Tears, reality TV and the Chinese dream

April 16, 2013 7:34 pm

Tears, reality TV and the Chinese dream

By Patti Waldmeir in Shanghai

Xi Jinping is cooking up the China of the future, writes Patti Waldmeir

His wife acts like Jackie Kennedy and he sounds like JFK: Xi Jinping, the new president of China, seems to have beamed us all back to 1960.

It is not just that Peng Liyuan, Mr Xi’s celebrity wife, looks like a clone of America’s First Fashionista. There is also the fact that Mr Xi seems unable to open his mouth without uttering the phrase “Chinese dream” – with all that evokes of the saccharine sentimentality and social mobility of the Kennedy era. The American dream may have had a bad 50 years since JFK’s untimely demise but Mr Xi seems to think it is ripe for reinvention now, halfway across the world in China.

He is not the only one. Mainland television magnateshave figured out that the Chinese dream also sells well in the form of reality TV shows such as MasterChef China, the local version of the cookery cliffhanger that has a global audience of 250m. This month, millions of mainlanders watched the coronation of a new MasterChef: “desperate housewife” Zhao Dan, who rose from the obscurity of her provincial kitchen to win Rmb1m ($160,000) and a future in the restaurant business by cooking up a plate of ribs and frying a slab of goose liver on national TV.

There was no shortage of culinary skill involved in the finale, which pitted a cleaver-wielding Ms Zhao against an unemployed Taiwanese single father who, like all the other contestants, had never cooked a meal professionally in his life. But the contestants’ sob stories may turn out to be more memorable than their stir-fries.Ms Zhao, the 33-year-old single mother who emerged the eventual winner, definitely had the better tear-jerker. Before the final cook-off, she appeared on stage flanked by her mother, who is dying of end-stage liver disease. “My illness cannot be cured without a liver transplant . . . but I cannot afford one,” her mother told the judges, adding that Ms Zhao had offered to donate half her own liver to save her. “My dream is to win the championship to get the prize money for my mother’s medical treatment,” Ms Zhao told the judges. By the time she had finished, mother, daughter, eliminated contestants and doubtless half the television audience were in tears.

But then it was the turn of Hong Hongxing, 32 – who goes by the priceless English moniker of Adonis Hung – who she faced in the final cook-off. Her Taiwanese rival told a tale of penury that left him too poor to visit his own critically ill father and struggling to feed the young son who appeared, suitably sombre, alongside him. Mr Hong tried to be brave but he, too, succumbed eventually to sobs.

Only after shedding the requisite number of carefully scripted tears did they turn to the less dramatic business of chopping, boiling, frying and braising up a winning menu. (The same charge could be levelled against MasterChef USA, whose most recent season was won by a remarkably talented female Chinese-American chef, but the fact she was blind must have helped her win the sympathy vote.)

China’s MasterChef finale was great TV, by the standards of any country. We all love a tale of dutiful children triumphing over adversity to save an ailing parent. However, soon after the show aired, a debate broke out over whether the competition had been decided by cooking skill or by sob story.

In a country where professional cookery is seen as a man’s job, Ms Zhao might have been the underdog without her strong personal narrative. But one of the goals of the show is to overturn stereotypes like that, and reverse the even bigger truism that being a chef is low-class work in the first place.

“There is a world of difference between the social status of a chef
in China and that in the west,” says Chen Ye, executive producer of ChineseMasterChef . “It is an occupation that is really discriminated against.”

Staging a cooking show has its challenges, though. Chinese audiences won’t stand for the obscenities that fly around in the likes of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen, Mr Ye says. And unlike western food, he points out, “many traditional Chinese dishes look exactly the same”. So contestants are tasked with finding creative ways to display food to make the competition “more visual”.

So far, Mr Chen seems to have found a winning recipe. Mix a bit of cooking skill with a dash of life story and a dollop of drama, and presto: another successful MasterCheffranchise.

Maybe Mr Xi’s “Chinese dream” has found its theme show.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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