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America From Abroad : Beijing TV Loves New York--Sort of : A new soap opera captures China's conflicting feelings and fascination with all things American.

September 28, 1993|ELISABETH GRINSPOON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIJING — The television soap opera opens with the young Chinese couple--a concert cellist and his doctor wife--sitting lost and forlorn on their suitcases in a chaotic arrival area of New York's John F. Kennedy Airport.

It ends 21 heart-wrenching episodes later--after two divorces and two bankruptcies--on a telling note: "If you love her, send her to New York, for there it is heaven; if you hate her, send her to New York, for there it is hell."

The prime-time, nightly serial, entitled "A Beijinger in New York," began Sunday on the national, state-run China Central Television network.

The first Chinese-made television series set and filmed in the United States (sometimes using clandestine cameras to avoid U.S. production fees), "A Beijinger in New York" traces the ups and downs of a poorly paid but respected cellist from Beijing who leaves the security of socialist China for the potential paradise/potential hell of ultra-capitalist New York. In many ways, it is a play within a play, an electronic allegory for the love-hate spectrum that has colored Sino-American relations for the last half-century.

Starring one of China's most popular young actors, Jiang Wen, "A Beijinger in New York" seems destined to become a a mega-hit among China's 800 million TV viewers--the biggest national television audience in the world.

Reflecting the new market-oriented bent of the Chinese entertainment industry, the series was partly subsidized by several large advertisers, including Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and the British- American Tobacco Co. The tobacco company's "555" brand cigarettes, which are popular here, are salted liberally throughout each episode.

Even before the new series made its debut, it had spawned a quickly produced imitator on a rival television network. Beijing Television, the slicker, more market-driven Chinese national network, unveiled its version, a made-for-TV movie entitled "Love in New York" only three days before the more elaborate Central Chinese Television serial.

Like "Beijinger," the imitator opens in Kennedy Airport and features the trials of a young couple, in this case an artist and his wife. But the action in "Love in New York" is even more turbulent; in the course of his unhappy stay in New York, the artist hero is beaten up, arrested for wife abuse, jailed and also forced to walk the streets naked after a mugger steals his clothes.

It will be weeks before state television polling specialists can measure the size of the viewing audience for "A Beijinger in New York." To date, China has no instantaneous version of the Nielsen ratings.

But the series' producers and financial backers are banking on what has become the one sure bet in the fledgling Chinese commercial film and television industry.

Despite political tiffs between the U.S. and Chinese governments over issues ranging from textiles to arms proliferation, the fascination of Chinese people for anything American knows no limits. The thousands of would-be Chinese immigrants who seek American shores on dangerous, listing freighters is only the advance guard of a national preoccupation.

America, at least among the Chinese masses, is an obsession.

Even one Chinese cultural official, who two decades ago would have barred the new show from being broadcast, admitted after seeing a preview screening of the series: "Everyone has the American dream, but we still don't know what that place is really like."

Chinese entrepreneurs have discovered the insatiable appetite for anything American or even for the pseudo-American. For example, the nationwide fast-food chain, California Beef Noodles USA, is one of the fastest growing in China. Its attraction is its American name, but it actually has nothing to do with California, the U.S.A. or, for that matter, beef.

Many of the more profound misconceptions about America are mutant byproducts of the Hollywood dream machine and the Chinese propaganda apparatus.

From the beginning of Communist rule in the late 1940s through the 1970s, Americans were commonly depicted in posters, books and newspapers by caricatures featuring white faces and big noses. Big nose came to symbolize a mean and dumb person.

Like others in his generation who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when anti-American propaganda was at its strongest, actor Jiang Wen's early images of America were negative.

"All of my first impressions were those of enemies, because all of the movies on television were of Chinese soldiers fighting American soldiers," the 30-year-old star of several Chinese Fifth Generation or New Wave films, said in an interview. Jiang's father fought against Americans in the Korean War.

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