What do an eccentric British detective, a cut-throat Washington pol and a bunch of nerds at Caltech have in common?
They are characters in some of the most popular foreign TV shows in China.
Over the past five years, The Big Bang Theory alone has been streamed more than 1.3 billion times. To appreciate how much some young Chinese love the BBC series, Sherlock, step inside 221B Baker Street. That’s Holmes’ fictitious address in London as well as the name of a café that opened last year in Shanghai’s former French Concession.
Good luck, though, finding a table.
“Business has been very good since the premier of the third season,” says Eric Zhang, the café’s twenty-seven-year-old owner. “People have to line up or make reservations in advance on Saturday and Sunday, otherwise they can’t get a seat.”
Like many young people here, Zhang grew up reading the detective classics by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, translated into Chinese. Zhang says his father is a detective and used to share murder, smuggling and arson cases with him.
“Actually, I aspired to be a policeman,” says Zhang, “but I didn’t pass the physical and opened a café instead.”
The café – all wood and leather — is drenched in Sherlock paraphernalia. On the wall next to the bar are hand-written, Sherlock plot-lines. By the window sits a tableful of what is supposed to be Dr. Watson’s medical equipment, including a microscope and old glass syringes retrieved from the basement of a Chinese hospital. On the bookshelves sit seemingly endless photos of Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Holmes in the series. Zhang explains the shrine-like treatment of the British actor.
“To tell you the truth, girls are especially fond of him,” says Zhang. “He has personal charm. It’s irresistible.”
Indeed, nearly every customer here today is female. Tina Zhou, 25, works for a Chinese state-owned company. She says Cumberbatch – whose Chinese nickname is “Curly Fu,” a reference to his hair — plays a great Holmes.
“He combines all these qualities,” she says. “He’s intelligent, pretty humorous, has a sort of a dry humor. He’s charming, talented. He carries himself in an elegant way. A gentleman.”
If many young women here can’t take their eyes off Cumberbatch, millions of other Chinese are transfixed by a very different foreign TV character, Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian politician at the center of Netflix’s House of Cards.
The series, which debuted here on Valentine’s Day, is the hottest foreign TV show in China right now with more than 83 million streams. Andrew Jiang, who binge-watched all 13 episodes in a single day, thinks House of Cards may be more interesting to Chinese than Americans.
“Because you get this kind of political drama all the time,” he says, “while in China, there is no political drama.”
The Communist Party would never allow such a dark portrayal of its own politics, and when China does produce political dramas, Jiang says, they tend to be period pieces filled with stock characters.
“Everyone is like a hero and everyone is like a great statesman,” Jiang says. “It’s just propaganda, but in House of Cards, what you are going to see is the sausage-making process.”
Jiang, who grew up in Beijing and is now a law student in Illinois, says another attraction to this season is its China storyline. The plot features Xander Feng, a corrupt Chinese businessman with close ties to the Communist Party who’s trying to cut a secret deal with the White House. In one scene, he tells a U.S. official that Washington should reinstate a lawsuit to continue to put pressure on China to allow its currency to rise.
“When you do, there will be those on the [Politburo] standing committee who will protest,” Feng tells Underwood’s chief of staff, “but I will handle them. The majority want reform.”
The plot point is far-fetched, but Jiang says it illustrates a political truth: the Communist Party is anything but monolithic.
“This shows American people and all those freshmen congressmen who don’t know too much about Chinese politics, actually, there is division,” says Jiang.
Dwarfing Sherlock and House of Cards in longevity and overall popularity here is The Big Bang Theory, which for many young Chinese became must-see TV, usually streamed on a computer or iPad. A big reason is because many identify with the main characters: nerdy science guys.
The show has been a big hit with Chinese college students, who are more bookish than their American counterparts. When Yu Wenting attended Sichuan University a few years back, she says many of her classmates were just like The Big Bang Theory’s lead characters, Sheldon and Leonard.
“They themselves were having exactly the same issue as the guys in the show, of finding girlfriends and talking to girls, because their life is full of work and lacks a social aspect,” Yu says.
Young Chinese recognize other traits in the cast, such as Sheldon’s self-absorption. In one scene, Sheldon becomes irritated with next door neighbor Penny for giving him a Christmas present, which he sees as an imposition.
“I know you think you’re being generous, but the foundation of gift-giving is reciprocity,” says Sheldon, played by Jim Parsons. “You haven’t given me a gift. You’ve given me an obligation.”
Dan, a grad student in southeast China’s Jiangxi province, says Sheldon’s self-centered nature reminds her of many only children in China.
“After the one-child policy began in China, there are many single children,” Dan says. “They grew up in an environment without many siblings, so they all — to some extent — regard themselves as infallible.”
The Big Bang Theory — now in its seventh season — is losing some of its appeal here. People say the writers seem to be running out of gas, but newer foreign shows are coming along, attracting audiences. Young Chinese are increasingly drawn to an eclectic mix, which includes 2 Broke Girls, The Vampire Diaries and Masters of Sex.