China Series Part 3: If You Are The One

This is part 3 in a five part series on China. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here

Last night “tea guy” came on the show and talked non-stop about tea. He may have been on the autistic spectrum – couldn’t listen, kept talking on top of the hosts and other contestants. No wonder he got kicked off.

Oh you didn’t see that episode? I’m talking about If You Are The One, the Chinese dating show that is currently storming the world.

Last night, on twitter, the hashtag #ifyouaretheone was trending higher than the hashtag for the tennis #ausopen.

The format of If You Are The One is elaborate:

24 accomplished and attractive women are arrayed behind podiums. A man comes down in an elevator with music blaring. From the minute his shoes appear, the women can start “turning off their lights.” The man has to answer a bunch of questions from the girls and the three hosts, and he shows videos about himself. If any of the girls leave their lights on until the end, he gets a date. You can watch an episode here.

What makes the show so fascinating is that within a few minutes of his arrival, the male contestant’s score – shown on a big screen – is generally down to about 4/24. It is nail-biting. Then he says one dumb thing and it’s down to 0/24. Then he has to leave. With the demographic imbalance in China, the women are harsh.

It’s like an episode of the Bachelor where all the ladies walk out in the first few minutes and we watch the Bachelor’s bottom lip tremble as he struggles to hold it together.

“Tea guy” who I mentioned earlier, bombed slower than most, because it was like watching a car crash in slow motion.

For the failures, they put up an email address on screen at the end, which interested parties can email in search of love.

All this is a breakthrough for China – the first TV show that has proved to be a successful export. That has the capacity to dramatically change the way we see China.

Soft Power has long been the key to American hegemony. The US is the creative crucible of the world, from Mary Tyler Moore to John Stewart, from Ella Fitzgerald to Skrillex.

China didn’t have that. Monolitihic state-run media strangled the life out of the creative sectors.

And that means people believe things about China that are not true – Chinese people are all the same; Chinese people just love to work; Chinese people are not funny. It’s this last one that gets me the most.

Sure, Chinese people aren’t always funny in their second language. That requires a lot of fluency. But over there, there is a huge premium on being a joke-teller. A night out with Chinese people involves lots of raucous laughter. And there’s an extremely popular kind of stand-up comedy, unique to China, called cross-talk.

China does have cultural exports. It’s just that at the moment, most Chinese icons are from a previous era – the great wall or the forbidden city.

There’s not much out of contemporary China to love. Top Chinese brands are Hai’er, which makes white goods, and Lenovo, which makes computers. They lack the cachet of Miele and Mac.

But “Made in China” is losing its shame. We know Chinese-made products will be of good quality. That can extend to cultural products, not just physical products.

What If You Are The One shows, is that a Chinese PSY (gangnam style), is not too far away. A breakthrough cultural product that reveals modern China to be more than just smog and factories.

On my most recent trip to China I visited the 798 Art precinct in the north of Beijing, a former industrial zone packed with more galleries, studios, craft shops and street art than you could see in a day. (as this blog calls it, the hipster district.) It was amazing. Chinese creativity is there and it is just about to break out of its cage.


The work of Sui JianGuo

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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