Over-the-top TV soap depresses Chinese viewers


CHINA: It is 6 p.m. and TV soap hour has arrived in millions of homes all over China. Suffering from serious withdrawal after a Christmas in Ireland gorging myself on the spicy helpings from Fair City and Coronation Street, I slump in front of the box with an English-speaking Chinese friend to watch an episode of China's only real soap drama, writes Miriam O'Donohoe

After being starved of juicy TV for months, I was transfixed when at home with the nightly racy soap story lines. I lapped up Coronation Street and Deirdre's passionate Christmas one-night stand with Dev; that dramatic car crash with Les and his wife's boyfriend involved; and the delivery of Curly's baby in his living room.

In Fair City Deirdre, in her 40s, was pregnant and agonising whether or not to run off with the father, painter Frank; and restaurateur Mike, whose wife was becoming obsessively jealous of the flirtatious waitress, was planning to pack his bags and leave. Truly riveting stuff. And now back in China, I took my place on the couch hoping that Chinese TV could satisfy my renewed soap craving.

Like Coronation Street and Fair City, Xin Xing Fu Jie, translated Joy Luck Street, is set in a road. The episode I watched centred around an upwardly mobile family of four - father, mother, daughter, son.

Kaxin, the daughter, (Kaxin means happy in Chinese) is beautiful and in her 20s. She is more obedient than her teenage brother, Kuaile, who is handsome and trendy with his dyed yellow hair. Dad is a taxi driver and mother a laid-off worker.

Tonight there is a power cut, caused by Kuaile after he tried to take apart some domestic appliances to see how they work. The family gets to grips with the trauma of doing manually what they normally rely on electrical luxuries for.

Clothes are washed with bare hands, the floors are swept with a brush instead of a hoover, and a rare conversation takes place between the family members in the absence of television, radio and a stereo. The episode ends with everyone agreed at how this simple power cut brought them closer together.

No murder, sex, or violence. l admit I was left feeling empty.

If the Fair City or Coronation Street script-writer had penned this, he or she would undoubtedly be looking for employment elsewhere.

But the innocent and homely storyline is a response by the makers of China's first soap to criticism by viewers of earlier plots, which had large dollops of sex, violence and dramatic occurrences.

Joy Luck Street was launched in August 2000, and is co-produced by Coronation Street's British producers, Granada, in conjunction with the Beijing Yahuan Audio Video company.

It was heralded by Granada when it signed a £25 million deal to produce the series as a first step in developing a number of versions of the Manchester-based soap around the world.

Writers and producers came from Britain to teach Chinese programme-makers how to make a soap opera. They arrived armed with scripts and suggestions for characters.

Although the series revolves around China's new rich rather than the ordinary people of Coronation Street, set in the north of England, many of the original characters mirrored the street's personnel.

It was easy to pick out Vera Duckworth, Curly Watts and Ken Barlow among the Chinese cast in the early days.

The soap was broadcast three times a week on 90 cable TV stations to every province in China except Tibet, but initially attracted only 2 per cent of China's 400 million potential television viewers.

The early torrid diet of four-way love affairs, illegitimate children, cheating husbands, abused wives and troublesome teenagers failed to win over viewers and was considered too depressing.

While the audience has been rising, it is now estimated at 25 million - still only half the 50 million viewers predicted by Granada before it was first broadcast.

Viewers complained bitterly that the programme focused too much on the suffering of the characters and demanded more laughs in place of the angst-ridden scenes familiar to British and Irish audiences.

They said the content was too depressing, and instead of entertaining and relaxing them, was making them feel greater anxiety and unease.

The Beijing Yahuan Audie Video company and Granada accepted they had to recognise that Chinese viewing tastes were very different from those in England and the soap was relaunched as New Joy Luck Street two months ago with a fresh cast and scriptwriters. Many of the British-type characters have been removed.

The change proved one thing. Despite the pace of change and the rapid development in China, people here are not prepared to accept all things western.

Soaps as we know them don't agree with Chinese TV audiences, and maybe that is not such a bad thing. My Chinese friend is happier with Joy Luck Street's new formula.

"It is more real and true to Chinese life. The other storylines were over the top. I think it will prove successful now."

And as for me? I am left craving for an update on Coronation Street and Fair City. Chinese soaps just don't wash with me.