Welcome to Chinese Restaurant, a hit sitcom that is cracking up even the dourest communist cadres across the Middle Kingdom. After suffering through decades of documentaries about model farming communes scripted by humorless ideologues, Chinese TV viewers are finally getting a chance to laugh. And the antics of a group of immigrant Chinese waiters in California afford endless opportunities for comic misunderstandings, cultural clashes and word play that Beijing-born director Ying Da, is exploiting to the full. "We like to make fun of everything," says Ying, 39, a bear of a man with suspenders holding up his jeans and a perpetual grin across his face. His sitcom even has American customers speaking bad Chinese, turning the tables on Hollywood's practice of making fun of foreigners using comically accented English.
Showing every night at 6:05 on Beijing Cable TV-2, Chinese Restaurant is just one of dozens of new shows that have begun appearing since the central government loosened control over the airwaves a few years ago. And although the 40-part serial was filmed in a Beijing studio with actors from the mainland--at a cost of just $700,000 - the show was financed by Sony's Columbia TriStar and sponsored by FedEx and Coca-Cola.
With more than 1,000 stations and 1 billion viewers nationwide, Chinese television is beginning to make U.S. entertainment companies click their chopsticks in anticipation. "Now is the time when the Time Warners and Disneys of China are going to be founded," says William Brent, head of a Shanghai media consulting company, China Entertainment Network. The math is not difficult: world's biggest television industry meets world's biggest television audience. Kaching!
Certainly there are restrictions. All shows must be vetted for content by a censorship board, which means politics is still a no-go area. "Every country has limits, China just has more of them," says Li Yapeng, a 27-year-old actor who does mostly romantic dramas. All stations across China are obliged to air the state-run CCTV's main news bulletin every day at 7 p.m. And there are strict quotas on imported shows - during prime-time hours only 15% of programming can be imported.
In any case, imports dubbed into Chinese are not necessarily what people want. Baywatch and Dynasty have aired on Chinese stations, but not without stretching the imagination of many viewers. "When Chinese see programs made in the West, there is nothing they can relate to in their lives," says Xiao Jian, a 37-year-old director of TV dramas and music videos. "If we produce ourselves, there is something young people can identify with." There is no shortage of domestically made programs. The prime-time blockbuster on CCTV this year was Yongzheng Dynasty, a 44-part docu-drama on the life of a cruel but reform-minded Qing dynasty emperor. The long-running Focal Point is a serious investigative show that exposes cases of corruption and wrongdoing around the country. From Changsha in Hunan province, one of China's most productive TV markets, comes True Encounters. This is a Jerry Springer-like show, in which separated couples are brought together in a studio and encouraged by a breathless audience to work out their differences or not. Syndicated across the nation, True Encounters draws its appeal from going against Chinese tradition "by having people show their emotions openly," according to producer Chen Xiaodong. And there are so many celebrity game shows, copied from established Taiwanese and Japanese formulas, that the top stars are now getting tired of being invited to appear. Still, in such a new industry, talent is rare and quality low, leaving the door open to foreigners with more experience.
With the advantage of shared language and culture, Taiwanese and Hong Kong companies have been the most aggressive in penetrating the mainland with their game shows, tele-dramas and martial arts programs. Rupert Murdoch's Phoenix network broadcasts soap operas and sports to the mainland by satellite out of Hong Kong, despite Chinese authorities' periodic attempts to block it. And more Western companies are getting on board. "Everyone knows they have to localize in China," says Brent. "With Chinese Restaurant, Sony is just a bit ahead of the curve."
Sitcoms are an American specialty, and here Ying Da has an edge. After earning a masters degree in drama at the University of Missouri at Kansas City in 1984, he worked as an intern with director Alan Pakula in New York. While there, he had the chance to sit in on the making of The Cosby Show. He also became a fan of Cheers, the U.S. sitcom set in a bar. "If we want to learn, we have to start at the beginning--and that is American TV," says Ying, helping himself to potatoes fried with chili and a large mug of beer at a Cultural Revolution-themed restaurant in Beijing. He freely admits to using Cheers as a model: the challenge was to produce scripts that would make Chinese laugh. "Humor does not translate--only some concepts," he says. "Our culture is different, so our jokes are different."
Ying's first hit was I Love My Family, a sitcom about a retired communist official trying to come to terms with the country's rapid social changes. It began airing in 1993 just when the government was opening up television to paid advertising. Since then money has poured into the industry. A.C. Nielsen estimates that $3.9 billion was spent on advertising on Chinese television last year, an 11% increase from 1997. The U.S. marketing-research firm predicts this will rise even further when advertisers can access comprehensive national viewership figures.
Ying has picked up America's business ethos as well as its culture. "American TV is very commercial, very conscious of advertising," he says. "And that's the name of the game. That's the bottom line." He drives an Alfa Romeo, runs his own studio on the outskirts of Beijing and talks of making a movie. For now, though, he is bound to the fortunes of Chinese Restaurant, where the busboy insults customers, the mainlanders make fun of the Taiwanese and Chinese in general get the chance to laugh at their own culture as it clashes with everyday life in America. Next up, Seinfeld in Shanghai?