Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Going Gaga

People in the West are still under the short-sighted impression that China exists under the iron fist of dictatorship, an observation which is frankly distorted. Chinese life is far more vibrant than foreigners might think; in fact, one of the things that impresses me most about China is its open-mindedness of a breed that Westerners often fail to match.

During the recent Mid-Autumn Festival, I saw a video that seemed to capture that spirit. In our Chinese family home in Saigon, Vietnam, we pick up several satellite channels from the mainland, including the popular Hunan TV. I actually participated in a Hunan TV production while living in China, singing a cutesy Teresa Teng ballad with a transvestite on a Kung-fu show (another story which shall be told another time) and am quite familiar with the whacky nature of its programming; it's the home of what is arguably the most famous popular reality show in the country Supergirl (now cancelled for being "too long"), which was something of the nature of American Idol except for the fact that it was broadcast for days on end, resulting in intense, obsessive empathy with the contestants and a resulting explosion in fame for the winners. In Saigon, I regularly observe the head-shakingly odd dating shows where gloriously gorgeous and bratty Chinese super-beauties match suitors against impossible lists of preconditions for marriage. Unlike ABC's The Bachelor, successful couples often do get married, under the approval of the contestants' mothers who actually participate in the show as well.

This particular piece was part of the mid-autumn festival celebrations, and featured an assortment of senior citizens native to Hunan singing a version of a well-known Lady Gaga anthem Bad Romance. I was stunned, if only for the fact that their performance seemed incongruous with the original hit, with lyrics that would seem to preclude such a cheerful rearrangement (I want your ugly, I want your disease... I want your psycho, your vertical stick...). The Chinese version told instead of how the oldies, missing their busy children out in the workforce, were performing to "Go Gaga" to get their attention - the word "Gaga" here being a play on the word for "grandma" in their native dialect. "Going Gaga" thus not only showed off the fact that they could animate themselves to celebrate a cultural meme of the modern world - something entirely alien to their own Cultural Revolution generation - but also prick the guilty conscience of errant sons too busy to spend time with their "Gaga" old parents.

It took about a day for a video of the performance to be published online by local sites - everything on almost every Chinese channel gets ripped and put online within hours - and the piece lao lai qiao Gaga emerged on tuduo.com, youku.com, and dvod.com for Chinese viewers. I republished the video on my youtube channel for the benefit of family and facebook friends, not expecting that it would end up attracting many thousands of Western viewers equally curious about the unusual cultural mash-up represented by the performance.

Lao Lai Qiao Gaga perhaps represents the Chinese ability to spot an opportunity for fun between contrasting opposites; the ability of Chinese people to cheer on others who have different tastes and aesthetic viewpoints to their own, and the disregard of Western preoccupations with creative license, strict market segmentation, and overly conservative notions of what constitutes fair use out of copyright.

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