January 20, 2010

Chinese soap highlights housing issue- Snail House: A Tale of Modern China

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An adv for the Chinese TV show

The hottest primetime soap opera in China has a few things that won’t surprise you: infidelity, crooked business deals and… a housing bubble? Scott Tong reports on China’s “Snail House.”


Kai Ryssdal: The hottest primetime soap opera on the air in China right now has some of the things you might expect. Infidelity? It’s got that. Crooked business deals. Check. But a housing bubble? Yeah, it’s got that too. Because that is the issue on the streets in much of China where home prices, as compared to how much people make, may be highest on the planet. From Shanghai, Marketplace’s Scott Tong reports.

SCOTT TONG: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl to dirty politician. Boy screams. For about six months now, the hit prime-time series “Snail House” has delighted audiences around China. There’s adultery, bribery, a healthy portion of melodrama. But what the characters really chase in this show is money to buy a home.

In this scene, a 30-something urban professional bemoans to her husband their itty-bitty rented studio. She wants to own her own place.

Xu ZHOU: You have to in China, you know.

That’s Snail House viewer Xu Zhou.

ZHOU: It’s like rules you have to follow. It’s not write down in books, or in laws. But it’s rules, rules of life.

To get hitched in Shanghai, men without property need not apply.

ZHOU: Her parents will ask you, hey, do you have a house in Shanghai? You should buy one.

Private property ownership in socialist China may sound offkey. These masses who defeated the bourgeois landowners in a revolution 60 years ago now all aspire to be bourgeois landowners.

But financial journalist Huang Shan explains the new home economics.

Huang Shan: I call it ridiculous, but why do so many people buy property? It’s because Chinese have limited investment options. Stocks are risky. But real estate can grow 10,000 fold.

Debate rages here if there’s a housing bubble. Last year, Shanghai housing prices rose a stunning 65 percent.

In the TV show, the plot gets busy when our poor, struggling renter gets an envelope with five grand. It’s from her sister. She’s been cheating on her boyfriend, and sleeping around with a rich, crooked communist party member.

Song Siming is the political sugar daddy. He seems the obvious villain. But viewers like Guan He, they love him.

Guan HE: Song Siming is really attractive. He’s a middle-aged man, full of wisdom and you know, full of power.

Even as he takes bribes from property developers, this dirty politician is soft and romantic. He dials up his mistress, to piano accompaniment.

Yang Junlei teaches comparative cultures at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Yang Junlei: The show’s hit on a very relevant problem in China today: infidelity, mistresses. Pop culture doesn’t reflect much of this yet. But “Snail House” really nails it. It’s hot.

Too hot, perhaps, for Chinese censors. Last month “Snail House” suddenly went off the air on a few stations. But some channels still air it. And middle-class Chinese still watch, chasing homes of their own, just like the characters.

Again, viewer Guan He.

HE: I think everyone needs a house. But the problem is whether we can. If I face the same difficulty like the sisters, I may choose to go back to my hometown.

She may quit her dream of making it in Shanghai, on account of unaffordable housing. In the end, the soap opera ends badly, too. Karma catches up to our two-timing cadre, and he drives his car into an oncoming truck.

A foreboding image for a show about China’s housing prices — also potentially veering out of control.

In Shanghai, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

Snail House: A Tale of Modern China

I have been away for a while because all my holiday time has been absorbed by two fascinating stories of Shanghai, one of them a TV serial, the other a novel.The serial is WoJu, the Snail’s House, stupidly translated to English as Narrow Dwellingness, or whatever. It has been red hot in China since its first broadcast in November. Alice Liu of Danwei and the Youku buzz blog covered it recently.

As those blogs noted, this has been the most explosive success we remember in Chinese TV serials. In less than a month it sparked heated debate on the internet, attracted millions online and off, and with that came the hideous hand of the censors. One reason for its rapid success is the central theme about the problems to buy a house, which just hit the spot among the young Chinese audiences.

But Woju is much more than a tale of real estate and corruption. It is a gripping drama, with rich subplots evolving around a central love triangle, populated with very real characters. A sharp critique of the modern Chinese society, and by far the best product I have ever seen on the mainland TV. Originally it was a novel published  in 2007 by Liuliu, a Chinese writer that we should be watching more closely in the future.

