursday at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, was no typical awards show — at least by usual Hollywood standards. (Stallone did later appear onstage, to the surprise and delight of the audience.)

Although the ceremony was billed as the 21st edition, the Huading Awards was founded in 2007 by Tianxia Yingcai Cultural Media Company. China lacks a consensus prestige honor on par with the Oscars, and Huading is considered to be similar to the People’s Choice Awards, with winners ostensibly chosen by online audience vote. Of course, when it comes to the People’s Republic, these are the choices of 1.3 billion potential moviegoers — which explains why the likes of Natalie Portman, Mel Gibson and Hilary Swank showed up to accept their accolades. 

Portman gamely obliged Newham's instructions to take the stage and smile for the cameras. When he demanded that she tell the audience she loved them in Mandarin, the Jackie leading lady channeled the former First Lady in demurring with grace before managing a careful "Wo ai ni," to roars of approval. Gibson, also campaigning this awards season, was even more game to engage with the audience — after all, Hacksaw Ridge topped the Chinese box office last week. Explaining that he named his production company, Icon, after the Greek word for "image," he remarked, "It's amazing that an image can bring us all together." 

Not every confirmed A-lister turned up, though. Stallone's name was called with great fanfare that gave way to awkwardness when the Rocky legend failed to appear onstage. 

"OK, um...It's a bit of a shame, but I think he's with Adrian," ad-libbed Newham, a popular host in China whose Mandarin accent is as impressively flawless as his native British one. 

Later, Newham introduced the recipient of Huading's Global Film Icon award with a rather bizarre selection of diminishing highlights: "He's the Mad Hatter, he's Jack Sparrow, he's Mortdecai...he was in Yoga Hosers...." Perhaps that's why when Johnny Depp was called — out walked Stallone. The Huading Awards didn't miss a beat, handing him the golden trophy, plaque and sash that were already waiting on stage. 

Depp never showed up, nor did acting honorees Evangeline Lilly (for The Hobbit) and Samuel L. Jackson (for Kingsman: the Secret Service), whose awards were therefore, according to Huading's strict policy, "canceled," as Newham put it. No accepting on behalf of Dame Maggie Smith at the Huading Awards! 

Also not in attendance were any of China's own movie stars. As one staffer working the event put it, "Why would they fly all the way over here for this?" This was the second time the Huading Awards were held in the United States, after the 2014 staging at Hollywood's Montalban Theatre drew Halle Berry, Guillermo del Toro and Jeffrey Katzenberg. The staffer also told THR that many of the audience members were friends and associates of Huading founder Wang Haige, all part of Southern California's Chinese-American high society. 

Indeed, the incredible fashion and the vehicles were straight out of Crazy Rich Asians: lime-green Lamborghinis, feathered fascinators, a zebra-print suit paired with a black cowboy hat. (Upon closer examination, the suit was not printed. Reader, it was head-to-toe faux fur.) 

"It's beautiful chaos," said red-carpet host Jeff Locker, another bilingual actor and emcee who has built a following in Greater China. "American media has everything contracted to a T, but Chinese operate according to chabuduo — 'good enough.' You roll with the punches, and you never know what's going to happen." 

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