Titanic Country Roads: Western Pop Culture in China


THERE IS A place where my heart still goes on. And on and on and on. The theme song from Titanic won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1997, but it was in 2014 that Chinese Central Television invited Celine Dion to sing her heart out at the Spring Festival Gala—supposedly the Guinness World Record holder for the most-watched network TV broadcast, with around 700 million viewers.

Not because the song became popular again following the 2012 3D re-release of the movie. Because the song was still popular. When I lived in China in 2007-2008 I heard it on the radio all the time. I heard it at karaoke night. I heard it at student talent competitions sung by kids younger than the song. Heck, even I sang it up on stage at a banquet once, mumbling my way through the chorus while my Chinese colleague nailed each and every lyric like a native Québécoise.

What plays in China is not what plays in Peoria. You know how the credit card reader screens in American taxis will air clips from late night TV shows? Where I lived in southern China it was all Mr. Bean all the time. Every taxi. And they didn’t even accept credit cards. The entire purpose of the screen was so you could watch Mr. Bean accidentally wipe his mouth on some lady’s evening gown.

Remember Prison Break, Fox’s middling kin-springing melodrama? I didn’t. Prison Break was so popular in China that more than one of my seventh grade students wanted their English name to be T-Bag, after the psychopath on the series. I let their eighth grade English teacher deal with that one.

Or Jackass, MTV’s asinine abandonment of its M? One night the Chinese teacher who lived next door ran over all excited. He had just channel surfed to the most hilarious show of his life, and I needed to see it immediately. Mind you, this was six years after the last original episode aired.

At the very least you must remember the Numa Numa song. Yes, that Numa Numa song. The one from the webcam video of a guy flailing his arms while lip-syncing like a Muppet. Number one radio hit, four years after I thought I was the last one in the world to hear it.

It was in China that I and many of my fellow millennial foreign teachers first heard “Country Roads” and “Yesterday Once More.” To keep up with our Chinese colleagues we had to learn them by heart. At many karaoke places they were essentially the only two English songs available.

Western popular culture seems to arrive in China in haphazard single slivers. There, even John Denver is a one-hit wonder. Try asking anyone to name another of his 300 or so recorded songs.

In the case of many of my students’ favorite bands the kids couldn’t even name their biggest hit. The girls loved Avril Lavigne but didn’t recognize “Complicated” when I played it in class. The boys all loved Akon yet had never heard “Locked Up.” Everyone loved Michael Jackson; nobody knew “Thriller,” “Beat It,” “Bad,” or “Billie Jean.”

Culture seems to take the slow boat to China, and what eventually arrives isn’t always what embarked. KFC is the most popular fast food restaurant over there, and it has the cleanest bathrooms around. Pizza Hut is so swanky you have to make a reservation. Sometimes it really does feel like you finally finished that tunnel in your backyard and dug through to an upside-down other end of the Earth.

What determines what emerges out the other end of that tunnel? For a long time it was, and to a lesser extent still is, the government. When you’re an authoritarian you like to limit outside influence. Up until 2012 a grand total of 20 American movies were allowed to be screened in China each year. Books, music, and magazines often had to go through a state-owned middleman to reach Chinese consumers. Sure there was rampant piracy on the street corner, but the stuff in the mainstream had to first be certified sufficiently sterile.

Even the dearly beloved Titanic 3D re-release got censored. They cut out the nude scene, “to avoid potential conflicts between viewers and out of consideration of building a harmonious ethical social environment.” Basically, they were afraid that people would reach out and try to touch Kate Winslet’s boobies. I can just picture a secret prescreening theater in Beijing, full of Communist Party officials who must review every upcoming film for subversive political messages or naughty bits.

To be fair, it’s not just our stuff that gets “harmonized” so as not to offend the sensibilities of the Chinese people, who, if you believe what you hear at Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conferences, are constantly getting their feelings hurt. If You Are the One, an edgy Chinese dating show with the theme song of, well how about that, “Girlfriend” by Avril Lavigne, got the sharpness hammered out of it by the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television for not maintaining core Socialist values. Take contestant Ma Nuo, better known as the girl who told some poor guy, “I’d rather cry in a BMW car than laugh on the backseat of a bicycle.”

If our movies can’t come to them, apparently they’ll come to our movies. In 2012, Dalian Wanda Group, owner of China’s biggest movie theater chain, bought AMC and is now the second largest cinema operator in America. Maybe they figured buying an American company was the easiest way to watch all the Hollywood blockbusters they wanted in theaters.

I can’t help but wonder what the Wanda middle managers who get stationed at AMC headquarters in Kansas will report home about Chinese culture in America. There’s the Wu-Tang Clan, and Jackie Chan, and Jack Black in Kung Fu Panda. The one movie in Mandarin that’s won an Academy Award is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We must think that all 1.3 billion Chinese people are martial arts masters. Even Jay Chou, more or less China’s Justin Timberlake, has so far appeared in America only as Seth Rogen’s kung fu fighting stereotype of a sidekick in the 2011 remake of The Green Hornet.

Do you know what Jackie Chan does today? For starters he is the face of Bawang shampoo, which came under fire for potentially causing cancer. Apparently there’s now a saying in China that all products endorsed by Jackie Chan are doomed to fail. He’s also become a kind of Chinese Ted Nugent, weighing in at whim with a round of radically conservative nationalist commentary along the lines of, “China is the best and Hong Kong has too much democracy and America is the most corrupt country in the world.”

I said, “My heart still goes on in China,” but our Wanda man’s report back home might read “the moon still represents my heart,” after Deng Lijun’s 1972 hit “The Moon Represents My Heart,” which is the first and sometimes only song an American studying Chinese can sing along to. It’s our “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Or is it their “Take Me Home, Country Roads?”

Either way it’s really more a winding road than an express tunnel. That backyard dig hasn’t quite broken through the center of the earth after all; at least when it comes to culture both sides have only scratched the surface.

Speaking of things superficial, we do currently have one clear cultural craze in common: our love for House of Cards. In a sign of Sino-American solidarity we all spent our Valentine’s Day weekend this year binge watching season two, the only difference being the Chinese believe that’s how our Congress work, and the Americans know it doesn’t.


About Scott Abrahams

Scott Abrahams skipped class one day and ended up in his college cafeteria talking to a classmate who convinced him to go teach English in China for a year. Up to that point his entire experience with Asia had been writing a play for a friend’s Lunar New Year Festival celebration. Scott spent the summer working at an English language program for high schoolers in northern China and then the academic year in a public middle school in the south. After experiencing the country as someone who knew very little about it, he went on to earn a master’s degree in China Studies from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Scott was born and grew up in Chicago (both city and suburbs if you’re asking). He used to work for the Federal Reserve, but recently decided to trade in one government for most of them by becoming a consultant at the World Bank
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One Response to Titanic Country Roads: Western Pop Culture in China

  1. Pingback: Chengdu & the Chinese Dream | Richard Pendavingh

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