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February 5, 2010

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At last, a zesty grassroots gala with folks doing their thing

TWO years ago when migrant Lao Meng was watching China Central Television's (CCTV) starry and glitzy Chinese Lunar New Year's Eve Gala Show during his lonely holiday in Beijing, he had a brainstorm.

Why not make his own cool, grassroots shanzhai (copycat) Spring Festival Gala Show with real people from around China, shanzhai that really rocks? A live, unpolished grassroots show online? A relaxed and pungent parody instead of an extravaganza?

After all, the 36-year-old was a creative director, event planner and producer of wedding videos. He moved to Beijing from Sichuan Province seven years ago.

It failed last year, but this year it's on - this time with official blessing - live, online and simultaneous with CCTV.

Shanzhai, now a buzzword, refers to knock-offs of fancy brands, such as cell phones, and copycat versions of people, TV shows, events, art and other things.

Lao Meng's show, without MCs, will feature ordinary people from around the country in a casual atmosphere, singing and dancing, doing their thing, demonstrating folk arts and skills, putting on comedy routines, making music by banging on ceramic bowls and otherwise putting on a show. Some will tell touching stories.

Lao Meng, whose real name is Shi Meng, got an enthusiastic response last year and a huge amount of David-and-Goliath media exposure about an alternative show, a gutsy rival to CCTV that has broadcast the four-hour show - some would say ordeal - for 27 years since 1983.

Lao Meng got backers, advertising and lots of wanna-be performers for auditions.

In the end, it was never broadcast, probably because it generated too much media hype. Lao Meng did not receive permission to air it either on provincial satellite TV or online.

Supporters withdrew at the last minute. The shanzhai show was performed but the only show Chinese people saw were a few scenes broadcast after the event on no-account Websites.

This year Lao Meng has permission for a live online broadcast on from 8pm to midnight - the same hours as CCTV. It will be called CCSTV, China Central Shanzhai Television.

For people all over China, it's a tradition to gather together and watch the predictable CCTV medley to ring in the Lunar New Year. Last year an estimated 396 million people viewed it in China, 3 percent more than in 2008. Around 1 billion viewed it worldwide and online. The US Superbowl gets around 100 million viewers.

However, for Lao Meng and others, the four-plus hours of scripted singing and dancing by big names, acrobatic shows, mini comedies and chitchat get tedious.

"It doesn't mean the gala show is terrible or vulgar, but it's impossible for any TV producer to make a fresh program that appeals to all tastes, particularly in such a big country like China," Lao Meng tells Shanghai Daily.

"The CCTV gala has undoubtedly become a custom for many, just like dumplings and spring rolls to northern Chinese people during the holiday," he says. "What we're trying to do is offer our audience more choices for the celebration, even though it is just a dish of pungent pickles or tofu." A zesty parody.

Beijing's local administration of culture didn't approve, he says.

"This prompted me to improve communication with government officials to get their understanding and support," Lao Meng recalls.

In December 2009, Lao Meng and his team finally received official approval from relevant media and culture departments to host the first online grassroots gala on Chinese New Year's Eve.

He received applications for 400 acts by folk artists and ordinary Netizens. He has selected more than 20 original and fun shows, including folk songs, magic, comedy-drama, a fashion show, Peking Opera, calligraphy and extraordinary folk arts and skills. There's a percussion show that makes music on ceramic bowls.

"We have spent months collecting programs from all over the country," he says. "Some acts are recommended by Netizens. Our gala will feature grassroots performers instead of big stars. They charge nothing more than a platform to showcase their talent."

Compared with the CCTV gala, Lao Meng's shanzhai show will be more casual, natural and funny. He plans to turn it into a variety show without anchors.

All of the acts will be performed in a studio seating several hundred people in Beijing from 8pm on February 13. Netizens can interact and share their own ideas about celebrating the New Year.

The gala could be a stepping stone into musical entertainment for some ordinary folks, including a nondescript 40-year-old woman, described as a Chinese counterpart to instant celebrity Susan Boye from the UK, and a man in his 20s with a severe spinal condition.

"In addition to their performance, their touching stories will be told for the first time in our gala," Lao Meng says.

The gala has received sponsorship from some enterprises in Beijing. Lao Meng doesn't elaborate, except to say that it takes a lot of money to host a gala like this.

"We are trying to make our online parody a long-term brand," he explains. "All proceeds will fund future shanzhai galas. I hope that these folk Spring Festival galas will become another tradition for ordinary Chinese people, as common as guessing lantern riddles and dragon boat racing."


