The Nanfang / Blog

Blog Post Claiming Shenzhen Girl Slept with Doctor to Win Hospital Internship Goes Viral in China

Posted: 01/29/2015 10:47 am

A blog post claiming that a woman slept with a doctor to get an internship at the Peking University Hospital in Shenzhen has gone viral since it first appeared on January 20. Both the woman, Miss Wang, and Dr. Guo have confessed to sleeping together at a Seven Days Inn, though the hospital insists he is actually a nurse, Xinhua reports.

A report about the blog post

News aggregation websites started picking up the blog post nine days ago, before it was eventually published by Shenzhen News. The post claims that Miss Wang used her uncle’s contacts to land the internship for RMB 100,000 and later slept with Dr. Guo, alleging that this, too, was a form of bribery. The post was full of identifying information, such as both parties’ phone numbers, the times they checked in and out of the Seven Days Inn and how much the room cost.

In a statement, the hospital claimed that both Miss Wang and Dr. Guo got their positions the legal and fair way. It also said that since both are unmarried, their behaviour outside work is not the hospital’s concern. The hospital also insists that they found no evidence that the affair was a form of bribery.

This news broke in the same week that a group of expats told Shenzhen Daily that medical services in the city need to improve. One expat has a particularly harrowing story of his experiences at the hospital in question:

American Charles Kirtley, who was suffering from a muscular disorder in 2011, said he lived in the hallways for the first few days in the hospital and that he became skeptical after being diagnosed with a nutritional deficiency. So Kirtley searched online to try to diagnose himself. “The head doctor was livid that I would try to diagnose myself when I was not a trained medical professional,” said Kirtley. “He compared my behavior to a guest telling a host how to run their private home. There seemed to be an unwavering dedication to hierarchy, but a distinct lack of devotion to genuine medical science or human empathy. Speaking of being a guest, I felt we patients were at the bottom of the hospital hierarchy.”

How does one rise up the hierarchy at this hospital?


The Land of the Broken-Hearted: Shenzhen’s Divorce Rate Doubles in Six Years

Posted: 01/29/2015 9:22 am

Nearly 16,000 couples in Shenzhen divorced in 2014, doubling the number from 2009, according to official figures released recently. Interestingly, most of the divorces were filed by women, Shenzhen Daily reported yesterday.

“The divorce rate is growing by more than 10 percent each year,” said an official with the Shenzhen Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau. “Many young couples broke up without careful consideration soon after finding out they can’t get along well,” he added, presupposing that the marriages themselves weren’t the rash decisions.

The paper has more:

A 33-year-old woman, surnamed Chang, is one of the many women who divorced their husbands last year. She said she found out that her former husband behaved chauvinistically shortly after they got married in 2013. She insisted that they get divorced. “Sometimes I didn’t know why I decided to marry him. I had to work, and I earn even more than him, but he still ordered me to cook and take care of all the housework,” she said.

According to the Longgang District marriage registration office, most divorces filed last year were by people under 35, particularly women. An unidentified representative of the office said that most people born in the 1980s are single children and that “they are very self-centered, intolerant and not good at communicating.”

Last year, a couple filed for divorce because they couldn’t agree on whose parents they should visit during Spring Festival.

Ning Yuan, a marriage counselor, said women are increasingly more economically independent in Shenzhen and usually demand equal relationships in the family setting.

However, many local men still expect their wives to handle all the housework, she said, and furthermore they just don’t know how to care for women. “In the past, a satisfactory family depended on the husband’s income. Now the circumstances have changed. Women have become more confident and aware of their independence,” said Ning.

Fu Xianyang, a lawyer from Guangdong Everwin Law Office, said the trend is a common phenomenon among countries going through transitional periods into the modern society. Many already modern societies have skyrocketing divorce rates, with the United States at 53 percent in 2011 and the European Union at 44 percent in 2010.

“From my experience, more and more couples have filed for divorce. Some divorced couples are younger than before. Some have been married for only less than five years,” said Fu.

Most of the world’s cultures have long attached stigmas to divorce and China is no exception. An ancient proverb admonishes newlyweds to “be married until your hair turns white.”

The situation of the majority of divorcees being those born in the 1980s contrasts with, say, the United Kingdom, where the over-60 set is the only demographic in which the divorce rate has risen. One of the reasons cited for this is a decreasing stigma attached to divorce.


