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December 31, 2009

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Seven citizens look back at 2009 and share their memories

THE year of 2009, New China's 60th anniversary, is remembered not only for pride and patriotism but also for excruciatingly high housing prices, frenetic Expo preparations, resurgent reality TV shows and lots of laughs in Shanghai dialect.

There was so much going on so many levels that it's tough to sum up - so here's a tasty slice of Shanghai and China.

A silly fictional Internet persona Jia Junpeng ("Jia Junpeng, your mother wants you to come home and eat!") became a sensation nationwide while real young people struggled to make it into the spotlight of revived reality TV shows.

The funniest guy in Shanghai, stand-up comic Zhou Libo, amused thousands of Shanghai residents with his irreverent "Shanghai-style clean talk" in Shanghai dialect. One of his favorite targets is the maze of World Expo 2010 construction, snarled traffic and headaches for ordinary people - all in Shanghai dialect.

The Net, as usual, was a dominant part of life. Savvy Netizens outwitted poorly engineered "Green Dam Youth Escort," so-called anti-pornography software that couldn't tell pigs from porn - because it confuses pink pork with pink flesh. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology finally gave up on requiring pre-installed software on all computers sold in China.

Shanghai Daily interviewed many residents of different ages and backgrounds, asking them, "What did you do the most in 2009?"

Here are seven of the answers, 2009 from a people's perspective.

"In 2009, I was always hoping for more."

Leslie Zhang, an American-born Chinese, was thrilled since the beginning of the year because she wanted to join the festivities for New China's 60th anniversary. She returned with her parents in the summer of 2008 and works in a real estate company.

The 24-year-old Shanghai native was pleasantly surprised by the city's development since her last visit five years ago.

"It was such a fresh and unique feeling for me, since I had never seen a Chinese National Day parade, not to mention one in such a significant year," she says.

In late September Zhang went to Beijing with some friends to experience the parade and also watched the whole show on DVD a few times.

"I think China has started to show more to the world since the Olympics last year. It was amazing to have been at the parade this year," she says.

"We seeing China mentioned more and more all over the world, and I was always hoping foreven more."

"In 2009, I was always watching."

Wang Yaoqin retired at the beginning of the year after working for a factory for 35 years. When she first retired, Wang didn't know how to spend all her free time. Soon she got caught up in TV reality shows, especially the local show "Come on, the Whole Family," a talent show.

"I felt I was always watching some kinds of competition shows in the past year, cheering for one of the contestants," says Wang.

In 2006, TV stations all over the country launched their own reality TV shows, modeled after the hugely successful "Super Girl" singing competition. Many were vulgar, prompting the State Administration of Radio Film and Television to announce strict rules in 2008. Now they are supposed to be tasteful, they cannot be broadcast live (except for the final), they cannot be aired during prime time (7-9pm) or involve SMS supporting messages to contestants (a highly lucrative aspect of the shows).

Most people expected the shows to fade away, but they made a comeback in the past year, showcasing all kinds of creative, socially constructive ideas. Some stations streamed broadcasts online in place of prime time TV. Some made documentaries of behind-the-scene events to air in prime time before the competition.

Most reality shows today also involve more out-of-TV events, such as stage performances and promotional events in public.

"In 2009, I was always laughing."

The year of 2009 was full of laughs for Fujian Province native Chen Fuquan because of local stand-up comedian Zhou Libo and his "Shanghai-style clean talk." The 49-year-old tea shop owner considers Zhou, or Bobo, "a funny comedian who has showed me the real Shanghai and taught me a lot of Shanghai dialect."

Bobo rose to sudden stardom in late 2008 with his irreverent, daily life monologues mostly in Shanghai dialect. He also pokes fun at the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and makes amusing observations about some Chinese leaders and foreign heads of state, such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and US President Barack Obama.

His name was No. 1 in the top 10 Google searches in China in 2009.

He is currently staging his third show "Crazy for Money," a two-hour stand-up focusing on the stock market. As with earlier shows, all tickets were sold out a month in advance.

The tea shop owner Chen first saw Zhou's show at a friend's shop and found it a good way to learn Shanghai dialect. He has always wanted to speak it more fluently to be considered a local.

"I've been in Shanghai for five years, but I still feel a bit alien now and then," says Chen. "It can be difficult to become part of the local scene.

"But I was always laughing in 2009 because I play Bobo's comedy show DVD in my shop all the time. Everyone loves Bobo in Shanghai."

"In 2009, I was always copying and pasting."

Eric Lin says his proudest achievement of the past year is registering an online ID called "Jia Junpeng's primary schoolmate" on many forums.

His is the original, after him hundreds of Netizens had to register as "Jia Junpeng's primary schoolmate number XX."

"I was always copying and pasting interesting threads to all kinds of forums and there were just so many of them in the past year," says the 34-year-old IT consultant.

