Looking for Love
One of the most popular soap operas in China can’t be watched on CCTV or even a television.
Instead it’s found on the popular China blog, Danwei.org as well as on YouTube, where the short, wryly funny episodes of Sexy Bejing record the ups and downs of a Twenty-something Jewish-American woman’s search for love in a land of 1.3 billion.
Since April 2006, hundreds of thousands of viewers from around the world have followed Anna Sophie Loewenberg’s hunt for a husband from Beijing’s alleyways (“Is there anybody in this alley who might like me? Because, I can’t seem to find a boyfriend,” she asks an elderly Chinese man. “Yeah, right,” another alley denizen cracks. “Looking at you I’d say your kids are grown, too”), to the countryside and even, in an episode titled “Jew Brew,” to the only mikvah (Orthodox Jewish ritual bath house) in Beijing.
Not bad for a show with subtitles, English for the non-Mandarin speaking audience and Chinese for her non-English speaking fans. Modeled loosely after Sex and the City, the debut episode, “Searching for Double Happiness” had 400,000 hits. And especially ground breaking for a woman whose Chinese name, Su Fei, is also a popular brand of Chinese feminine napkins.
Loewenberg, a native Californian, has lived in Beijing since 1996 and speaks fluent Mandarin. She blames a Norwegian novel, Sophie’s World, that became wildly popular in China after it was translated and pirated for the coincidence that led to her Chinese name.
“I really don’t know that much about the book,” she said, “except that it was a huge hit and on all the pirate bookstands. I saw the Su Fei characters, which sounds like Sophie, so that’s how I got it. Then the maxi-pads came out and I thought: ‘How can people steal my name? I was pissed. It was the exact same characters. But the truth is I use Su Fei,so that’s okay. Lots of Su Fei things became popular. It doesn’t mean anything really, I just think the name seemed western to Chinese people.”
The Sex and the City model – seen in the introduction and on her wry voiceovers – came about, Loewenberg said, because of her passing resemblance to the star, Sarah Jessica Parker, and because of the show’s wild popularity with young, white-collar Chinese women.
Sexy Beijing is not a one-woman affair, however. In addition to the non-acting Chinese and foreigners alike whom she interviews and spontaneously interacts with, behind the scenes and cameras are collaborators, Danwei founder Jeremy Goldkorn and another old friend of hers, Luke Mines. All three also produce other short, snappy China-related documentaries for Danwei TV on subjects ranging from African soccer in Bejing to a slice of Hong Kong literary and cultural history involving a wall in the city’s Lan Kwai Fong nightclub district and the esteemed late Chinese novelist Eileen Chang.
Goldkorn and Loewenberg met in the late 1990s when they both worked on a now-defunct entertainment and pop culture magazine called Beijing Scene. Loewenberg, also a punk rock enthusiast and musician who played bass for a short-lived Beijing punk band, covered entertainment and Goldkorn was the editor until what Loewenberg called “a gray area” involving the magazine’s lack of licensing found the staff reporting to work one morning to find their office stripped of equipment and furniture.
No matter, Better days were ahead. Loewenberg bounced back and forth between the United States and China making documentaries for the Public Broadcasting Corporation and in late 2005 she, Mines and Goldkorn decided, roughly in the spirit of the old Andy Hardy “Let’s put on a show!” movies, or in the more contemporary Internet start-up mode, to start a company.
Danwei TV was born. “We didn’t know what direction things would go,’’ she said. “We just basically said we would put out a new episode of Danwei TV every week and we all had to do all this for nothing because we needed to establish the show first. We talked about what might be interesting ways to do stories and our own lives – all three of us are single – and Sexy Beijing came out of this.’’
She said she’s received some marriage proposals via email and lots of raves, particularly from Chinese-American college students as well as some native Chinese and, yes, some weirdos like “Rob” who wrote to say he loved the show and wanted to “lick me like a cream cheese bagel. Luke and Jeremy still tease me about that.’’
“I tend not to reply to people that much because I don’t know if they’re psycho or not,” Loewenberg said. ‘’Otherwise there is a lot of buzz out there but as of yet we haven’t made any deals. Sony loved our stuff and loved our ideas and were talking about using some for iPod and cell phone content. The shows are a perfect way to understand what is really going on in China but making the leap to the American media is a big one. Subtitles are a very big leap.
“But,” she added, “One of our shows, Weddings Gone Wild, will be on an NBC local affiliate in Los Angeles later this month. So who knows? We might find the right fit and someday I might find the right guy.’’