Miss Granny: An Entertaining Magic-Realist Comedy

Posted: 01/16/2015 1:00 pm

In “China in Ten Words”, novelist Yu Hua claims that “copycat”, pronounced in Chinese as shanzhai (山寨), has more of an anarchist spirit than any other word in the Chinese language. The dizzying varieties of copycat products have managed to corner the lower end of the consumer market through freedom from official control.

After magic-realist romantic comedy “Miss Granny” proved a huge success in South Korea following its release in January 2014, copyright holder CJ E&M pledged to make a movie with the same premise for the Chinese market, where romantic comedies are all the rage.

Directed by Leste Chen – best known for “The Heirloom” (2005) and “The Great Hypnotist” (2014) – and starring Yang Zishang, the Chinese version adapts the story of a nagging, abrasive Grandmother who suddenly returns to the body of her 20 year-old self after wandering into a magic photography studio. CJ E&M insists that the Chinese version is a differentiated project from the original and like nothing that has been seen in China before. “It set ‘Miss Granny’ as a motif but will be adapted and produced to suit the taste of Chinese viewers,” said an official from the company during pre-production.

The new version contains some amusing observations about Chinese society. There is an old lady whose idea of success is having a son who emigrated to America. There is the clash between the Mandopop of the 1980s and the rock music that is popular in Beijing’s underground scene. There is the phenomenon of those born in the 1980s and 90s feeling closer to their grandparents than their parents.

However, the transition of the story from Korea to China is far from neat. The main character is aged around 70 and is at least 60. She claims to have been a huge fan of singer Teresa Teng when she was 20, which would push the Teresa craze in mainland China back by at least a decade. One subplot is a severed love story that would have taken place in the 1960s or 70s yet the Cultural Revolution is completely airbrushed and military service during that period is romanticized.

However, this movie is aimed at the lower end of the consumer market – the only people laughing at the screening I attended were children – and it is likely to do a very good job of winning it. This is largely due to the strong performances all around, especially from 29 year-old actress Yang Zishang, who plays a 20 year-old with grandmotherly characteristics, beautifully imitating the older actress Gui Yalei.

Yang Zishan and Gui Yalei, who play the same character

It is sensitive in the way it deals with how people sacrifice their own happiness for their family members. This is a major theme in Chinese popular culture, the biggest music hit of 2014, “Little Apple” by The Chopstick Brothers, contains the line: “Like a candle I will burn myself out to give you light.” Self-sacrifice is the force that drives the story to its climax.

“Citizen Kane” it ain’t, but “Miss Granny” is a well-paced and emotionally involving portrayal that covers some of the lighter side of Chinese society. This is something that very few serious works of art are doing well.

This article is reproduced with permission from Shenzhen Daily.


“God Forgot About Me”: Father of Pinyin Turns 109

Posted: 01/13/2015 3:03 pm

Linguist, paleographer and economist Zhou Youguang, who is the inventor of pinyin – the medium that made it possible for you to type Chinese characters – turns 109 today, Xinhua reports. The only explanation Zhou could provide for his longevity was: “God forgot about me.”

Zhou Youguang, image courtesy of Baidu

Born in Changzhou, Zhou studied in Japan and worked as an economist in New York City before returning to Shanghai when the People’s Republic was established. In 1955, the Communist Party placed Zhou at the head of a linguistic reform committee to increase literacy. Zhou’s committee was charged with developing a romanization to represent the pronunciation of Chinese characters. Pinyin was made the official romanization in 1958.

Since turning 100, Zhou has published ten books, some of which are banned in China as he is now a critic of the government. As recently as October 2011, he gave an interview to NPR in which he lamented the slowness of political progress in China.

For his birthday, friends and disciples spoke to Xinhua to explain the importance of Zhou’s work and its influence on their own.

Zhang Sengen of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the news portal: “Zhou career broadly falls into three stages. There is his early life in which he worked abroad while giving support to the War of Resistance against Japan and his subsequent return to China to serve as a professor of Economics; then he turned to Linguistics and Philology where he worked for three solid years to establish pinyin and helped with the modernization and internationalization of Chinese characters; and since he turned 85 he has mostly been a cultural and social critic who writes for the layman.