The only live performance alternative on New Year's Eve is Lao Meng's online shanzhai gala.

The next day regional television will broadcast their own shows.

For the first time, Beijing Television Station will collaborate with to host a pre-recorded star-studded Internet gala throughout the week. Since its launch two months ago, organizers have collected many ideas from Netizens.

Comedian Xiao Shenyang, Hong Kong singing powerhouse Jacky Cheung and grassroots Michael Jackson imitation teams will perform and have online chats with Netizens.

Additionally, a hilarious video collection has also been launched on By February 10, Netizens can upload their funny, original mini shows or video parodies of celebrities and stars. Based on Internet vote, winners can receive up to 10,000 yuan (US$1,465) in cash.

CCTV standard

Compared with new online and regional TV galas, CCTV hasn't changed its show, except this year it will be broadcast on the video Website

Shanghai stand-up comedian Zhou Libo has declined an invitation (he only performs in Shanghainese), and many of comedy skits will be performed by well-known northern Chinese actors such as Huang Hong and Zhao Benshan.

Highlights include singer Faye Wong, the Taiwanese band The Little Tigers (who return to the stage after an absence of more than a decade) and Lu Chen's magic performance.

According to Yuan Dewang, a former chief director of the gala, it's a dilemma to highlight both tradition and innovation in such a big project.

"Most of the candidate acts go through five rounds of screening from veteran CCTV producers and government officials to ensure the high quality of the gala," Yuan says. "Even the director himself doesn't has the right to change the repertoire. It is always a team production.

Expert view

Media and culture experts say the emergence of grassroots online galas can help inject vitality into the Lunar New Year's celebration.

Professor Wu Gang, a media expert from East China Normal University, says many people have been disappointed by the CCTV gala's glitzy but stale programing over the years, but they had no alternative.

"To cater to a big nationwide audience, the gala is actually a medley that simply repeats its schemes and design year after year," Wu says. "Now the ritual gala faces big challenges from folk and Internet shows.

"I don't think competition and cultural diversity are bad. It's time for media tycoons and other TV stations to listen to the hearts of the grassroots people and present more creative and original programs - otherwise they will lose their appeal among Internet users," he adds. Shanzhai knock-offs, parodies Shanzhai, one of the latest buzzwords, refers to imitation, copycat, counterfeit, sometimes pirated goods, especially electronics, such as big-selling knock-off mobile phones. It can also mean tacky or inventive look-alikes and parodies.

It's a people's edition of high-end stuff.

Shanzhai literally means mountain village or mountain stronghold, referring to fortresses away from official control in ancient times.

It first referred to cheap, knock-off cell phones manufactured in the mountains of Guangdong Province in the past few years. They are exactly like branded genuine articles, sometimes with more functions and easier to use.

Today shanzhai has become a cultural phenomenon and can refer to people and events that are look-alikes, low-quality or improved goods, as well as parodies. It can mean copy or it can mean innovation.

It carries the connotation of challenging the mainstream. Local producers of shanzhai cell phones, for example, challenge domination of the market by multinationals.

The term suggests Chinese-style innovation with a grassroots mindset. It can imitate high-end products or events in which grassroots people do not share or participate.

Here are some well-known shanzhai products:

Shanzhai cell phones (such as Golden Apple Star Phone and Tianyu Cell Phone)

They look exactly like the original branded products but cost far less than the genuine article. They often have more functions than more expensive phones and are very easy to use.

Shanzhai TV drama

Hunan Satellite TV's "Meteor Rain" is considered a shanzhai Chinese mainland version of Taiwan's TV hit "Meteor Garden," which became hugely popular eight years ago. The new F4 "Superboys" in the instant-stardom drama include "Happy Boy" finalists Yu Haoming and Wei Chen. But the new copycat version was sharply criticized for too much imitation, poor acting and ridiculous dialogue.

Shanzhai stars

Last year a martial arts comedy film "Tracing Shadow" by Hong Kong star Francis Ng assembled grassroots shanzhai stars whose faces and builds were similar to those of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Andy Lau and Jay Chou. Viewers burst into laughter when they showed up on the screen all of a sudden.

Shanzhai stadium

Even the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games venues such as the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube have their smaller shanzhai editions, such as the Bird's Nest in Beijing's Ditan Park. Choosing among New Year shows Questions: What are you doing for Lunar New Year's Eve? What do you think of the CCTV gala? Will you watch alternative shanzhai shows on regional satellite TV or online?


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