A security breach of Apple’s virtual data storage server, iCloud, by an anonymous hacker revealed the private photos of dozens of female celebrities, including big names like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton. While the repercussions of the hack are still playing out, the situation is reminiscent of a similarly high-profile nude photo leak of a slew of Chinese celebrities in 2008. But unlike what may happen in the U.S., where leaked nudes and sex tapes usually bring more fame, the Chinese leak derailed the career of a rising Hong Kong superstar.
China’s nude photo scandal began after heartthrob Cantonese singer Edison Chen’s Apple PowerBook hard drive was secretly copied by employees after being sent to a Hong Kong electronics shop to be repaired. Among the files copied were more than 1,300 intimate photographs of Chen and several women, including 14 celebrities, many nude.
The first photos surfaced in January 2008, featuring Gillian Chung, a singer and actress, and were posted on Hong Kong Discuss Forum, an online community message board with content similar to Reddit but on a much smaller scale. The forum allows the posting of a variety of content, including anti-Communist political messages, nudity and gambling. Mainland Chinese government censors eventually blocked it.
Though the Chen photos were taken down from the original message board, it was already too late for Chen's career, in a society where this kind of revelation is not met with the same indulgence as in the U.S.
The images were quickly shared and reposted on other forums and message boards and all over the Internet over the next few days, despite Chung’s management’s efforts to challenge their authenticity. (Hong Kong’s assistant commissioner of police, Vincent Wong Fook-chuen, had a team of officers and photo experts investigating the leaked photos, which were deemed to be real.)
Over the next few days, the scandal became the center of media attention, leading to discussions of privacy and to distaste for Chen, who had stored hundreds of the photos and video footage of Chung and other local celebrities including Cecilia Cheung, Bobo Chan, Candice Chan, Vincy Yeung, Mandy Chen and Rachel Ngan. The police requested that local Internet service providers delete the nude photographs and traced the IP addresses of more than 30 users who had allegedly posted the photographs.
Ten arrests were made by Hong Kong police in connection to the photo scandal that consumed Chinese gossip sites. Charges of blackmail were eventually dropped, but those involved with distributing the photos were charged with “dishonest use of computers with criminal intent.” The final arrest was of Kwok Chun-wai, a 24-year old accused of uploading a compressed file containing over a hundred images, who pleaded guilty to three counts of publishing an obscene article. According to the South China Morning Post, Kwok paid a $10,000 fee and managed to avoid jail time after getting a sentence of two months in prison suspended.
Edison Chen was the largest name to be attached to the scandal, so he shouldered the brunt of the criticism from media. In a statement, the Canadian-born entertainer said he would be leaving the entertainment industry “indefinitely.”
“These photos were very private and have not been shown to people and were never intended to be shown to anyone,” the actor said in the press conference. “I have failed as a role model. However, I wish that this matter will teach everyone a lesson.”
The impact on his career was immense. Chen went from one of the region's fastest-growing artists, with endorsements and fashion lines and even significant movie roles, to obscurity.
“I’m waiting for people to be more lenient with me, and then I can start acting again. At the moment, if I’m in the movie, it can’t be shown in certain areas,” Chen said in an interview with Timeout Hong Kong in 2011, three years after the scandal. “If you ask me of all the things I do what I love most, it’s acting. I love acting and I can’t do it right now.”
Though Chen has since spent his time developing a clothing line, pursuing movie production, and even releasing two albums since the scandal, he is still nowhere near his former fame.