Zhang describes Zhou as a model intellectual, a free thinker and independent personality. “He doesn’t shy away from debate and isn’t afraid to be wrong,” said Zhang.

Jie Xizhang, a cultural commentator, describes Zhou as a genial personality and lively conversationalist. “Since retiring, Zhou has focused a lot on the development and fate of society. Despite being undeceived about the problems we have, he stays optimistic,” Jie told Xinhua.

Jie points out how Zhou, an internationalist, tries to downplay China’s exceptionality and sees China as just another part of the world. “Through the invention of Pinyin, Zhou has helped China become part of the world,” said Jie.


Meet Miss Anxiety: The Subtlety of “American Pie,” the Likability of “American Psycho”

Posted: 12/22/2014 7:00 am

In the prologue to his book “Age of Ambition,” Evan Osnos of The New Yorker declared that China is going through the age of the changeling, when the daughter of a farmer can propel herself from the assembly line to the boardroom so fast that she never has time to shed the manners and anxieties of the village. He compared China today to America during its “Guilded Age,” when in 1850 the New World had fewer than twenty millionaires and by 1900 it had 40,000.

Angry at being single, the heroine bottles a guy who takes her out to dinner.

If romantic comedy “Meet Miss Anxiety” 《我的早更女友》 is anything to go by, China is developing even faster than Osnos thinks. Just a few decades ago, the only movies that could be made in the People’s Republic were those espousing socialist values to the population which was almost entirely made up of peasant farmers. Now China is making movies with characters who are every bit as spoiled, irritating and emotionally immature as their counterparts in U.S. sitcom “Friends.”

If you find it difficult to sympathize with a 26 year-old menopausal woman whose idea of an act of love is to hijack a wedding in a way which wouldn’t disgrace Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight,” then “Meet Miss Anxiety” is not the movie for you.

The premise of having a rom-com with a violent, alcoholic tomboy as the heroine is interesting in a stick two fingers up at the box office kind of way. However, leading lady Zhou Xun appears to have turned into the Chinese Jenifer Aniston. Her movies all take place in a parallel universe in which attractive but clumsy women who are unlucky in love always discover in the end that the guy for them was under their nose all along. Needless to say, the movie is already a commercial success.

On her graduation day Qi Jia (Zhou Xun) shows up in a wedding dress and climbs on to the stage to recite her vows to her boyfriend (Wallace Cheung who, unlike in Han Han’s “The Continent”, is one of the less annoying characters). After being rejected, Qi becomes a hotheaded alcoholic who lives in a moderately expensive apartment in Xiamen with college classmates Yuan Xiao’ou (Tong Dawei, who apparently is supposed to be the male equivalent of a homely girl next door) and her more worldly, sexually active best friend (played by Zhang Zilin).

On her way toward finding true love, Qi Jia attacks her doctor with a cactus, attempts to bottle a chef at a restaurant where the service is too slow and treats a rape flower field as a public toilet. When her attempt to win back her old flame fails, she looks to Yuan Xiao’ou and considers whether he will do.

Like the “American Pie” franchise, which has about the same amount of depth and subtlety, this movie is interesting from a sociological point-of-view. There is no mention of the characters’ parents – like in “Friends” the key relationships in their lives are those with roommates. If the parents aren’t a source of income for the main characters then it is not clear what is. It is over an hour before there is any suggestion as to what any of them do for a living and the two main female characters (both of whom are single) are never seen doing any work.

This movie should be shown to every Western politician who is espousing clichés about the formidable rise of China. It could also show another side of society to those who only associate China with hellish working conditions and Blade Runner skylines. However, as a piece of entertainment, this reviewer found few uses for it.


Why the LA Review of Books is Wrong About Popular New China Novel

Posted: 12/19/2014 4:15 pm

There are two things that people should know about critics. The first is that like any journalists, their primary task is to fill the white space. The second is that in doing so, they have to sound clever. Sometimes however, a critic tries so hard to sound clever they end up ignoring hugely significant facts and details. A review of Susan Barker’s novel “The Incarnations” published in The LA Review of Books is a striking example.

When it came out this summer, The Nanfang posted a favourable review of Barker’s novel, a thriller that spans over a millennium of Chinese history. This was followed by unrestrained positive reviews in South China Morning Post, The Independent (which described it as “China’s Midnight’s Children”) and The Guardian.

