Lily Chen Foster: Actress plays many different roles

Updated: 2015-01-09 07:27

By MAY ZHOU in Houston(China Daily USA)

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Lily Chen Foster: Actress plays many different roles

Actress, community activist Lily Chen Foster talks about her passion for charity. MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY

Lily Chen Foster: Actress plays many different roles

Lily Chen Foster: Actress plays many different roles

It not easy to define who Lily Chen Foster is, for she has played many different significant roles throughout her life: movie star, community activist and bridge-builder between China and the United States.

To herself, Foster (Chinese name Chen Ye) is a mother to two sons, devoted daughter to her parents, and wife to Charles Foster, attorney and chairman of the Asia Society Texas Center.

In her husband's words, "she gives 100% to everything".

When word came that Foster was selected as one of Houston's 50 Most Influential Women of 2014 by Houston Woman magazine, it came as no surprise to the people who know her.

Foster's life is not without dramatic turns. She was sent to the Chinese countryside as an educated urban youth for re-education in the 1970s. On a bus trip to visit her home in Shanghai, she was spotted by a film producer.

When she returned to the farm, a few mysterious black automobiles appeared, and she was called out to be examined head to toe. Before she knew it, she became an actress at the famous Shanghai Film Studio. She was assigned to play the leading role in the first film she appeared in.

After playing leading roles in a few big-budget movies such as The Burning of Yuanmingyuan and Reign Behind a Curtain, Foster became a household name in China in the early 1980s. She is best remembered for her depiction of different empresses of the Qing Dynasty.

In the mid-1980s, Foster went to the US to seek greater artistic opportunities and to pursue a master's of drama degree at the University of Houston. She met her future husband, who often jokes that he discovered her before Hollywood did and made her his wife.

After becoming a wife, then a mother, Foster continued to appear in various movies such as Children of the Dragon, Robocop II and numerous TV shows. She also participated in a few theatrical productions in China and the US. All told, she has appeared in 18 movies.

Foster made family her priority when her children were young. Between acting and being a mother, Foster gradually learned to appreciate community service through her husband.

Charles Foster is active in community service, politics and international relations, and has been the chairman of the Asia Society in Houston for 20 years. First by helping her husband and the Asia Society, Foster became a bridge between China and the US.

"My uncle worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, so when Charles was trying to set up programs for the Asia Society, I was able to help him to make the connections because I know some of the Chinese ambassadors such as Li Zhaoxing and current ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai, a few consuls general, and such," said Foster.

"Lily certainly inspired me to get more involved with China, and with her help, we were able to get more prominent speakers on China for Asia Society throughout the years," said Charles Foster.

What's more, a lot of Chinese officials are of the same generation of Foster, and some of them are big fans of her movies. Her movie star status, coupled with her family connections, enabled her to help Asia Society make connections with China on a personal level.

And with her husband's personal relationship with former US President George W. H. Bush, the Fosters accomplished much in the way of improving understanding between China and the US, including inviting former Chinese President Jiang Zemin to make a side trip to Houston when Jiang was making his first state visit to the US in 2002.

Besides her involvement with Asia Society, Foster became involved with her sons' schooling. "I realized that if everyone makes a little contribution, there would be a huge difference," she said. "So I slowly changed my original mindset that people just need to take good care of themselves."

When her sons were little, Foster wrote, directed, and choreographed The Monkey King for Houston's Express Theatre. The show was played in more than 60 schools in the city and was well received. She also has served on the board of the Alley Theatre and Miller Outdoor Theatre.

After her sons went off to college a few years ago, Foster became more involved in civic affairs. She chaired the Asian Chamber of Commerce gala and helped raise a large amount of funds. She is currently on the board of directors of Friends of the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority (MHMRA) of Harris County; the Houston Galveston Institute; the Advisory Board of Asian Society Texas Center; and the Board of Visitors of University of Houston.

Advocating for mental health is one of Foster's current pursuits. "When I found out my father had cancer a few years ago, I was very sad and a little depressed. My personal experience led me to realize that mental health is very important," she said.

"Studies showed that a lot of criminals more or less have had some mental issues; if we could reduce mental illness, we could reduce crimes," she said. "I have read a lot of books on mental health. I learned so much about it that I feel like almost an expert on the subject. I am determined to continue working on this."

Foster also helped organize MHMRA's annual fundraising drive a few years in a row.

Charles Foster said that "Lily's civic involvement is not limited to organizations she got a position in. She is involved in many different ways without any desire to be recognized. I am also board chair of the Interfaith Ministries; we just had a fundraising before Christmas at our home, and Lily arranged and supervised everything. People were all impressed by her work."

In March, Foster and her husband will be honored at the Tiger Ball, the annual gala of the Asia Society Texas Center, for their contributions to the organization and to China-US relations.