A Hong Kong actress grabbed headlines when she became the first woman from the former British colony to break into Japan's adult video industry, causing a sensation in the region, which is considered to be conservative in matters concerning sex.
But the achievement of Erena So, 26, has been mostly favorable, especially among young Hong Kong women, who view her unabashed lifestyle choice as a new challenge in a society where Chinese control continues to dominate and feelings of stagnation prevail.
So's venture into the porn industry began with selling erotic photos online following a fledgling start in show business, but she later began considering a career change to become an adult video actress. With no established industry in Hong Kong, she aimed for Japan's booming multi-billion dollar adult industry.
"I think that life should be without regrets, and I wanted to make a breakthrough," So explained in a recent interview with Kyodo News, saying that she had begun to feel stagnant in her life in Hong Kong, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
Getting her foot in the door was no easy task, as Japan's AV market, while prolific, has a high barrier of entry to non-Japanese -- a struggle So endured during her many attempts to kick-start her career as she faced dozens of rejections from the companies she had reached out to.
While others might have given up or sought a different path, such as the budding porn industry in nearby Taiwan, to So, there were no substitutes.
"If I'm going to do something, it has to be to the best of my ability," she said, adding that her heart was set from the start on Japan's adult video market.
So's ambitions finally bore fruit with her securing a contract to debut in Japan last April after reaching out to a Taiwanese company that connected her with Japanese production studio Faleno.
Her debut, which was widely covered by local newspapers, was a "big deal" in Hong Kong, where many people have traditional values that consider sexuality taboo. She has released six adult films to date, in which she speaks in Cantonese, to positive reception in Hong Kong.
Now that she has found her footing, So says she feels "incredibly lucky" to have secured a spot in Japan's competitive industry, as few companies were willing to gamble on hiring a foreign actress with so much local talent already available.
Some back home criticized her for pursuing a profession that promotes the commercialization of sex and women's exploitation, but many expressed their support for So, saying that they were encouraged by the way she confidently pursued the path she had chosen. So says the positive response from Hong Kong fans was a welcome surprise.
"I've faced a lot of criticism for selling photos in the past, so I thought people might not be accepting of my decision," she said. "Of course, there is still negativity, but people have been surprisingly receptive."
Even more unexpected have been the droves of female fans in her native city who have reached out to her to show their support, which So has credited to her straightforward nature and authenticity.
Annie Chan, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, attributes So's success to the "nationalistic" element of her debut, which has attracted both male and female supporters.
In particular, the growing support is due to the heightened awareness among Hong Kong people fostered under the 2019 anti-government demonstrations. She suggested the sentiment rang true, given Hong Kong's unique history and events such as restrictions implemented during the pandemic.
"Many Hong Kong people are protective and proud of their heritage as 'Hongkongers,' and having a local talent debut in the highly competitive and professional AV market is a big deal," Chan said.
So herself believes that the pandemic has largely contributed to her success, so far. With restrictions on social gatherings and travel, many sought new ways to stay entertained and engaged while staying close to home, giving rise to a renewed interest in local talent.
She has also contended with backlash from her decision, but says it has little effect on her career and self-esteem.
"It doesn't affect me, perhaps because I've always been self-centered -- I always do things my own way," she said.
Her outspoken nature also lends itself well to dealing with online criticism, something that is evident from the comment sections of her social media posts, where she often responds to naysayers.
Chan, who is also a board member of the Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women in Hong Kong and an expert on gender issues, says that while the city has become more accepting of sexuality in general, the sentiment of shame remains predominant.
"On the one hand, there is more gender-sensitive, sex-positive content which promotes an open sexual culture, but...misogynistic, sex-negative discourses that target women are much more prevalent."
While critics say the pornography industry objectifies women and contributes to women's exploitation, So argues that it is ultimately a matter of choice.
"I think there's only an issue if women aren't in the industry of their own volition," So says. "If the actress herself is okay with it, then other people's opinions don't matter," So said, adding that there is "no shame or dishonor in being an AV actress because every industry deserves respect."
So has no plans to leave the world of adult entertainment in the near future, with the goal of remaining in the industry for at least three years, she says. She is eager to become a household name not only in Hong Kong but in Japan, as well.
"I want people on the streets to recognize who I am," she said.
Last August, So held her debut event in Tokyo's Akihabara district, where fans received her autograph and posed for photos with the actress. To her surprise, most of the people who turned out to the event were Japanese, not fans from Hong Kong as she had expected.
In response to the 2019 Hong Kong demonstrations, the Chinese leadership forcibly removed democratic groups from Hong Kong under the banner of a "patriots only" Hong Kong government. But So suggested people should not be afraid to challenge authority.
She thinks she can be much more than an AV celebrity, but rather a "woman with influence" who can inspire others to follow their dreams. "I don't think people should stop doing something out of fear of rejection," she said.