It is great that Barker’s novel is now getting attention in the American media ahead of a release in the world’s most powerful country next year. However, the review by Pierre Fuller of The University of Manchester contains some assertions that are factually inaccurate and others that are just plain silly. The most efficient way of dealing with some of the assertions is to Fisk them, so here goes:

Incarnations’ (sic) most striking feature is its historical dimension, but its historical actors — concubines, eunuchs, Mongol warriors, Red Guards — appear to come straight from central casting. Storytelling should not be expected to provide authenticity, whatever that would even mean, but we want something at least beyond the literary equivalent of Chinese fare at the Golden Wok buffet, parked between the Dairy Queen and Jiffy Lube on the edge of town.

It is myopic to suggest that the cast of characters is made up of history’s protagonists. The three main corporeal characters are a taxi driver, a masseuse and a hairdresser. The stories set in the past also have plenty of figures who dwell beyond the wings of the stage of history, such as Jurchen artisans.

One of the most extraordinary things about Barker’s novel is that it somehow manages to demystify China. It contains a Tang Dynasty sorceress castrating her pubescent son. It contains Ming Dynasty concubines having their bowel movements and menstrual cycles recorded. It contains a chap who, in the twenty-first century, thinks that the way to fix a broken love affair is domestic violence followed by marital rape.

However, the characters are as real as they are in any good novel and not “exotic” as the headline claims. They make terrible lifestyle choices and grow attached to people who are bad for them – just like the rest of us. Barker, as she explained in a talk at The Hong Kong Book Fair, threw out a completed draft of the novel in 2009 after over a year’s work because she decided the characters weren’t real enough yet.

Barker, as the dust jacket explains, spent years in Beijing, not just getting a feel for life there today, which she captures well in the parts of the book set in the present, but also researching imperial and modern China to find material to bring into The Incarnations. So it’s especially disappointing not to find any trace in her novel of, say, Chinese pioneers opening up land in Sichuan or Manchuria, White Lotus Buddhist sectarians rising up to try to turn millenarian dreams into political reality, Bohemian poets, or any number of other equally entertaining, far more revealing (and in demographic terms equally numerous) possibilities from China’s past.

In the comments section, the accomplished translator Philip Hand dealt with this comment nicely: “The reviewer’s complaint that Susan Barker does not write about the particular Chinese people he is most interested in is just silly.”

Of course, the novel doesn’t cover everything that deserves to be covered. It is a novel not an encyclopedia. Most importantly it captures how, although we currently live in one of the least violent and most rational ages, history is indeed cyclical. One simile suggests that the fossil fuels that pollute Beijing are angered at being dug up from their million year-old graves. This fits nicely with the central motif of “history is coming for you”.

To call Incarnations “orientalist” would be a very tired charge. But equally tired are clichéd constructions of Eastern societies that fixate on the carnal, irrational, and predatory, as Incarnations does, while ignoring complexity and the socially or culturally unexpected.

Yes, this novel is full of violence, particularly sexual violence, but then so is history. Yet there are moments of tenderness that make a nonsense of the reviewer’s claim of “fixation”.

The scene where the main character meets the woman who will become his wife contains the following sentence: “Then she smiled, but as though her heart was breaking, and Wang knew that she needed saving from more than the rain.” After all the misery that has gone on earlier in the novel, reading that sentence is like breathing fresh air on a clear, Beijing day.

And as for the claim that this novel ignores complexity: “The Incarnations” captures the prejudices and superstitions of six different historical periods as well as evoking their sights, sounds and smells convincingly. This could not have been achieved without minute research and an appreciation of the complexities of each period.


Former Shenzhen Police Chief, Jailed for Bribery, Bribes Her Way Out

Posted: 12/16/2014 5:00 pm

This is an insane story.

An Huijun, image courtesy of Shenzhen Daily

The ex-police chief of Shenzhen’s Luohu District has been jailed again after being released for medical treatment seven years ago, Shenzhen Daily reported yesterday. An Huijun was initially jailed in 2005 for accepting bribes from subordinates. She also had sexual relationships with many young male officers.

