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PALM LATITUDES

THE BIZ : Pulling Down the Great Walls

April 11, 1993|Kathleen Moloney

In her first year on the air, Cheng Pei Pei covered such topics as interracial marriage, plastic surgery, spousal abuse, Hollywood stereotyping and gay and lesbian issues. A typical talk show? Not really. For one thing, "Pei Pei's Time" is telecast in Mandarin. For another, the discussions were about how those issues affect the Chinese community, making it a breakthrough show in a culture not known for full disclosure.

"Chinese people are very shy," says Pei Pei, whose roles in Hong Kong kick-flicks earned her celebrity status all over Asia. "They don't like to discuss personal problems or family matters on television. They never want to admit they have gay people in their society or that a husband beats his wife. But Chinese people have to know these are normal problems of life and it's OK to talk about them."

And they do, on "Pei Pei's Time." Taped in front of an audience at KSCI in West Los Angeles, the show airs locally at 3 p.m. Mondays, and globally in 38 countries across Asia. An estimated 4 million people worldwide--266,000 in Los Angeles--watch Pei Pei coax her guests into discussing issues that have long been considered taboo among Chinese. In one show, Pei Pei and two young men discussed the problems facing gay Chinese-Americans.

"In China, even 15 years ago, if you were gay it was assumed you were mentally ill," says Elizabeth Hong Yang, a producer of the show, which was launched in November, 1991. "After the show, we got letters from homosexuals thanking us. Many said it will open the eyes of traditional Chinese people and bring them to see homosexuals as people, not monsters."

Another edition explored the growing popularity of cosmetic surgery. "Many traditional Chinese believe to have plastic surgery is cultural suicide," Yang says. "But most of our viewers didn't agree with that viewpoint."

Pei Pei, who was born in Shanghai and came to Los Angeles in 1970 after marrying a Chinese-American businessman, says she sees her show as "a bridge that helps new immigrants understand their new homeland. And people throughout Asia are watching and getting insight into life in America for Chinese people. We may be shattering illusions, but at least it's real. This show is about the reality of life here in Los Angeles."

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