Are you familiar with Brother Orange? If you’re not, he is an unlikely Chinese celebrity. A writer for Buzzfeed named Matt Stopera had his phone stolen. The phone was sold and sent to China, where it found its way into the hands of a Chinese man named Li Hongjun. The two ironically connected over the stolen photos, with selfies taken by each of them appearing on each other’s photo streams. The two even met in person and the internet made a big deal about this helping relations between the U.S. and China. But what is the story behind Li Hongjun?
When Stopera’s phone was stolen, he didn’t expect that it would end up in China. His new phone started filling up with photos and content he didn’t take, because his old phone was still hooked up to his iCloud account. A Chinese man seemed to like taking photos of himself in front of a tangerine tree, and Stopera wrote an article about how crazy and random this situation was. This article found its way to China, where it was translated and became very popular. The public wanted to know who this man was, and named him “Brother Orange”. Through social media, the hunt was on to find out who Brother Orange really was. It was only a few days before his identity was revealed as Li Hongjun.
Hongjun became a huge celebrity in China and Stopera even came to visit him in his hometown. The media loved this ironic and random story, and Hongjun even came to America and went on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. As recorded by the press and social media, Hongjun and Stopera were getting along as if they were old friends, with Hongjun teaching him how to plant orange trees and Stopera showing him how to eat string cheese. Both Hongjun and Stopera had spent so much time speculating about each other and now they were together face to face. Hongjun thought Stopera might have been an English journalist, because he often had a camera in the photos and had fair skin. Stopera’s main question about Hongjun was why he posing with orange trees.
When Hongjun got his new phone, Chinese New Year was quickly approaching. In Hongjun’s culture, leaving a bowl of oranges out during the holiday will give you good luck during the coming new year. After the death of both of his parents and failed business ventures, he needed some good luck. Hongjun went to an orange grove to buy some fresh ones, though while he was there he couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the trees and the smell of the fruit. He snapped a few photos with his new phone and quickly reversed the camera to take a photo of himself with the orange tree. Stopera was seeing every one of these photos on his own phone, and Tweeted that “40 pictures of a Chinese man taking selfies with an orange tree is hilarious”.
Born in one of the poorest counties in China, Hongjun’s family was middle class at best. He even dropped out of middle school at age 15 to start working full time. This may sound harsh, but Hongjun was already used to working long hours and this was the only life he had ever known. He remembers, “Back then I was so young and everything was just so mysterious to me. It was the first time I’d ever been that far from home, and I was so curious that I didn’t want to go to sleep”. Hongjun wondered about, taking on odd jobs and moving to different coastal cities over the next two decades. While selling household products and inexpensive clothing, Hongjun met his wife and the couple soon had three children together.
Inspired, Hongjun now tried to open a metalworking factory, hoping to earn more money and better support his family. This didn’t work out, however, with the company folding and Hongjun being forced to move his wife and kids closer to his family back home. After a few other unsuccessful business attempts, Hongjun was finally able to open a restaurant in his hometown called Jade Tea. It was around this time that one of his sons handed his dad an iPhone. Never having one before, Hongjun was quite entertained with the device. Photos and videos of a random white man kept displaying on the screen, however. He remembers, “All the pictures were him eating, drinking and having fun. I thought, ‘How can this guy always be having such a good time?”.
Hongjun began experimenting with the phone and developed a habit of taking selfies like Stopera did, though he often didn’t smile and kept a serious face. He was unaware of the media frenzy happening online until his nephew excitedly told him that everyone was looking for “Brother Orange” - aka, everyone was looking for him. This actually made Hongjun quite nervous, as a the Chinese media is notorious for banding the public together to find out the identity of people and putting their lives on display. After some thought, Hongjun decided it would be okay if he just came forward as Brother Orange. He made an account online and quickly garnered over 100,000 followers. Although unknown to Hongjun, he was about to become a huge internet sensation and even bigger than the owner of his phone.