An’s sister was prosecuted this October in Xingtai, Hebei Province for offering bribes to make false medical documents for An while she was in jail. An, former director of Luohu District Pubic Security Bureau, was sentenced to 15 years for taking bribes in June 2005. Yet in January 2007, she was released for medical treatment after her sister falsified medical documents calling for her release.

The paper has more:

An, a native of Hebei, was appointed chief of Luohu Public Security Bureau in 1997. She took bribes of 1.64 million yuan (US$269,000), HK$530,000 (US$87,000) and US$1,000 in exchange for giving out promotions, contracts for public projects and deals for procurement of official vehicles. All 15 people who bribed her were her subordinates at the bureau.

According to her sentencing, An should be in jail until October 2019, but she was released in January 2007 from a Hebei prison after no more than three years.

According to the newspaper report, quoting some people who were familiar with the case, An’s sister, An Huilian, falsified medical records and gave 200,000 yuan in bribes to prison staff at the Hebei prison to buy her out.

Xingtai prosecutors started investigating An Huilian in November last year and prosecuted her for giving bribes. Sun Hai, ex-director of the Hebei Prison Administration Bureau, was also probed for taking bribes.

According to related regulations, An still needs to serve more than 12 years before she completes her term.

The thin blue line, eh?


Fleet of Time: Overloaded and Undercooked

Posted: 12/15/2014 7:00 am

Italo Calvino famously said that memory must be strong enough to enable us to remain the same person, but also weak enough to enable us to keep moving forward. Coming-of-age drama “Fleet of Time” 《匆匆那年》 revolves around a group of upwardly mobile post-80 Beijingers who – despite being outwardly successful – are fixated on their pasts, particular their lost loves.

Image courtesy of Baidu

The film starts promisingly, with the characters playing the drinking game, “我曾经” which is the Western drinking game “I have never” in reverse (people talk about the crazy things they have done). The film then flashes back to 1999 when the main characters, a group of lifelong friends, are high school students.

The scenes set in the past have a dreamlike quality. People wear brighter colours and some of the shots look as photoshopped as Chinese wedding photos. The period details for the scenes that stretch from 1999 to 2002 are all accurate in terms of fashion, technology and pop music and contrast with the bleak winter scenes set in 2014.

However, the film, adapted from Jiu Yehui’s novel of the same name, is clunky and confusing, with too many subplots for its 119 minute running time. The novel was also adapted into a TV series, which is a more suitable form when attempting to bring a novel, with all its characters and events comprehensively to the screen.

Robert Mulligan’s 1962 adaptation of “To Kill a Mocking Bird” cuts out major incidents and characters so it can focus on the central “mocking birds” Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of “Lolita” merges three major characters into the character of Clare Quilty played by Peter Sellers. In the case of “Fleet of Time,” the love story between Chen Xun (Eddie Peng) and classmate Fang Hui (Ni Ni) is the only strand that is even close to well developed.

Even that story is full of things that have become clichés. Fang Hui is demure and virginal while Chen Xun is a star for the basketball team (in one particularly impossible-to-follow basketball match, Chen scores the decisive points with the last throw). Chen Xun is also a keen musician who writes the title song for Fang Hui (will China ever make a romantic movie about people who can’t sing?). Fang Hui ends up needing an abortion (as one Sina Weibo user pointed out, nowadays abortions have become clichés in mainland Chinese coming-of-age movies).

This movie makes a commendable attempt to show the lighter side of Chinese society. There are drinking games, street performances, and students deliberately flunking parts of their National College Entrance and Examination so they can go to the same college as the people they care about most. This contrasts nicely with most of the China stories that have received international news coverage in recent years, from Foxconn suicides to baby milk powder scandals.

Unfortunately, the stronger parts are weakened by the sloppiness of the storytelling. There are several fight sequences, all of which seem to have been edited by random select. The emotional immaturity of the characters also makes them less than likeable sometimes, getting into fights at the slightest provocation.
The characters would be more appealing if their memory were weak enough to keep them moving forward.


“Women Who Flirt” An Eye-opening, Entertaining, but Confused Romantic Comedy

Posted: 12/8/2014 7:00 am

I was once told that, for an expatriate who wants to learn about China, the worst thing you can do is learn the language well. The reason, I was told, is that it is more important to listen to what people don’t say than what they do say. “Women Who Flirt,” the latest romantic comedy from director Ho-Cheung Pang, is not so much about romance or dating but about the mastery of unspoken communication, particularly passive-aggression.

