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December 25, 2011

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'China's Got Talent' scrapes bottom of barrel

'China's Got Talent' may be No. 1 in Shanghai and No. 2 in China but it's off the charts when it comes to weird, tacky, fake and gross - like eating live loaches. Still, the finals will be a lot of laughs. Xu Wei reports.

It's that season again - no, not Christmas - it's the loony finals season for "China's Got Talent," back for a third season of weird and whacky star wannabes.

One contestant eats live loaches (bottom-feeding fish), one sings while lifting a table in his teeth; one sets off fireworks on his almost-naked body; one breaks 40 big jars using two fingers; it's a bit bloody. There's definitely a side-show feeling to all this, it's like the circus came to town.

Oh, and a UK expat, 29-year-old Iain Inglis (Chinese name Yi'en) dresses in a Red Army costume, holds a little red book of Chairman Mao's quotations and does a song and dance medley of "red" revolutionary songs praising the Communist Party of China and Chairman Mao. They include "Socialism is Great" and "Sparkling Red Star."

A self-proclaimed kung fu practitioner smashes through specially constructed bricks that instantly yield to his fist. He also repeatedly smacks his daughter's arm with a stick - he says she too is a kung fu student and her body is hardened to pain.

There's a trio of singing monks - two were street performers and talent show wannabes, but they got so depressed they couldn't make money that they became monks.

Then there are magicians, singers and dancers who are not too unusual.

So if you want laughs, it's time to tune in.

On Sundays at 9pm viewers can see reruns of elimination rounds on Dragon TV, including some strange acts; semifinals will be aired in mid January. The final will be aired January 31 in a three-hour show in the Mercedes-Benz Arena.

Dragon TV purchased the "Got Talent" format for three years; a fourth season is planned next October. The high frequency of scheduling means pickings are getting pretty thin.

"Got Talent" was supposed to be a showcase for grassroots talent with touching stories; it has become known for its freaky acts, like the armless pianist, the first season's champion whose act is indeed awe-inspiring. Then there was the vegetable vendor who wrote "vegetable" lyrics for Italian arias that she sang. Last year there was a self-taught body-pop dancer and China's "Susan Boyle" - among the better acts.

This time recruitment opened to a lot more competitors; 30 recruitment stations were set up across the country, including in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

The consensus is that casting the net wider really hasn't helped; there's no knock-your-socks-off talent, though there are magicians and somewhat more polished singers and dancers - and still the quirky stuff keeps coming.

Fan Yong, an IT professional in his 30s, says the Sunday night show bores him.

"There are so many fakes and silly skills," Fan says. "I don't know how they made it past early elimination. What should be a showcase for dreams and passions has been abused by people seeking quick fame and fortune."

Also, with more professionals in magic and somewhat more polished singers and dancers taking part, some of that grassroots, diamond-in-the-rough appeal is fading.

Lu Wei, a spokesman for the show, admits they were scrambling for time and only had around two months to prepare for this season.

"In following episodes, we will explore the contestants' hidden emotions and the special personal experiences behind their stunts," Lu says. "The audience likes it more when stunts are combined with stories and dreams."

Observers say the frequency of the shows may cause audience fatigue and make it difficult to find genuine talent.

Li Tian, a veteran TV expert, points out that TV shows rise and fall all the time.

"Weird, odd and controversial skills are also found in popular Western TV shows like 'American Idol' and 'Britain's Got Talent'," Li adds. "These shows have a large and loyal fan base. People don't have to be too serious and picky for this kind of entertainment."

He warns local directors to be careful about quality, saying that even though stunts may not be amazing, the human stories behind them can be interesting.

Crazy and unsafe

Yan Guoqing from Henan Province vowed to break the Guinness World Records of breaking 40 big bowls using two fingers within 60 seconds. Yan made it in 46 seconds; there was a bit of blood. Many people said the stunt was boring and without any value.

Chen Guizhong, a man in his 50s from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, was trying to sing while raising a big table with his teeth. The act was considered frightening and he didn't advance to the next round.

The audience screamed when one contestant ate live loaches and another set firecrackers off on his nearly naked body.

What surprised both the judges and the audience was a contestant who asked people to punch his belly, promising 30,000 yuan (US$4,732) to anyone who could hurt him.

"Most stunts have no connection with people's dreams; they're just a way to gain quick and wide publicity," says TV viewer Xu Ziyan, a retired teacher. "Talents like that are neither inspiring nor amazing. Some are very disgusting."


A trio of Buddhist monks, the Buddha's End Band, from a temple in Zhejiang Province sang the "Song of the Wanderer" accompanied by guitar and wooden fish, a Buddhist percussion instrument.

After the episode was aired, Internet users delved into their background and found out that two of the "monks" were regular entrants on entertainment shows.

Organizers explained that the two men did have experience in street performance and entertainment shows. But when fame eluded them, they were so discouraged that they entered a monastery earlier this year.

The UK contestant Inglis performed "red songs" of patriotism and revolution in a song-and-dance routine.

He wore an army uniform and held the little red book of Chairman Mao's quotations. A current "red song" campaign in China encourages people to renew their patriotism.

Inglis has lived in China for seven years and is married to a Chinese. He says his aim is to become a "red songs talent" promoting the songs to a younger generation.

While older Chinese viewers tended to like the performance, many younger people thought it was simply weird.

"It's just a hilarious performance and it's not creative or incredibly talented," says an Internet user named Tomato.

"The guy just does something foreigners didn't do before."

Faking it

There's nothing new about fakes or meaningless feats on "China's Got Talent." In the past, one fellow walked on specially made broken glass. Another pulled vegetables and meat from fire in a pan, without burning his fingers.

Shanghai stand-up comedian Zhou Libo is one of the judges who also is supposed to expose fakes on the show. He too walked on glass and remained safe, revealing this kind of stunt is just a fake.

A man claiming to be a martial arts expert from Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, brought along what he said was a famous Song Dynasty (960-1279) book about traditional Shaolin kung fu "Yi Jin Jing." He then claimed to be able to cleave heavy stone plates or bricks with the side of his hand or his head. But when judge Zhou jumped onto the stage and managed to split these specially made "stone" plates which came apart quickly and neatly, the man was mortified and remained silent.

A construction worker from Anhui Province says that he can stop a rotating grinding wheel with his hands even when his eyes are covered.

But this was later demonstrated to be easier than thought (though still dangerous) because it can be mastered with practice, finding the right place on the gears to place the hands.

Previous winners

First season:
Liu Wei, an armless pianist from Beijing touched a nation of viewers with his perseverance and an optimistic attitude after he lost his arms in an accident. He plays melodies with his feet. "I have only two options - I can die as fast as possible, or I can live a brilliant life. And I choose to live."

Zhang Fengxi, a local primary school student, amused the television audience with her stand-up comedy. Some people compared her Shanghai-dialect comedy with that of famous stand-up comedian and one of the "China's Got Talent" judges Zhou Libo.

Second season:
Zhuo Jun, the only college student from his village in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, delighted the audience with his robotic "pop dancing" of muscular jerks, or pops. He taught himself by watching videos on the Internet.

Cai Hongping, a middle-aged vegetable seller in a Shanghai wet market, has been called Auntie Sweetie or China's Susan Boyle. Cai sang "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's "Turandot" using lyrics about vegetables.

Chinese-American street performer and acrobat Isaac Hou manipulates crystal ball, making it seem to float between his fingers and roll along his arms and shoulders. He also performs with a Cyr wheel, a large, man-size hoop.


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