Godfrey Gao, the Canadian-Taiwanese actor and model who died suddenly on Tuesday, is being remembered as a pioneering entertainer whose short career bridged the divide between the Asian and North American industries and who shattered stereotypes about Asian men.
Gao, 35, was filming Chase Me, a Chinese variety series, when he suffered a cardiac arrest, according to his agency JetStar Entertainment. They confirmed that he was pronounced dead in hospital, triggering an outpouring of shock and grief from fans and co-stars.
Gao, who was born in Taiwan and raised on B.C.’s North Shore, is remembered as a pioneer who straddled fame in North America and across Asia years before the film and beauty industries became more mindful of telling diverse stories.
But before he was signing modelling contracts and starring in films, Gao walked the halls of Argyle High School in North Vancouver and attended Capilano University, where he played on the school’s basketball team.
Paul Eberhardt coached Gao in 2004 and 2005 and remembers him as a humble, hardworking young athlete who talked about returning to Taiwan to pursue basketball.
“I don’t think the idea of doing acting or modelling or anything like that was really on his radar. I think when he went back to Taiwan, he kind of stumbled into that,” said Eberhardt.
“I know a lot of his teammates, when he would come back, would give him a hard time and tease him about being a world-class model. It was pretty impressive what he was able to do,” said Eberhardt.
“A lot of times in that profession you’ve got to have a pretty big ego but that was just never him. He was just a really humble, nice kid.”
Gao rose to fame after moving back to Taiwan, becoming a fixture in Chinese movies and television, but became a rare star who was able to cross into the North American media industry.
In 2011 Gao became the first Asian model to appear in a Louis Vuitton ad.
He went on to star in movies such as The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Love is a Broadway Hit, The Jade Pendant and was the voice of Ken, Barbie’s counterpart, in the Taiwan version of Toy Story 3.
Gao, along with Glee star Harry Shum, shattered many media stereotypes that portrayed Asian men as nerdy, or unlikely love interests, according to journalist Madelyn Chung, who has written about diversity and the entertainment industry for Flare, the Huffington Post and Yahoo.
Chung recalled a BuzzFeed photo gallery that celebrated Gao’s good looks and athleticism in 2014.
I am shocked & heartbroken to hear of Godfrey Gao’s untimely passing. He was a pioneer in the Asian community that stretched our imaginations on what was possible in the industry. To the original Magnus who left us way too soon, you left an impression on us that’ll last forever. <a href=”https://t.co/eYKlRJdlTJ”>pic.twitter.com/eYKlRJdlTJ</a>
“Seeing people widely accepting him, not just the Asian community, it just seems like it was more of a normalized thing, like something that they would do for any other actor who was white,” she said.
“He was really a pioneer for breaking those stereotypes down and showing people that Asian men are sexy.”
Gao also remained connected to his Canadian roots, in 2015 signing a deal with the Canadian Tourism Commission to become its new ambassador for the commission’s marketing and awareness campaign for Asian markets.
Chung said that Asian representation in mainstream media has taken big steps forward in recent years; comedian Ali Wong released her Netflix special, Crazy Rich Asians topped the box office, and Canadian actor Simu Liu was cast as Marvel’s first Chinese superhero.
But she also said that progress adds to the sadness around Gao’s sudden death.
“If you think about the representation now, he could have had such great things happen for him in North America and I’m sure he wanted to have a lot of big success in North America as well, especially because he grew up here,” she said.