Joy and Len Newton took over the Mt Ive sheep station in 2002. The desert property sprawls several kilometers of South Australia's Gawler Ranges, right next to Lake Gairdner. The nearest gas station is a three-hour drive away.
It's remote, but Joy wouldn't have it any other way. When I speak with her over the phone, she says repeatedly that the place is beautiful, which is why they run a hostel there for tourists. Not that they got many when they first started. Early on it was mostly film crews looking to shoot commercials and drivers trying to break land-speed records at the salt flats. For a hostel, that's not exactly a reliable business model.
Then one day, out of the clear blue sky, everything changed. Suddenly young Asian tourists were turning up in droves and heading out to Lake Gairdner. "We're off the beaten track and we weren't very well known," Joy says. "But one day they just started coming. Without them we'd hardly be surviving, really. Hardly anyone knows about us. It keeps two people employed."
It took a while for Joy to ask the tourists why they'd come. When she did a young woman explained they were drawn by a commercial from 2011 that was shot on the salt lake. And while Joy hadn't heard of him, the Taiwanese star of the ad, Takeshi Kaneshiro, was a very big deal.
Forty-one year-old Takeshi Kaneshiro is the Asian film industry's answer to Johnny Depp. Known for his good looks, charm, and trademark aura of cool detachment, Kaneshiro started out in the music business under the name "Aniki" meaning "older brother" in Japanese. In the early 90s he broke into acting with films like _Executioners _and_ Chungking Express,_ before appearing in higher-profile productions such as House of Flying Daggers and the video game Onimusha.
From an Australian perspective, the ad is endearingly foreign. BoMy is a fruit and vegetable juice, a sort of Taiwanese equivalent to V8, and Kaneshiro struts the salt flat with a carton in his hand, before he stops and takes a sip. His dialogue comes in the form of a voiceover, and roughly translates to: "Balance is the truth of the Earth… And it's also common sense for your body."
It took about a year from the release of the ad for the first carload to appear in Mt Isa. Then the next week it was two carloads. Over time, more came from places like China, Japan, and Hong Kong—all drawn to what a tourist named Lisa Chang describes to me as "how I picture heaven in my imagination."
Lisa Chang poses at the lake
For tourists from Asia, Lake Gairdner is a travel tip often shared at campsites and hostels. This is how Lisa first heard about the place, although of course she knew the ad from home. "People always talked about the salt lake and said it was a place he (Kaneshiro) had been," she says. "It was a beautiful scene with a handsome star, and well, he's almost become a symbol for handsome."
To get there, Lisa found a few travel buddies via Facebook and rented a 4WD to drive the 120 kilometers from Mt Ive. "It wasn't easy to find, but the place made me feel peaceful from the bottom of my heart," she says. "No pollution, no noisy tourist, not even animals." Lisa and her friends stayed until the sun set, each thinking about how Kaneshiro had once been there. As she described, "it feels like you can get closer to a superstar if you can reach the place, make the same pose, and do the same thing."
That's the Kaneshiro effect in a nutshell. The man has the kind of pulling power that makes people do strange things, and makes advertising executives tingle. Take the case of the Takeshi Tree, for example.
When typhoon Matmo hit Taiwan last year, killing one, injuring six, and leaving over 30,000 people without power, it also knocked over a tree. But it wasn't just any tree. This was a tree Kaneshiro had made famous with an Eva Air commercial designed to drive up tourism to Taiwan. When Matmo felled the Takeshi Tree, the nation mourned to the point where it promptly brought in a Japanese tree doctor to deal with the situation.
This level of loyalty to a celebrity probably seems alien, especially when you live in a sleepy place like Mt Ive. Not that anyone's complaining. Thanks to Takeshi Kaneshiro, they're paying the bills and things are going nicely. The men work the sheep and the women take care of the hostel, and if any more Asian celebrities ever want to stay, Joy and Len would be totally cool with that.
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