At 13 years old, Matthew Knowles travelled from South Carolina to Rio de Janeiro to perform a miming show for the people who were living on the trash heaps of the city dump. After performing, he put on a Flamengo jersey and played football with the local kids, weaving between garbage, feral dogs and pigs that were eating the trash.
“What stuck with me from that day was how happy all these people were, truly happy,” Matthew recalled. “The joy I received from this experience solidified in my mind the amazingly transformative experience of helping others in adverse circumstances.”
After Brazil, Matthew travelled to Mexico to help build an orphanage, he fed the homeless in Miami and Philadelphia, and he travelled to Zambia and Zimbabwe to pass out clothing and food.
In college, Matthew began training hard, honing his skills to become a star athlete in American football. However, just as it was beginning to look like there might be a place for him in the NFL, Matthew suffered a devastating knee injury which abruptly ended any chance of having a professional career. After pondering his options, Matthew decided his best path would be to devote himself to the humanitarian work he loved doing, so he moved to China to start teaching English.
China is about as far away from South Carolina as you can get. What made you decide to move there?
“I didn’t start out searching to go to China. I actually had no affection and very little knowledge at all about China before I moved there. All I knew is that I wanted to go somewhere in the world and help people that needed help. Of all the opportunities I found, teaching in Guizhou province in southwest China was the one that I really felt needed me. I had never taught English before. I had been a camp counsellor at a sports camp in Missouri called Kanakuk, and I had some experience working with groups of kids. I figured I spoke English and they were desperate for a teacher. What could go wrong?”
Did you experience any culture shock when you arrived?
“There was definitely culture shock when I arrived in China, but it was a huge adventure to me and I brushed it off as so. The biggest culture shock was when I returned to the US and went into a grocery store and saw all the choices of food laid out so perfectly, so easily accessible. It was hard for me to get used to the comfortable American life on my visits. They call this reverse culture shock.”
How easy (or hard) is it for a foreigner to be accepted in China?
“In the more secluded areas of China, everyone wants to be friends with a foreigner because they are so rare and unique. In the big cities, no one could care less. Making the right friends in China takes an investment of time and energy. And if you don’t speak the language and understand the culture, it can be impossible to ever really be close friends.”
How did the process go for you?
“It probably took me five years before I really felt a part of things and started to make friends on the industry level.”
In China, you are called MaTai (马泰). How did that come about?
“Ma Tai is pronounced ‘Ma Tie’ in Mandarin. A Chinese friend gave me that name when I arrived in China. The name for the gospel of Matthew in the Bible is Ma Tai and she just changed the second character to be the same as one of the most famous mountains in China, Tai Mountain.”
Why do you think you have been so strongly embraced by the Chinese people?
“First of all, the Chinese respect the fact that I originally came to China to volunteer in one of the poorest areas, helping people and not taking advantage to make money off of them. Secondly, I learned the language and the culture and learned to do things the Chinese way. Thirdly, I studied at Beijing Film Academy where they have a legacy of amazing actors and directors.”
How much of your success as an actor in China is a result of being American?
“It definitely helped me to stand out. What really helped me was the fact that I was tall, American, and spoke and sang in perfect Mandarin. People would hear my voice when I was singing and then be flabbergasted to discover it was this tall American guy who was sounding like a local.
Speaking of singing, what is your musical background?
“I recently watched my childhood videos from when I was 4, and I realized that almost every clip opened with my mother lining up my sister, my brother, and I to do solos for her. At a very young age, she instilled the love and passion for music in me. Growing up, I was always in the choir at church and was selected for the county choir in elementary school. I learned some Chinese songs during my first two years in China, and it was my third year, while singing in a karaoke bar with friends, that I was ‘discovered’ and eventually signed to an agency as an actor, singer, host, and model. I’ve had the honor to open concerts for some of China’s most beloved singers including Fei Xiang. I even have a song with Jackie Chan that you can sing in the local karaoke hall.”
What part of being an athlete helped the most with becoming an actor?
“My determination and work ethic definitely transferred over from the football field. Acting is a craft and the more you practice it, the better you are going to be. In life, it is ALWAYS the one who trains the hardest who becomes the best in the end.”
Your acting résumé lists an incredible amount of skills: swimming, diving, horse riding, mountain climbing, martial arts, Thai boxing and more. Did it take a great deal of time for you to excel in these activities?
“I’ve always taken to sports and learned very fast. I walked on to my Division One Clemson Tigers Football team and got into a game my first year, even though I had never played football in the past. I rock climbed as a hobby growing up and started doing it in my spare time on the weekends after I moved to China. I’ve now climbed some of the most epic ascents in both Yangshuo, China and Railay, Thailand.”
Is your knee holding up okay with all of this activity?
“My knee injury healed within a year after my surgery. I can still do anything with it, but because of the nature of the injury it was harder for me to compete on the highest level of athletics.”
Have you faced any challenges in acting?
“I’ve faced many challenges in acting, especially out in China where problems pop up all the time. When I was filming Asura, because of the erratic scheduling, I had to be prepared to do any of my scenes at any time. Sometimes, they would change the scene we were filming on the way to set. We were going to film at Qinghai Lake late one night, but ended up being escorted across the province to a second set as the local government had decided to kick all the foreigners out of the sensitive area.”
Which type of roles do you prefer?
“I love hero roles and adventure movies. I love anything epic and fantastical.”
What is your ideal role?
“My ideal role would be something in the Game of Thrones style of story. There are still so many new stories to tell. I can’t wait to see what we come up with next!”
Will you eventually be coming back to the US to pursue acting?
“Since I just graduated from the MA Acting program at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) here in London, I will be back based in LA very soon. I spend as much time as I can in the US, but in the last few years, between studying and filming Asura, the majority of my time has been outside of the US. I am excited to be back in LA to pursue opportunities stateside!”
Is there anything the rest of the world could learn from China?
“I love how they take care of their parents. Many times, they live together when the parents start getting old. I have learned so much about the value of family from the Chinese people and I thank them for that. Chinese people are also master problem solvers and they work with amazing speed and efficiency when the pressure is on. For instance, a director can arrive on set to film the next morning and the set does not exist yet. He yells at a few people and throughout the night thousands of workers file in. The next morning the set is ready to go at call time.”
Has living in China changed you?
“Living in China has made me a better man, a more well-rounded citizen of the world. China and US cultures could not be more different, but I think being open to learning a new way of thinking, speaking the language, and living long-term in China broadened my horizons and opened up doors that I never thought possible. If I had never ventured to China, I am sure I would have ended up pursuing acting in the US. It is my passion, and I know I would have found it through some other means had I been anywhere else.”
Matthew has appeared in numerous primetime sitcoms, including Red Star Over China and Love Me If You Dare. His short film, Poppies, is beginning to make the festival rounds. He will also be seen starring as Jet in the upcoming action-thriller Bond of Justice: Kizuna. In early 2019, he will be playing Rawa in Asura, an epic mythological fantasy that is reported to be the most expensive Chinese film production to date.
“There are rumblings of a film project based off of my story in China. I can’t wait to see what happens with that!” Matthew concluded. “I’m also developing a one man stage show based off my life experiences. I started it in LA and developed it during my time at RADA. When it is ready for the public, you will hear about it!”
Photography by Joseph Sinclair using Hasselblad
Styling by Nicole Ng
Grooming by Zoe Moore using MAC and T3