Monday, February 05, 2007

The "Friends" of China?

I just came across this. Since I'm hoping to go to China for vacation, this sounded kind of interesting. It intrigue me to see how young adults in China perceived modern life contrasted with traditional values. It'll be interesting to see if and when China will become a true player in the worl, not only economically but socially. I often wonder if it really will become necessary for future generations to learn to speak Chinese or regularly travel to China as part of their careers.

I'll have to see if I can watch a few episodes. Hopefully it's subtitled.

China's 'Friends' highlights Web freedoms

SONGJIANG NEW TOWN, China (Reuters) -- "Soul Partners", a new comedy series described as China's version of the U.S. TV hit "Friends", features six people in their 20s who live together after being separately tricked into buying the same apartment.

But rather than developing according to the plans of top screenwriters, episodes follow the whims of China's growing community of Internet users.

How the plot of "Soul Partners" -- shown on video-sharing Web site Mofile (, and not on traditional television -- evolves from week to week depends on viewers' feedback.

That makes the series an unusually frank reflection of popular opinion in a country where the authorities still tightly control media content.

"The traditional concepts are going out the window because now people see more of the world outside China. People have become more liberal," said Mofile Chief Executive Officer Andy Fan.

"Maybe five years ago, for males to share the same apartment with females would have been unacceptable," noted Fan, who is from the central province of Hunan, has worked in the United States and speaks with a light American accent.

"It's a lot like "Friends", though obviously the background is not the same, since we're in China," said actor Zhang Libing, 21.

One major departure from traditional Chinese series is that parents and relatives play no part.

"In the show I play a young character, but I'm also independent and don't need to rely on my parents," he said, wryly adding that his character was "cool on the outside but emotional on the inside -- not unlike me in real life".

The show -- now into the fourth of a planned 20 episodes -- has already garnered a total of over 1.5 million viewings, and is starting to win fans elsewhere in the Chinese-speaking world, particularly Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

The fresh-faced amateur actors -- average age around 22 -- who josh around and as they go over their lines in a borrowed apartment on the outskirts of Shanghai, China's commercial hub, were chosen from 1,000 applicants.

"We wanted to do this from the grassroots up," said producer Gao Bao, who works on the series part-time. Her day job is in sales and marketing.

She said the aim of the independent show was to portray the modern lives of young people with a bit of humor.

China is the world's second-largest Internet market by user numbers after the United States, and is seeing a blossoming of homegrown social networking Web sites such as Mofile, which allow users to generate their own content by posting video clips.

This is partly because user-generated content is far more responsive to online demand than China's relatively staid and heavily regulated mass media.

Pirated satellite dishes, used to watch foreign TV shows, are widespread in a country where local television dramas routinely rehash Mao Zedong's trouncing of Nationalist armies in 1949, or dramas set in imperial courts a thousand or more years ago.

Foreign investment has been flowing into Chinese Internet start-ups, while Google's $1.65 billion acquisition last year of video-sharing Web site YouTube helped spawn a host of Chinese YouTube clones which hope to attract venture capital.

Mofile is one of a bevy of homegrown video-sharing Web sites, including Tudou, and Yoqoo, which jostle for the attention of China's 137 million Internet users.

Meanwhile established Web companies Tom Online Inc., SINA Corp., Inc. and Inc., are believed to be considering expansion into video sharing., dubbed "China's Google", hopes to expand its online video services.

Mofile's Fan, whose company shares equipment costs with the acting crew, says the fact that the show is not out to make money and does not appear on TV means actors are free to provide whatever content they like.

Web broadcasting gives "Soul Partners" a national audience and skirts China's TV regulations. Foreign companies providing content through traditional TV channels, including Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and Viacom Inc., have unsuccessfully lobbied for years to gain a nationwide footprint.

"This shows how potentially powerful new media can be -- we have as much exposure as, say, provincial level satellite television," said Fan.

Fan added that episodes, based on viewer feedback, now incorporate more current "real life" topics, including the effect of a recent earthquake on Internet service across Asia.

Audiences will also be able to craft their own episode plot soon, rather than merely make suggestions, he added.

The plots of "Soul Partners", which Chinese media and viewers have compared to "Friends", reflect social changes in a country where many young adults live with their parents into their 30s.

The first episode, for example, dealt with the phenomenon of greedy property developers -- somewhat ironic since the studio was provided by a large property development firm -- and focused on social rather than political issues, said Mofile's Fan.

Songjiang New Town, about 18 miles from Shanghai, is the result of a booming local property market. Outside the studio, migrant workers excavate mounds of fresh earth to build an eerie and empty satellite city rearing out of what used to be farmland.

Creative freedom lies in remaining Web-based, non-commercial and clear of cumbersome regulations, Fan said of "Soul Partners" which, rather like the environment outside the studio window, is a social experiment still under construction.

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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