Hong Kong-based director Pang made his mainland debut with another romantic comedy “Love in the Buff” in 2012. From a commercial point of view, it makes sense that he would choose this genre as there is huge demand on the mainland. It also makes artistic sense. Many of mainland films made this year that have striven for profundity have fallen flat while some romantic comedies have been packed with ideas and insight, whether intentionally or not.

“Coming Home” directed by Zhang Yimou ended up spilling over from seriousness into tedious glumness. “The Continent” directed by Han Han contains most of the elements of a film that has something to say — including a cameo by the accomplished director Jia Zhangke — but proved unsatisfying, like the living room of a nouveau riche who owns a bunch of expensive items of furniture but has no idea how to lay them out attractively.

By contrast, “My Old Classmate,” directed by Frant Gwo and starring Zhou Dongyu, is a romantic comedy whose backdrop is the recent history of the country, similar to “Forrest Gump.” It captured, in an understated way, why Hollywood-style happy endings rarely happen in today’s China. “One Night Surprise,” directed by Eva Jin and starring Fan Bingbing, shined a fascinating light on attitudes about single women who get pregnant and the impossibility of women having it all in terms of babies and careers.

“Women Who Flirt,” though more nakedly commercial than “Love in the Buff” and lacking the depth of Pang’s best work, is an eye-opening story of dating and gender roles in China today. It follows tomboy Zhang Hui (Zhou Xun) who has been in love with her underprivileged, career-driven friend Xiao Gong since college. Though he has insisted on staying single while establishing himself professionally, Xiao Gong gets cuckolded by Taiwanese temptress Beibei (Sonia Sui) during a business trip. To win her man, Zhang Hui enlists the help of some of her Shanghai pick-up artist friends, led by fellow classmate Sie Yilin, in an unfriendly cross-straits competition.

In one early scene, Beibei delivers a masterpiece act of passive-aggression and what is known in Chinese as sajiao (撒娇). The movie’s title translates the word as “flirting,” but that doesn’t do justice to its excessively effeminate connotations. Sonia Sui’s acting in this scene perfectly captures the film’s spirit — women showing strength by appearing weak. Early on, Xiao Gong observes that men go to the gym to build shoulders for such women to cry on.

There are lots of highlights, such as homages to “Ghost” and “There’s Something about Mary” and a cameo from Mike Sui, who seems to be cornering the market for over-the-top foreigners in mainland movies. However, the idea behind the film is not entirely good-natured. Pang appears to be aware of how misogynistic Chinese society is, but encourages women to accept this reality instead of trying to change it.

The message that this movie unintentionally sends out is that to be single is a failure and that women should measure their worth by their ability to attract men. However, the message that the film intentionally sends out, as represented by the differences between heroine Zhang Hui and villainess Beibei, is that love is not a competition. I think we can all agree with that.

This movie is being screened (with English subtitles) at all good cinemas in mainland China.

This article is reproduced with permission from Shenzhen Daily.


In Praise of…KTV

Posted: 10/5/2014 11:00 am

Those of us who came to China in the years building up to the Beijing Olympics are watching the things that made China China disappear. These include internet bars, street barbecue (or at least its credibility as a safe option), and now karaoke bars, better known as KTVs.

KTVs are expensive to run and, on top of the fact that karaoke is a relatively expensive pastime, there are several reasons why a night at a KTV might be a hard sell. There are the tinny soundtracks, the over-priced drinks, the low-budget videos, and of course the non-professional singers. Karaoke is not as individualized, free, or unpredictable as open mic, but the popularity of karaoke represents some dizzying societal changes, most of which are positive.

A typical KTV room, image courtesy of Baidu

Why lyrics matter and why that matters

The karaoke machine was one of two Japanese inventions of the 1970s that revolutionised the way we enjoy music. Whereas the walkman, which was first marketed by Sony in 1979, was developed by engineer Nobutoshi Kihara at the request of then-Sony co-chairman Masaru Ibuka, the karaoke machine was an inadvertent success after being invented by musician Daisuke Inoue to give singers the chance to perform without a backing band.

In the 80s and 90s it spread throughout the world and became one of the most popular social activities in Greater China. This rise coincided with the glittering career of Teresa Teng, the Taiwanese pop star who was said to rule China by night while Deng Xiaoping ruled it by day.