Jia, a fictional figure, has taken the country by storm and become the most popular phrase on the Chinese Internet overnight. The simple thread titled "Jia Junpeng, your mom wants you to go home and eat!" got 170,000 replies within six hours. Nobody knows the real Jia, but his name is everywhere and has moved from cyberspace to the real world where the name is used to advertise everything from warm socks to blood drives.

The year also witnessed the phenomenon of Internet "stir-frying - chao zuo, or sensationalizing and turning into a celebrity.

The buzzword chao means stir-fry and zuo means make.

Many young Chinese long for stardom and attention and some seek the help of chao zuo teams to create Internet buzz. Some do it themselves.

As a result all kinds of curious and often silly people, stories and pictures appear.

They get picked up and repeated until they acquire momentum and a life of their own as hundreds of thousands of Netizens like Lin keep copying and pasting their information to all kinds of forums.

"In 2009, I was always clicking."

Green Dam Youth Escort - official anti-porn software - is the first thing that comes to mind for Patsy Zhang when asked about the past year. She considers June and July, around the time the software was launched, the most exciting period of the year.

"I was always clicking on new posts about the software around that time and I felt like an Internet addict," says the 27-year-old magazine editor.

Netizens were overwhelmingly opposed to the restrictive, cumbersome and ineffective software that was supposed to protect (or escort) young minds.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology surprised Netizens by announcing the software was mandatory and had to be installed in all computers sold in China after July 1.

Within days of the directive, Netizens had tested and taken the system apart and posted all kinds of silly bugs, security loopholes and concerns about being monitored online. The software recognizes and blocks pictures with large amounts of flesh color, pink, but it blocks innocuous pictures of pink pigs.

After a few weeks, the ministry announced that pre-installation would not be mandatory and that the software was only required in Internet cafes and schools.

"It was an exciting time because it showed the power of Chinese Netizens and how our opinions influenced the government to compromise," says Zhang.

Some corrupt officials were also exposed online, prompting formal investigations. One Netizen posted pictures of a government official showing that his cigarette brand and watch are luxury products that a civil servant cannot afford. It created a stir online. The official was investigated, tried and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

The online forums have become important platforms for fair and open discussion where people can voice their opinions about everything from government policies to whether Shanghai people should stop wearing pajamas in the street for the Expo.

"In 2009, I was always waiting."

Wang Qin, a sales manager who visits clients, jokes that in the past year, he's "either waiting in traffic or getting ready to wait" in backed up traffic.

Wang, 29, who regularly drives his car for business, says World Expo construction and detours in the past year have made life difficult and frustrating.

"My impression of the past year is a long line of vehicles and a lot construction dust. If traffic in Shanghai was bad before, now it's horrible," Wang jokes.

By the time the Expo opens on May 1, everything will be completed, roads will be improved, the dust will settle and everything will be spic and span. Meantime, getting around can be difficult.

"The only good thing is that now I am quite knowledgeable about the Expo," he says. "While stuck in traffic, I was always listening to the radio or reading ads and articles about the Expo. Maybe I'll join some Expo quiz shows next year," says Wang who is both proud that Shanghai is hosting the event and annoyed by the inconvenience.

Expo billboards and promotions are everywhere, the grinning Expo mascot Haibo pops up everywhere as well. Merchants are selling the blue mascot in everything from key rings to plush figures.

Companies are linking their upcoming conferences events to Expo, advertisers promise "to attract more Expo-related clients." Travel agencies are promoting Expo travel and art exhibitions are featuring Expo-related works.

"In 2009, I was always running."

Cao Jiaming, a 27-year-old secretary, got married at the end of 2008 and still lives like a single - at home with her parents - at the end of 2009.

Without an apartment of their own, Cao and her husband still live apart and continue to live with mom and dad.

The problem: they can't afford the prices that have gone through the roof in Shanghai, a major lament of its citizens.

Cao and her husband do get together, however, and they spent a lot of time running around the city in search of "a nice space at a reasonable price."

The housing problem was dramatized in a popular TV series in which one of the main characters decides to become a government official's mistress to help her sister buy a house. The 35-episode show is called "Dwelling Narrowness" or "Snail House" - meaning the only housing people can afford is as tiny as a snail's shell.

"We thought the unreasonably high prices would go down a little in the global financial crisis, since prices are dropping around the world," Cao says. "So we decided to wait so we could get a larger apartment in a better area."

They were disappointed, like many others in Shanghai who had the same wish a year ago. Despite the predictions of many, housing prices hit a new high and new properties were bought out within weeks.

The average price of a downtown apartment, built in the last 10 years, is at least 30,000 yuan (US$4,393) per square meter. Cao and her husband are worse off in times of house hunting than a year ago.

"It's ridiculous. We borrowed 2 million yuan from our parents but you can't even find a place in Shanghai with that amount of money, which is quite a lot."

The couple has been trying to decide whether to borrow more from their parents to buy an apartment closer to the city center or buy a cheaper house in the suburbs with a car for commuting. Cao says, "In 2009, I was always running around the city looking for an apartment so we could finally live together like man and wife."


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