Pop-cultural revolution

A visit to China spawns musings on Kenny G, pirate DVDs and the Chinese Britney Spears

A few days after my return from a two-week trip to Northern China, a friend asked me, “What’s the biggest misconception the Chinese had about the West?”

I was at a loss to think of something suitably shocking. Many of the Chinese I met in the cities of Beijing and Jilin, where I’d gone to visit a friend who is teaching English, had a broad knowledge of Western culture largely gleaned from America’s movies and media exports, as well as the national English-language newspaper, China Daily. No doubt I had a biased impression, since I only visited metropolitan areas and since my utter ignorance of Mandarin required me to converse with fluent English speakers. But to a one, the Chinese I spoke with knew more about America than most Americans seem to know about China.

As I struggled to answer my friend’s question, I suddenly remembered one misconception I’d encountered often enough to suspect a sort of mass hysteria had settled over the entire country. I lowered my voice and confessed China’s shameful secret: “The Chinese believe Celine Dion makes good music.”

It’s true. Nearly everywhere I went in China—be it a shopping mall, a restaurant or the inside of a taxi—I heard Dion crooning that her heart would, indeed, go on. It was the sort of Dion mania Americans haven’t experienced since Titanic took home all those Oscars back in 1997. (Forget about Hong Kong cinema and Wong Kar Wai; many of the Chinese I met claimed Titanic as their favorite movie of all time.)

I’d be happy to write off this strange cultural fascination with the skinny Canadian chanteuse as a national quirk, if it weren’t indicative of a larger musical preference. Out of the whole catalog of American, Canadian and British music, the Chinese seem to enjoy primarily four artists: Dion, Mariah Carey, Elton John and Kenny G. Don’t mention Madonna. As one university English major told me, “She’s far too scandalous.” (He must have missed Carey’s bikini-and-combat-boot phase.)

A comedian paused in mid-sketch to mug with Sacramento actress Amber Kloss at Disco Banana Disco.

While each member of this bland quartet is played liberally in public places, Kenny G is the most ubiquitous. Our Asiana Airlines in-flight magazine featured a two-page piece on Kenny, in Korean. The single music channel in our Jilin hotel room played nothing but the numbing whine of Kenny’s soprano saxophone 24 hours a day, without commercials. One morning, we found ourselves slurping chow mein in a Beijing noodle shop to the accompaniment of one of Kenny’s Christmas albums. Apparently, in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, “The First Noel” is suitable all year round.

China may be behind the times in its grasp of Western music, but the country’s access to the world’s cinema should be the envy of every American film buff. The pirate DVD business dominates the film culture of China. Jilin, a city of 4 million people, has no movie theaters. Seeing a movie in a theater in China can cost more than 60 yuan (about $8 or $9), but a pirate DVD can be purchased for six yuan (about 80 cents). And there’s no need to go to back alleys for such purchases. Pirate DVD stores operate openly in malls and shopping centers, closing temporarily every few months when their owners get word of a pending government inspection.

The selection in such stores is staggering: thousands of the best titles in American, European and Hong Kong cinema. And there’s no waiting for new releases. Star Wars: Episode 3—Revenge of the Sith opened in America three days before I left for China, but my friends already had a pirate copy to watch the night I arrived. Granted, their copy displayed a running timer in the top corner throughout the feature, but who’s got time to complain when Yoda’s battling Supreme Chancellor Palpatine in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment in the heart of Jilin?

In China, piracy extends far beyond the DVD business. There are pirate buses that follow the municipal bus routes and charge slightly lower rates. There are pirate clothing lines (Versage, anyone?) and pirate motorcycle manufacturers. Jilin even boasts its own pirate Pizza Hut—run by entrepreneurs who simply scanned the Pizza Hut logo, made a neon sign and takeout boxes, and went into business.

Of course, piracy also affects the music business. (Apparently, the Chinese reverence for Dion doesn’t extend to her royalties.) Two Chinese high-school girls, who go by the easily pronounceable nicknames Monkey and Cecilia in the company of the Mandarin-impaired, took us CD shopping in Jilin. As they explained, when it comes to Chinese music, the contemporary selection leans heavily toward R&B. The shelves of both the pirate and legal CD stores were covered with airbrushed covers of solo singers with razor-cut hairstyles, whose vocals are generally backed by anonymous session musicians. There were also a few Western selections—the usual suspects. At one store, I did spot a pirate Linkin Park CD, but it was rather dusty.

