This is the fifteenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about appearing in a Chinese television show.
My (then) girlfriend and I walked through the shiny, tube-like mall suspended in the sky beneath Hongkou Football Stadium train station. Above or below, connected or adjacent, shopping malls accompanied most train stations in Shanghai, 2010 – and as upwards of seven million people used the train system every day, it’s no wonder. That’s some serious foot traffic and it has only increased since then.
These mini-malls usually sold things commuters could pick up cheaply and carry with them across town, items like trinkets, umbrellas, and electronics. They also invariably hosted at least one convenience store and usually a tea stall or two. We stopped at one of these to order an Oreo milkshake. Not exactly the Chinese tea cultural experience of old, but it’s decadent, affordable, and perfect for sharing.
After a small wait two of our friends arrived: Rui, a Korean-Chinese from Manchuria and Jochen, a Swiss-German from southern Germany. They were both students at Fudan University, where my girlfriend was also studying. We were going to a local pool parlor to rack up, shoot some balls and wait for the cameras: this morning we were going to be on Chinese TV.
I had only been on broadcast TV a few times before and was gearing up for another brush with fame. This could be it! Will the producers be there? Will they see something special in me?
Could I be … the Neon Demon?
“The show is called, well, it means something like lightning exchange,” Rui said as he blazed the trail to the pool hall in font of us, intently navigating on his smart-phone.
“I guess we won’t be on for very long then,” I quipped. Oh, sweet memorable dialogue.
“I don’t know,” responded Rui absently. Shot down.
We’re all very curious about the day’s adventures, and as Rui is the only one of us who has lived in Shanghai for longer than two months, he’s the man with the most information.
“It is like reality TV,” says Rui, “they give money to charity. It is very famous in China”.
After ten minutes of hustling along we strolled into the pool parlor. It was quite a fancy affair, a mixture of bright lights, glittering decorations, plush carpet and faux-gold trimmings, populated by legions of teenagers drinking sodas and shooting pockets to Chinese pop music. This was a far call from the pool venues I frequent in Australia, especially the dingy, chiaroscuro, soft Jazz digs of my favourite venue in Melbourne, the Red Triangle of Fitzroy.
A woman was waiting at the table closest to the entrance. When she spotted us enter she beckoned us over. Young and unashamedly hip, wearing a slightly-tilted black beret, a thin layer of make-up and outrageously cute shoes, she was also carrying, oddly, a Harley Davidson motorcycle helmet. She entered into a passionate discussion with Rui in Mandarin that culminated in the woman spontaneously throwing the Harley Davidson helmet at Rui and running out of the hall. Whoa.
It was bizarre behaviour and, being ever-vigilant, I quickly scanned the crowds for TV cameras. Maybe we had already stumbled into some kind of candid camera scenario and would soon be surrounded by fake Chinese police claiming we had stolen the helmet? My imagination ran wild as I spotted cameras everywhere – in that lady’s handbag, in that vending machine, over there on that dude’s giant hat. But nothing happened. We were not on TV just yet.
Rui sat down with the helmet and stared at the billiards tables gloomily.
“You can play, it has all been paid for,” he motioned to the closest table.
“What did that girl say?” one of us asked, uttering what we were all wondering. Although we were all studying Mandarin, we weren’t very good at this stage.
“We should play pool, and soon the TV crew will come with Annie Yi. Jochen gives them the helmet, but not quickly. They will swap it with you for something else. You have to say it is worth 6000 yuan,” Rui stated glumly, “actually I’m disappointed. I thought this TV show was real.”
There was a pause as we digested this information. Fake reality TV. Of course. For me, it was even better. Now we had forewarning.
I racked up the balls and began shooting, hoping to get my eye in. If I was going to be filmed playing pool on Chinese TV, I might as well be filmed playing it well. The situation was still a little bit confusing and we deliberated on just how hesitant Jochen should be to let this strange Annie Yi take the new helmet away from him.
My girlfriend suggested that Jochen should ask for a kiss in return, to great agreement from myself. We played pool and Rui continued to brood about his disappointment that reality TV is actually highly orchestrated. Five minutes later we were bombarded by people, by light and by cameras. It was over in fifteen minutes.
The next day, a summary appeared on the TV show’s website. Here is the accompanying wonderful translation:
The physical process of a foreigner’s tragic kiss: How is Annie to deal with this?
Annie met in the billiard hall four of Germany’s foreign friends, who promised them that if Annie could meet their request, they will exchange her several thousand dollars worth of genuine Harley-Davidson motorcycle helmet! However, the requirement is to kiss the German’s lips! Annie, immediately surprised, said there is to be a snooker tournament. If Annie and co-host win, then the German must kiss co-host; if he loses, he can kiss Annie’s lips!
Oh dear! Good heavens! It continues:
Mended to Annie’s very poor playing, Annie “die a tragic death,” but the magic scene appeared by virtue of co-host’s “superb” game, they win the game, and the kiss chase scene played as a German friend laughed and turned one around.
Two weeks later Jochen, my girlfriend and I bought some donuts, vodka and fruit and settled down in Jochen’s spacious terrace house to watch the show. By this time we had learned all about Annie Yi, the famous Taiwanese pop star we met, and the concept behind lightning exchange. But the really pressing questions still hadn’t been answered, such as, how will we all look on television? What will the Chinese world say about “Germany’s foreign friends”?
You may form your own opinions … oh to be twenty-four again.