Culture //

From China, with love

We can learn from China’s version of The Bachelor, writes Marcus James.

Twenty-four girls are approached by a male suitor who must prepare video profiles and answer the girls’ questions, as well as banter with host Meng Fei and psychology experts Huang Han and Le Jia. Throughout the routine the girls register their interest, or brutal disinterest, by turning off their lights. If the candidate gets a date, the couple wins a bunch of home appliances and a honeymoon to the Aegean Sea.

If You Are the One regularly draws over 36 million viewers in China. Here in Australia, the Chinese dating show has developed a cult following since its introduction to SBS 2 last year. Dr Jing Han, Manager of Subtitling at SBS and translator of If You Are the One, explains the key to the show’s appeal: “All the candidates are ordinary people off the street and it is unscripted. It’s unpredictable.” For this reason the program is often discussed as a window into modern China, especially its youth. Sometimes the contestants stress traditional values of filial piety or ask about the suitor’s pay cheque so directly you choke. Candidates are often blasted for being elitist or materialistic.

Dr Han says the show not only reflects change in China but also drives it, particularly as a guide for youth. For example a current female contestant born without arms, Lei Qingyao, has become a favourite in China. “We have a girl that has taught my colleagues and I the true meaning of independence and life,” said host Meng Fei. Even animal rights have been debated, which is an issue with far less exposure in China than in Australia.

The Chinese government is well aware of the show’s effectiveness as an export, and at times it does feel propagandistic, especially when contestants argue the nuances of ethical debates (remember, this is on a dating show). If You Are the One underwent production and format changes in 2010 after controversy sparked by a contestant saying they’d “rather sit and cry in a BMW [than ride a bicycle]”.

Yet while its ideals may tow the party line, the people that appear are interesting and multifaceted, and the show itself is relevant for Australian audiences. The popularity of the program in Australia demonstrates how far we have come, according to Dr Han. “Five years ago, we never could have bought a show like this. There just wasn’t a readiness in the Australian audience … Australians are more exposed, more travelled, perhaps [with] more Chinese friends. With exposure comes readiness”.

If You Are the One is part of this exposure too, as are all translated and foreign media. Through entertainment, these programs educate us by broadening our perspectives and turning the foreign into the everyday. However, Dr Han expressed concern that cuts to SBS may endanger this cultural exchange. “I think it’s definitely a step backwards. The services that SBS provides to Australia are really quite enormous and are a shining example to other countries to see how multiculturalism helps a nation get informed and educated,” she said. “Unfortunately everything is measured by dollar value but there are benefits that can’t be measured by a dollar sign.”