Former Country Head of HBO South Asia Shruti Bajpai’s insider guide to Beijing and emerging entertainment trends in China
ILLUSTRATIONS BY KARAN MHATRE
In the heart of Beijing, wedged between two dull financial buildings, is the glass structure of Mei Lanfang Grand Theatre. The modern, uninspiring facade is in stark contrast to the rich, ancient cultural performances staged inside. Jingju or Peking opera was once amongst China’s most popular forms of entertainment, embodying colourful costumes, elaborate make-up and stylised movements. Today, the opera acts are relegated to weekend afternoons, performing to a largely ageing audience that seems to be dwindling every year.
About 20 kilometres north of Mei Lanfang, located next to the picturesque Summer Palace on one side, and the country’s most celebrated campus comprising Tsinghua and Peking universities on the other, is the sprawling technology-cum-content hub, or the new centre of the universe — as the locals like to call it. Short video platform start-ups like Douyin (famously known as TikTok in the rest of the world) and Kauishou are headquartered here, generating millions of algorithms that churn out entertainment preferences for their ever-growing user base.
Beijing is more than the seat of power of China. It boasts opera theatres, boutique cinema studios, a behemoth state television network and a campus of hi-tech content companies, making it the country’s entertainment capital. There are more than 800 million internet users on the mainland, the largest such base in the world; most of them consume short or long form video content, games and social media apps on their mobile phones. Is China’s entertainment culture permanently rooted in these little screens? What does entertainment really mean to the young Chinese, and does society shape their entertainment choices?
Short video content — ‘grassroots’, inclusive entertainment
It’s a humid June morning when I brave the rush hour commute on Beijing Metro’s long Line 10 that loops around central Beijing. Next to me, Xiao Wei, a bespectacled young man, is silently guffawing at a Kuaishou video that he is watching intently. He pauses occasionally to type his comments on the screen. His fingers deftly scroll down from one video to the other. I ask him about what he enjoys most during his downtime. “There is hardly any downtime in our lives,” he says with a deadpan expression. “My smart phone is my source of entertainment. I watch some shows on Tencent Video, but mostly I like watching short video content on Douyin and Kuaishou, as I never have enough time. On the days that I am lucky enough to get a seat on the ride back home, I manage to play some online video games.”
I glance around the carriage. There are more than a hundred pairs of eyes staring fixedly at their vertical mobile phone screens, either watching videos or scrolling down at breakneck speed, going through pictures and posts. It’s a common sight all over China — in cafes, bus stops, airports; even pedestrians walking like zombies.
“These days, people prefer to consume entertainment via short format videos,” says Maggie Long, director of Global PR & Communications of Kuaishou, when we meet in her busy but sparse office in northwest Beijing. “Their time is so fragmented; they prefer to watch an assortment of entertaining videos. Short video platforms are funny and engaging, but there is something deeper here, particularly in the case of Kuaishou,” she explains. “Our app offers a window to our diverse country with everyday stories of ordinary people that users find very heart-warming.”
I am curious to know more and click on ‘trending videos’ on the newly downloaded Kuaishou app on my phone while we chat. There is one about a truck driver who sings while driving into the depths of Western China’s plateau and another of fishermen from the southern coast talking about their daily catch. “This is more than just entertainment. It is inclusive, grassroots entertainment, a lot of which is user-generated,” says Long.
Mobile phone usage, internet consumption and a wide variety of entertainment-cum-social media apps are on the rise across the world. What puts China far ahead of the game is its favourable ecosystem of high speed internet. 4G and, now, 5G networks are superfast; users are able to watch high-resolution content while on the move, and mobile data plans are getting cheaper while mobile phones are getting smarter and more affordable. “Apart from a sizeable population, we also have the ‘invisible hand’ of artificial intelligence (AI) technology that is able to predict preferences to enhance the user experience. These may be short formats of video content, but their engagement is long and deep-rooted,” says Long.
Reality shows — entertainment with a sense of purpose
Deng Xian Xian, a fashion editor of a well-known publication and an expert on Chinese popular culture, smiles when I ask her about recent trends. “China is so big, there is room for all kinds of entertainment forms to coexist and overlap. We are many…. Too many!” She talks about the recent phenomenon of reality shows, particularly C-pop (Chinese-pop), a recent take on its more famous neighbouring K-pop. Many youngsters here love watching these pop idol shows made by Chinese companies like iQiyi and Tencent Video.
But it is more than just passive watching, she explains. These are fans committed to nurturing these young, naïve performers and are shaping them into famous pop idols. “We call it yangcheng xi,” she says, “which means raising a young one”. The fans form groups to vote online to grow the popularity of their idols, are active on social media and spend their free time and money sending virtual gifts to their idols. They call themselves mama fen (mother fans) or jiejie fen (big sister fans). These fans mostly live alone and work in big cities, and they have generous disposable incomes. “Raising these idols and making them famous gives them a feeling of being useful, even powerful, if their fans get selected. “It is this sense of purpose that drives viewership of reality shows,” concludes Xian Xian.
Ann is a student of communications and a native of Jilin province in Northeast China and is currently interning with Deng’s team. I ask her whether she is a mama fen or jiejie fen. “Neither,” she giggles. “I would much rather be a girl-friend fen.”
Rise of Chinese cinema — entertainment with a tinge of nationalism
While short video content and reality shows have exploded onto the entertainment scene, cinema continues to be a popular medium. What has changed though, is the increasing popularity of Chinese cinema over the last few years. Wolf Warrior 2, the box office blockbuster of 2017, is China’s highest grossing movie of all time. Operation Red Sea, another local production, was number one in 2018, and the top movie of 2019 so far is The Wandering Earth. These films have high-quality production values with state-of-the-art special effects. They have one other thing in common: they reflect China’s global ambition of being a super power, ahead of the West. “I love watching movies in theatres, and these movies make me feel good about my country,” says Wei, my friend from the subway. “While we spend a lot of time on mobile content, we still go to the movies. After all, we still need to find a place to date and hang out!” he laughs. I ask Wancheng Guo, a partner at Peacock Mountain productions, a prominent production house based in Beijing, if the shift in entertainment consumption to mobile phones has led to a drop in cinema watching, or even the number of movies made every year. “On the contrary, theatrical releases of Chinese movies are on the rise, as also the number of cinema screens across China,” she clarifies.
Alone but together in the online world
A large part of today’s Chinese population was born when the nation’s economic transformation was well underway. They grew up as only children, in small nuclear families, brought up in heavily industrialised cities and towns with little or no understanding of life in China’s diverse terrain and its hinterland. Yet, they are aware of the giant strides that their country has taken in its socio-economic development and intensely proud of its place on the international stage.
Recent trends of mama fen and jiejie fen; of Chinese reality shows; an increase in short format ‘grassroots-up’ entertainment apps; slickly made home-grown movies that spark a feeling of nationalism — they all mirror the emotions of this generation.
“I am a single child and so are all my friends. My family is my online world; my identity is my online identity. This really doesn’t bother my friends or me, this is our reality,” says Wei, with a degree of finality.
Shruti Bajpai is a corporate veteran and was formerly the country head of HBO, South Asia. She has travelled extensively, has lived in different countries in Asia and Europe and developed an interest in learning about local cultures. Presently, she is based in Beijing, where she has become a fluent Mandarin speaker and a keen observer of society and social trends, which she loves to write about.