When I asked who the Chinese Britney Spears is, I was pointed toward Jolin. I bought a pirate copy of Jolin’s J Game album for $1 and was delighted to find a mixture of dance-floor-worthy synth tempos and unmistakably bubblegum lyrics. (No translation needed; being unable to interpret inane pop lyrics is a definite plus, since there’s nothing to get in the way of the booty shaking.) The CD’s second song features a chorus whose vocal rhythms exactly match the racy refrain of Khia’s “My Neck, My Back”—but if the Chinese think Madonna’s too wild, I doubt the translation is exact.

The writer poses with Amber Kloss and a Chinese drag queen at Boy Sky, a gay bar in Jilin.

These days, it seems Jolin is the subject of some speculation among Chinese music fans. For years, the Chinese press tried to link her romantically with Jay, another pop vocalist. Although Jay had written songs for her, and the two shared a Pepsi sponsorship, they vehemently denied any romantic involvement. As in American tabloid culture, it seems that as soon as the two finally became a confirmed couple, they broke up. Because many attribute Jolin’s success to her association with Jay, there is debate as to how well the 25-year-old singer will fare on her own. I assured my shopping companions that if Spears could thrive without Justin Timberlake, surely Jolin can pull through. I didn’t mention Kevin Federline.

That night, as on most nights during the trip, we were headed to a disco. The nightclubs in Jilin have endearing Western names, like Disco Banana Disco, that don’t quite translate. This slightly odd English shows up inside the clubs, as well. For example, Disco Banana Disco posted English phrases like “You stupid jerk!” and “Don’t touch me!” on the walls in foot-high Day-Glo letters. Bar Code Bar featured posters of fashion models printed with the word “pulchritude,” which, if you haven’t studied for the SAT lately, is a barely used synonym for beauty.

In many of these clubs, dancing doesn’t start until midnight. The time beforehand is filled with floor shows that are equal parts sketch comedy, karaoke and Solid Gold dancing. Even on weeknights, we saw bubble and fog machines, gold-sequined outfits and elaborate choreography.

The audience encourages these performances by banging wooden blocks on the tabletops (far louder than applause) and by bringing the performers cocktails. It seemed to be an unspoken rule that if someone in the audience brings you a drink, you have to stop your performance and drink it. At times, the crowds gang up on especially popular singers, forcing them to chug four or five cocktails in a 10-minute set and lending the shows the unsettling atmosphere of a fraternity stunt. When the DJ takes over, absolutely everyone gets up to dance on the first song. There are no wallflowers and no barflies.

We invited Monkey and Cecilia to come along with us to that evening’s destination—a gay bar called Boy Sky, with a ceiling draped in gold lamé, where graceful men danced the cha-cha—since China’s bars seem to have no age restriction. Monkey declined for both girls, saying, “We’ve heard about what goes on at bars. We have no interest in goinKg there.”

When I asked where they did like to go, both immediately answered, “Internet cafes!” Throughout our travels, the Chinese teens I spoke with consistently named the Internet cafe as their preferred hangout. The boys play video games, and the girls chat online. That may sound quaint, until you consider the fact that Jilin’s Internet cafes have an 18-and-over age limit. The girls described their efforts at sneaking in using memorized fake ID numbers, and their parents’ occasional scoldings. Monkey said, “My mother will tell me that if I go to the Internet cafe, I am a bad girl. But I go anyway.”

For Chinese students, there is enormous emphasis on academics. A Chinese student only gets one chance at college admission, based primarily on the scores of a national exam taken at the end of high school. Parents and teachers often demand that teenagers’ dating and extracurricular activities be postponed in favor of studying, and this attitude extends through the university level. Recently, two Chinese students were expelled from their university for marrying before graduation—a decision alternately supported and denounced by the various students I talked to.

Still, the Chinese teens find their way to the chat rooms and, in Jilin’s Century Square, young couples in matching shirts roller-skate and hold hands on Sunday afternoons. It looks like Dion is right. The heart does go on.