After Hongjun was introduced as Brother Orange, Stopera took a trip to China to meet him. About a month later, Hongjun was invited to come to America. Marking the first time he ever left China, Hongjun was excited and nervous to experience the famous United States. He and Stopera even went on a talk show, had a party at BuzzFeed headquarters, and met Britney Spears in Las Vegas. Hongjun had a good time, though he felt strange being in the spotlight - “When people are watching you on TV, you want to be lively, fun, relaxed. But what does the audience know about your real life? About all the difficulties you’ve been through?”. And it is true - the world doesn’t know anything about who Hongjun really is.
Hongjun also said that “Matt is always so open, and I really admire him. Whenever he’s out in public, it’s just the same as when he’s at home. He’s never nervous or thinking about how he should act”. Naturally on the shy side, Hongjun was almost unwillingly thrust into the spotlight and unsure how to react to his immediate fame. The media still can’t get enough of him, however, with orange juice brands and alcohol retailers asking him to endorse their products and promote the Brother Orange brand. After his failed business attempts, however, Hongjun just wants to focus on his humble restaurant back at home. While it is nice being in the spotlight, he worries that Americans will make fun of his thick Mandarin accent and not accept him.
Media rules and internet regulations in the United States and China couldn’t be further apart - the only things that Hongjun knew about America came from propaganda films and old movies that China allowed to be broadcast. Brother Orange was expecting Americans to be aggressive and angry, with foreigners being treated like second class citizens. He was delighted to find that none of this was true - everyone was very nice to him and people even wanted to take photos with him and shake his hand. When Hongjun learned that Stopera was a homosexual, he even took that in his stride. Hongjun said that “When I heard that, my heart sank...I don’t think [gay marriage] should be legal [and don’t approve of it]” but would never stop being friends with Stopera.
Despite the many cultural differences, Hongjun and Stopera have genuinely become friends. Many media outlets are using this an example and push for international diplomacy - no matter what country you’re from, you’re still a human being and can relate to other human beings. Their lifestyles are also radically different, though Hongjun was honored to have dinner with Stopera’s parents and Stopera was willing to try Hongjun’s raw fish speciality without hesitation. Even though Hongjun had to communicate with an English translator, he and Stopera got along just fine. What Hongjun enjoyed most was his time alone and away from the cameras - he was excited to try new foods and explore the country that everyone is always talking about.
Although Hongjun was happy to be in America, he often felt alienated and unsure of how to act. A naturally serious and quiet man, he felt like he couldn’t match the energy of Stopera, who was used to being in front of the camera. When asked about his life, Hongjun didn’t want to bum Stopera and the news reporters out by telling them the truth - he was a poor and uneducated man with a struggling business. His parents were both dead, his brother owed huge gambling debts and was ill, and his father died because Hongjun didn’t have enough money to pay for a medical operation. His life was fair from glamorous and he didn’t find him posing with the orange tree to be funny at all. Still, he thought Stopera was a good guy and did find some humor in this whole situation.
Now that the media craze has died down, Hongjun is happy to be at home with his wife and children. He is still a local celebrity in his town and even put up an electronic “Brother Orange” sign on his restaurant, which has helped attract many more new customers. The restaurant focuses on a local favorite - raw fish with peppers, garlic, and peanuts. Hongjun prefers the simple life - he likes serving good food and making people happy. He’s been trying to create a paved parking lot and get more reliable electricity for the restaurant. Also happy to be Brother Orange, he says “I really like the name -- I think it sounds great. Now when I think of my original name, I feel like it can’t even compare”.
When Stopera had his phone stolen, he just assumed that he forgot it somewhere and someone was lucky enough to keep it for themselves. When Hongjun got the new phone, he was just happy to have it after his old phone stopped working. He impulsively took a photo of himself with an orange tree, and the photos also appeared on Stopera’s phone. Similarly, all of his photos were appearing on Hongjun’s phone, making him think that he was wealthy and had an amazing life, as his photos always showed him smiling and out with friends. With the internet’s help, Brother Orange was identified as Li Hongjun - he and Stopera soon met in person and gave each other tours of their home countries, igniting an international friendship.