Her song “The Moon Represents My Heart” – one of the biggest Mandopop hits of the 1980s, in spite of the best efforts of the Beijing establishment – reveals an exciting phenomenon, as Evan Osnos points out in “The Age of Ambition”. That the song is about “me” rather than “we” struck a particular chord with the generation that was young at this time. As Osnos writes:

There was something different about…the young men and women born in the seventies. You could hear it in their speech, their comfort with saying “I” and “me,” where their parents would have used the plural: “our work unit” and “our family.” (Older Chinese took to calling her cohort the wo yi dai – the “Me Generation.”)

“My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, another KTV staple, is about the forbidden love between Leonardo Di Caprio’s vagrant and Kate Winslet’s heiress in “Titanic”. The song and the film proved a pirated video sensation in a country where, of all the social upheavals that have occured in recent decades, the ability to choose ones own partner is just about the biggest.

Teresa Teng, image courtesy of Baidu

In the 1970s, as Osnos points out, rural men wanted to be seen as 老实 (honest and reliable) rather than 风流 (wild and adventurous). By the end of the century, the opposite was the case. A good representation of this shift is the songs that owe a huge amount of their hit status to KTV.

For a song to be a KTV hit, the lyrics have to be comprehensible and singable, something that isn’t universal in the world of popular music. The lyrics to “Louie” by The Kingsmen, for example, are so indecipherable that they prompted an FBI investigation in the early 1960s into their allegedly obscene content. A comprehensible lyric is ideological in that it expresses something as opposed to nothing.

So what if love songs dominate?

A look at some lists of the top 10 most popular KTV songs reveals that, to nobody’s surprise, love ballads dominate. However, dismissing all popular love ballads as syrupy trash is as lazy as assuming that all underground music is good. My experience of underground music venues is, it is amazing the amount of pseudo-profound drivel you can get away with singing as long as you’re wearing a hat.

Before the 1980s, love songs were as unacceptable in mainland China as flowery dresses. Since then, this Japanese invention has helped numerous foreign songs come into their own in China and their lyrics have given the public the chance to see that people everywhere fall in and out of love and have similar highs, lows and dilemmas. Literature, as has been argued by historian Lynn Hunt, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, and psychologists Raymond Marr and Keith Oatley, has served to expand empathy and a force towards humanitarian progress.

On my last night in Hunan in 2009 I went to a communal KTV which was just one barroom with one microphone and one screen (which is what the original Japanese karaoke houses were like before the private room format became popular in Taiwan in the 1980s) and as soon as I sat down, a drunk Chinese man came uninvited to my table and put his arm around me. When I said (in Chinese), “Do you mind? I am here to be with the people I came with,” he responded (in English) “No no no no no no…I’m your friend.”

Looking back at this incident, two things strike me. 1. I didn’t have the courage to rip his glasses off and throw them across the floor. 2. His xenophilia, though cloying, was preferable to its opposite. A look at the contents of this double CD of songs that were popular during the 1960s, including 《地道战》 which glorifies making war against an unnamed “invader” and “Keep Mao’s Words in Your Heart”, indicates that in the pre-KTV era, our barroom encounter would have been spikier.

Daisuke Inoue, who never patented his invention and only found out about its international popularity upon seeing it mentioned in Time Magazine in 1999. Image courtesy of Google

Good harmless fun

Daisuke Inoue may not be Nobel Peace Prize material, but he was surely damned with faint praise when, upon being awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in 2004, he was said to have invented “an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.” Karaoke is at the very worst good, harmless fun, which is how most drinking games could be described if they were any good or fun.

No less a figure than Johnny Cash understood how singing seems to help a troubled soul. Singing karaoke is more social than other pastimes such as playing computer games, healthier than hunching over a computer, and less sinful than other social activities such as drinking and taking drugs.

As for KTV girls and the world of vice that is associated with the activity, pimping services also target hotels and nightclubs. This doesn’t mean that dancing and sleeping are innately shameful. If people who frequent KTVs are supposed to be getting a lot of sex, then life is seriously passing me by.

Keep in Touch

What's happening this week in Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou? Sign up to be notified when we launch the This Week @ Nanfang newsletter.

sign up for our newsletter

Nanfang TV