Here are my impressions of the serial now that I have finished the first 15 chapters.  I will focus on the two main points of interest: the informative contents for anyone looking to understand China, and the quality of the product independently of other considerations. In the end are also some funny things I observed related to censorship and others.


This serial is the paradise of the 中国通, the aspiring China experts.  Anyone trying to understand China should watch it. If the characters are not exactly real (no fiction can ever be) their worries, their problems and their motivations are a hi-fi amplified reflection of those moving the young citizens of China today. It is a concentrate of Chinese reality.

All the elements we have been speaking for the last years are there, not a single one is missing: guanxi building, cadres’ 二奶 (lovers), shanghai men bullied by their wifes, working parents who can’t see their babies, illegal high-interest loans, collusion between developers and local officials, the conflict between shanghaiers and outsiders, the overnight rich of Wenzhou, the ethics of the new China, the 拆迁 or “destroy and move”, the “nail people” who resist, the shanzhai mobile phones… you name it.

And all is so precise that you can even see how much the characters are earning in their jobs, what interest the loan sharks ask, or how much it costs a party cadre to get his first little 二奶 (lover).

There are surely better books that depict the Chinese society in the past, but the subject is changing so fast they are all outdated. I do not think there is any other work of fiction today that reflects more precisely the Shanghai society circa 2010.


“Hello, I’m Secretary Song of the Municipal Party Committee  (and I just shagged your girlfriend)”

If you are learning Chinese, the series is a double must for its great idiomatic mandarin. If you are not, then stand by for the DVDs with English subtitles, hoping the pirates get a human translator with his TOEFL levels this time. There is definitely a market for this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they come up with a movie next year, provided the government doesn’t stop it.


But more important than all the above is the quality of the product. It is good fiction and good entertainment.

The story is driven by an intense love triangle centered on the young Haizao, played by beautiful actress Li Nian. All the elements listed above, including the winners and the losers of the Real Estate craze, gravitate around this love/hate story that puts in contact two different worlds: the laobaixing and the cadres, the two classes of urban China.

But perhaps the best aspect of the serial, a breathe of fresh air on Chinese TV, is its absolute lack of moral lessons for the public. There are no heroes or villains here. The covetous developer, the unbearably vain wife, the fainthearted Shanghai husband, the enigmatic, outrageous Shanghai girl played by Li Nian. Every single one of them is just human, with weaknesses and ambitions like all of us. Every one of them can be up to the best and to the worst.

Even the corrupt official is all too human. A weak man in a midlife crisis with too much power in his hands and a system that doesn’t check his acts. Corruption, like love, happens as a natural course of events, the result of a sick society and not of an evil personal plan. And Jiangzhou, the Chinese Gotham that stands for Shanghai, is the mighty whirlwind of action where all the characters are hopelessly adrift.


Not surprisingly, the serial has been censored by the government. However, it has been censored in ways that strike me as prudish, if not plainly idiotic.

Since I am in Europe now, I have been able to watch the serial on YouTube and compare with the censored one available on the Chinese site YouKu.  There was no censorship on the image above, where a Shanghai Party Official brazenly chats with the boyfriend of the girl he has just raped making free use of his political muscle.

Instead, the images below were censored:


See the original scene, and below the censored version as shown in China.

This is the first proper sex scene of the serial. In the original version you see the moaning face of Haizao in one quarter of the screen, while the other images correspond to the respective wife and boyfriend, who are shown at home worrying for their loved ones, while they are being made cuckolds of Olympic category.

Is the moaning face of Haizao more obscene than the happy Mr. Song shown above? Draw your own consequences. Also interesting is to note that the producers have participated in the censoring process, and the hot scenes are not merely cut out, but edited and substituted by other originals, as in the larger image of the wife above.

Other Details and Questions

I will come back with more details when I am done with the serial, but for the moment I have 2 questions for the public, and especially for the many Chinese I know who have already watched the whole 35 chapters:


1- Why does the serial show so prominently the “Coogle” shanzhaied phone of Haizao, is it just to make it more realistic or is it a revenge because Google refused to sponsor?

2- There is one part of the plot I just can’t understand: how can Haizao be a virgin when she first sleeps with Song, if she has been living with her boyfriend for years? Is this a gap in the plot or am I missing some serious (and worrying) element of the Chinese culture?


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