Jong May Urbonya dresses up in hanfu in the Summer Palace, Beijing, on July 15 (YIN KANG)
Seeds of passion
Her parents were teachers working in China from 1987 to 2000. Urbonya lived in China until the age of 6. It was in those years that the seeds of love for Chinese culture, especially Chinese dance, were planted.
"My sister performed Chinese dance beautifully when growing up, I looked up to her elegance. I then fell in love with it myself," Urbonya recalls.
Urbonya's family moved back to the U.S. in 2000, just in time for her to enter elementary school. Even while living in the U.S., Urbonya's parents used Chinese TV shows and ancient historical dramas to keep up her Chinese language abilities. "I have a Chinese name, I needed to speak Chinese well enough to fit that name," Urbonya said.
Watching historical dramas also produced some "side effects": Urbonya fell in love with ancient Chinese culture and the imperial way of life. "When I was little, I would take my sheets, drape them around my arms, and walk around the house, pretending to be an ancient princess," she said, adding that almost every little girl has a princess dream. Hers though, was not a Disney one, but rather that of a princess from imperial China.
The seeds of passion brought her back to China. In 2011, when she turned 17, Urbonya came back to Beijing for her senior year of high school to study Chinese. One year later, she enrolled in Beijing Normal University, studying Chinese dance. "I wanted to pursue my passion to the furthest extent possible," she said.
During her four years in college, Urbonya learned many different types of Chinese dance. She grew to love ancient Chinese dance the most. "I feel like ancient Chinese dance has a lot more room for interpretation. It is also currently one of the most popular dances around China," she said.
Experiences of a lifetime
In 2016, Urbonya pursued her post-graduate degree at the Communication University of China as a broadcast major. Since college, she has been invited to perform on many TV shows in China, dancing, acting, hosting, and even bungee jumping.
Gradually, she achieved some renown as a foreign performer in China. In 2017, she was awarded a ceremonial position as a rotating "mayor" of Danzhai Wanda Town in Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Guizhou Province.
The town is a tourist destination developed by the local county government and China-based Wanda Group, a large multinational conglomerate focusing on modern services. It was created to showcase all intangible cultural heritages in the province, and help locals fight poverty. People from all levels of society have been invited to act as rotating mayors to promote the village. Urbonya was the 16th mayor of the town.
"The townspeople embraced me with open arms, and would even roll down car windows and ask if I, their mayor of the week, needed a lift!" Urbonya said, adding that they love to show her their culture and their love of it.
"I think the experience in Danzhai led me to where I am today," she added. "I have a dream to show my ideas, my vision and my knowledge of Chinese culture—what I have learned in China—to the world."
From hobby to career
A chance to fulfill that dream occurred in 2020, when a TV show had Urbonya visit a hanfu festival. Hanfu is the traditional clothing of China's Han ethnic group. She was able to try on all kinds of different outfits. "I got the full hanfu experience and I realized then that hanfu culture is a new-found way to bring Chinese history to the present," she said.
When Urbonya first came back to China in 2011, she did not see girls on the street wearing hanfu. "If I had worn that style walking down the street in 2011, people would probably think, 'Why is this foreigner wearing an ancient outfit on the street'?" Urbonya says. Now, 11 years later, she walks around in hanfu and makes many new hanfu friends this way. "We can connect so easily. It really makes me happy to see people like that I'm a hanfu culture enthusiast," she said.
Learning more about the history behind hanfu culture is one of Urbonya's goals. During the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing earlier this year, Urbonya participated in a show broadcast on Beijing TV, about traditional Chinese culture. In the show, she learned how to make imperial dim sum with Yang Guizhen, founder of Summer Palace Food Culture Co. Ltd. and a fourth-generation inheritor of the imperial birthday feast of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Yang and Urbonya found that they had common interests in certain periods of Chinese history. Yang began introducing Urbonya to Chinese pastries and tea. Urbonya found her new career direction—recording her experiences learning about Chinese imperial pastries and afternoon tea culture. Now, she has begun creating content for social media in both China and the U.S.
This spring, Urbonya also started a company, Discovery Reads Co. Ltd. to create content with traditional Chinese aspects. She works together with Yang to promote Chinese pastries and tea culture. "I hope to introduce Chinese food culture to the world, so I teamed up with Urbonya without hesitation," Yang told Beijing Review.
Urbonya faced some challenges when starting her business in China, especially as a foreigner. Every detail necessary to maintain a company has to be learned; paperwork and taxes must not just be completed and filed, but completed and filed in Chinese.
The Beijing Municipal Government gave her a leg up. The government assists aspiring entrepreneurs to connect with agent companies to help with the registration process. "They give you resources to help you set up your business and help you figure out all the different things that need to be done to make a business run properly in China," Urbonya said.
Thanks to the agent company, Urbonya completed the process in just two months. "It's really important to have people you trust helping you with paperwork," Urbonya said.
For Urbonya, creating a startup in China "was all a very interesting and enlightening process," she said. "My childhood dream is being lived out through my company," she says.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic is posing a challenge. To film videos, Urbonya needs to visit parks and other destinations. Many are closed periodically as part of pandemic prevention and control measures. But Urbonya stays positive. "I think that COVID-19 has actually pushed businesses to form an online presence, which will help them grow in the long term," she said.
Also, because of the pandemic, Urbonya hasn't seen her parents in three years. "My parents miss me very much right now, sometimes I just break down and cry," she said. She now videochats more often with her family. In terms of her TV hosting career in China, her parents encourage her. "They love that I've gotten to do so many cool things, even when experiences such as bungee jumping make them quite nervous sometimes," she laughed.