Larry, Moe and Curley were doing slapstick in black and white. Nothing too odd about the Three Stooges on Sunday morning TV, except that this was Beijing and they were dubbed in Chinese.
Sean Connery and The Untouchables were shooting mobsters on another station, while CNN gave the Asian version of world news in English on yet another. China has discovered American television, and they can’t get enough of it.
In the new century, Mao’s little red book, Communist Party controls and repression of expression have given way to unbridled capitalism, and television has changed the country.
In the cities of Beijing and Shanghai, even in dwellings of the most appalling Russian-style block buildings, missing windows, with laundry hanging in every living room, the flicker of a television set lights the darkness within.
Despite the fact that the heat is turned off in Beijing apartment buildings on March 10 to save electricity, residents will sit in the chill to watch their window to the outside world.
The Chinese are no longer relegated to sharing a tiny black and white TV with one Party channel offering up the nightly crop reports and dull political meetings, but are now watching “Friends”, Chinese soap operas — both modern and dynastic, “CHIPS”, basketball and soccer games, game shows, children’s cartoons, travel shows and never-ending American movies. There are even infomercials. There were no less than 50 channels on the hotel televisions I tuned into in four cities.
As a nod to Chinese culture, there is a Peking Opera channel and historical morality movies in ancient costume with modern special effects.
The government still offers a dozen or so channels on never-ending reports, news, and meetings, along with public service shows on food safety. It’s obvious the public appetite leans toward the modern, though. Gone are loose blue Mao uniforms and traditional Chinese clothing, except in tourist shops. City dwellers wear new clothes, hip fashions and carry cell phones. And why not? Most of those products are made in China.
According to Jason, our 20-something Beijing tour guide who adopted an American name, China now has more cell phones than America has populace, over 300 million. The old land lines had been difficult to get and offered unreliable service. Most people simply skipped that stage and went straight to the pocket version. With such easy communication available, business has taken a great leap forward and international sales are easy.
Jason was constantly on the phone or text messaging between tour stops, and bemoaning the fact that the girls he meets now judge their prospects by the quality of their watch and car, and the size of their apartment. In contrast, his father had saved for 3 years in order to purchase the obligatory bicycle before marrying his mother. The other items required for marriage then, included a sewing machine, radio and a cheap watch.
American companies have cashed in on the demand. Sophisticated commercials featuring vaguely Caucasian-looking Chinese sell everything from LUX and Olay to IBM and Crest. Loreal, Pampers, Nestle, Pantene, Cadillac, Volkswagen, and even Lipton Tea rule the airwaves.
The Chinese are now concerned about dandruff, dry hair, acid indigestion, younger skin and feeding babies formula to make them smarter. Complementing the ads are enormous billboards sprouting from the top of every building and roadside, constant reminders once of how important these products are to everyday life.
In the rush to obtain cheaper versions of all-things American, counterfeit software, DVDs, designer handbags and faux Rolex are pumped out to a demanding audience.
McDonald’s, Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken are offering up their Western brand of artery-clogging fare to a people who survived for thousands of years on fresh vegetables, rice and occasional meat. Many more Chinese smoke than Americans, freely lighting up in restaurants, elevators and offices.
Environmental controls are only now even being considered, as smokestacks belch gray into the sky and hovels still burn coal for heat. City air in China is a constant yellow haze, and no one drinks tap water.
To deal with the growth of automobiles, every large thoroughfare features a wide bike lane on the far right to keep car collisions with bicycles, scooters, pedicabs, animal carts and other slow traffic to a minimum. Cars, trucks and buses weave intricately through the city, coming within inches of each other without bumping while leaning heavily on the horn.
Standing quietly by, millions of Chinese exist in poverty not found even in the worst American slums. Toothless women who mop the hall floors in a fancy restaurant, or stand by with tongs to remove toilet paper accidentally dropped into the squat floor toilets by careless foreigners who don’t notice the wastebaskets placed nearby for that purpose.
Men sitting listless on park benches, jobless and staring. A mother, teaching her toddler to bow repeatedly to Americans loading a tour bus, hoping for a hand-out and joyous to receive a dollar. Their progress is slower, but far better than the times of famine, beatings and execution meted out in the years of the emperors and last-century Communism.
China is lurching into the new century filled with economic contrasts and an appetite fueled by television for the best the world can give them, and their neediness, ready willingness to work, and enormous manpower and resources will propel them into superiority in the world market far faster than we self-absorbed Americans can even fathom.
Taimi Dunn Gorman spent eight days with the Whatcom County Chamber of Commerce tour of Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou in March.