Liam Bates’ childhood was typically Swiss. But somewhere along the line his life took an unusual turn – because for Chinese television viewers he’s become Li Mu, presenter of adventure programmes.
He has taken his audience to visit the remotest corners of China, to see the flower-men of Indonesia, and to ride the steam train over Switzerland’s Furka pass.
Liam's style is hands-on – something that takes on a new meaning when we're talking about grilling a snake on a camp fire just after cutting its head off. Or eating wild ants. Or setting off to chase monkeys with a bolt of poisoned arrows.
Liam does it all in a Swiss army t-shirt or a loincloth fashioned out of tree bark…and he does it all in an impeccable Mandarin, in front of an ever-present camera.
Roger Federer is probably the best-known Swiss in China. But 25-year-old Liam definitely has a Chinese following. While in a bistro, dressed in military uniform and a gun slung over his shoulder, he was recognised by two Chinese students who made a major life decision thanks to him.
“In Lugano I met two Chinese girls who were thinking about studying in the United States, but chose Ticino after seeing my programme,” he says.
Kung-Fu man there
Liam’s childhood was spent between St Prex in canton Vaud and Mollens, near Sierre in canton Valais. Like many teenagers, he was a fan of Jacky Chan and his martial arts films, and this spurred him to take kung-fu lessons, though his teacher “wasn't even Chinese.” In 2004, when he was 16, Liam's father suggested spending a summer in Beijing to perfect his sport, on one condition, that he also take Chinese language lessons.
It was something of a test, far from home, but Liam went on to spend the next summers in China too. When he was 17, he set up a business offering kung-fu lessons to foreigners who wanted to learn in China, a way of paying for his own stays in the country.
Liam thought then he would end up working as a stuntman, but changed his mind and headed off to Vancouver, home to Canada’s biggest Chinese community. There he studied Chinese and filmmaking. In his third year he went back to China to make a local version of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” in which he travelled across the country with a Chinese and a Tibetan.
June 28, 1988: born in Morges, canton Vaud.
2004: first trip to Beijing, for kung-fu and Chinese lessons
2006-10: studies Chinese and film-making at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada
2010: moves to Beijing and joins the The Travel Channel China, a satellite television channel broadcast through the country and controlled by the southern Chinese Hainan government.
2012: launches a new series, “The Last Tribe”
The Great Call of China
In 2010, Liam took part in a Chinese oratory competition – first in Canada, before travelling to China where he made it through to the televised final. Liam’s language skills took him to the podium.
It was there that he was spotted by a jury member, Ding Guangquan, who offered to teach him the art of xiangsheng, a traditional comic dialogue that is very popular in China. Liam wasn't very enthusiastic, but still took up the offer. After three months of lessons, he found he was changing his mind.
“If you know how to appreciate xiangsheng, you know you have understood something of the Chinese mindset,” he points out.
That year, Liam finished his studies and settled in Beijing. Thanks to the oratory competition, he was given an offer to present a documentary programme on the nationally televised “Travel” channel. Liam set out to explore the far-flung corners of China, spending a week at a time with a family of farmers to learn something of their way of life.
The green green grass of home
A year later, the young Swiss took his film crew to visit his homeland, and filmed six episodes in just two weeks. He showed viewers his home, dived in Lake Geneva, harvested potatoes from his garden. He introduced Chinese viewers to the Rega mountain rescue service, the Furka steam railway operated by volunteers, and even Switzerland's army. Liam filmed one episode in a camp for recruits training to be medics.
Since 2012, Liam has presented series of programmes filmed outside China, recently spending a month with the Mentawai people of Sumatra in Indonesia.
“Filming outside China gives me a bit more leeway to get my audience thinking,” he explains.
“In China, it’s difficult to film with any point of view because by definition, a foreigner doesn't really understand the country. Saying, for example, that fish shortages happen because of overfishing is not really welcome. But outside China, you can say more.”
“If you know how to appreciate xiangsheng, you know you have understood something of the Chinese mindset ”
Between the lines
The message contained in Liam’s programmes is as much about what is not said as by what is. The programme is not set up to be critical, but diving in Lake Geneva highlighted the issue of water cleanliness for example, and this can be enough to provoke a debate online on the same issue in China. A quick scan of Chinese microblogs prove that issues are discussed according to Liam, even when programme makers are not trying to spark a debate.
“If I talk about the problem of monkey numbers getting lower and lower on an Indonesian island, because of a new method of government forest management, the viewer will immediately make a link with what may be happening in some regions of China – whereas if that island were Chinese, recording that programme would be unthinkable.”
So what motivates Liam? He wants to bring people together, and encourage viewers to question themselves, he explains. Has his status as a foreigner enabled him to do this? As a foreigner, it is perhaps easier to appear on television once, but much more difficult to present a long-term programme. Even being allowed to film outside of China took three years, he adds.
He’s in the middle of setting up his own production company, in Hong Kong, to produce his future programmes and perhaps for others. One of his first projects, he hopes, will involve spending a couple of months with an African tribe, where he hopes to talk about ivory trafficking.
How to make an improvised life vest – a Swiss Army technique explained in Mandarin.
Choosing a destiny
Liam has put his language skills to work once more, writing a book in Chinese, published at the beginning of October. He tells the stories behind the filming, adding a lot of detail as the written press is freer than television.
More than anything, he shows his readers that you can choose an unconventional path through life, not necessarily the one that might have already been mapped out for you.
Liam is not the arrogant person that many Chinese may picture when thinking about Westerners. He’s athletic, with brown curly hair, at ease in a t-shirt and jeans, and his mastery of Mandarin and Chinese communication traditions earn him respect.
This dual identity is probably at the heart of Li Mu’s appeal. He can tell stories to Chinese viewers because he speaks their language, and is able to tell stories so well because his multi-cultural background means he can identify the stories and humanity in everyone.