More Tiananmen at 25 Events and Readings

When I edited The China Beat, I would put together weekly(ish) posts that rounded up the best recent stories on China in general, or on a specific topic in the news. Those grew less frequent as our Twitter presence expanded and we just posted links there, but I think the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and June 4 crackdown offers a natural opportunity to re-start those reading roundups here. There’s so much being written about Tiananmen, and so many events related to the anniversary, that it seems helpful to have things collected in one place, rather than sprinkled across Twitter. I’ll also be taking a look back at some older writings on the protests and massacre throughout the spring.

• Just two days after the “Tiananmen at 25” symposium at Saint Joseph’s University, Harvard will be holding its own one-day conference on April 26, “Tiananmen in History and Memory.” I am really, really tempted to travel up to Boston for the day to attend this event—it looks excellent.

• The University of Southern California’s US-China Institute has produced a new Tiananmen-focused episode in its Assignment: China series on American media coverage of China. There will be a screening at USC on April 17, and another one at George Washington University on April 23.

• As I mentioned yesterday, NPR reporter Louisa Lim has a new book out on historical memory and Tiananmen Square, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. Hear her talk about the book in this Morning Edition segment, and read an excerpt at the NPR site.

• Fellow “Tiananmen at 25” symposium panelist Rowena Xiaoqing He also has a new book out, Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China. UC Riverside professor Perry Link wrote the foreword, which you can read at the New York Review of Books blog.

• At the New York Times Sinosphere blog, Chris Buckley has a long post on Hu Yaobang, the Party official whose death on April 15, 1989 sparked student assemblies that grew into the Beijing Spring protests.

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Tiananmen at 25: A Symposium at Saint Joseph’s University

Today, April 15, is the 25th anniversary of the death of Hu Yaobang. That’s a name that probably doesn’t ring a bell, unless you’re a China specialist, but Hu’s death in 1989 was the start of something big. A once-powerful government official who was purged in 1987, Hu had advocated for economic and political reforms in the 1980s (he also urged the Chinese to switch from chopsticks to knives and forks). Large numbers of students in Chinese universities also wanted to see the system changed; they were tired of how it favored the sons and daughters of the politically connected, and the restrictions it imposed on student life. Hu’s death gave them an opportunity to assemble and make their opinions known. When Hu Yaobang’s memorial service was held on April 22, Tiananmen Square was filled with 100,000 people who had come to present their grievances to the government. But the leadership wasn’t willing to listen.

That’s how the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, which culminated in the brutal June 4 crackdown, got started. In the 25 years since the Beijing Spring, the Chinese government has worked hard to suppress discussion of the protests and massacre. But this spring, there will be many discussions of Tiananmen Square at conferences and events held beyond the borders of mainland China.

One of those conferences will be held at my own alma mater, Saint Joseph’s University, next Wednesday and Thursday, and I’ll be there to participate in a panel on protest in China since 1989. Other speakers include Carma Hinton (director of the mesmerizing documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace), Jeff Wasserstrom (an expert on student protests in 20th-century China), Rowena He (who teaches a seminar on 1989 at Harvard and just published Tiananmen Exiles), and NPR’s Louisa Lim (author of a new book on Tiananmen, The People’s Republic of Amnesia).

The “Tiananmen at 25” symposium will kick off on Wednesday night with a screening of Gate of Heavenly Peace, and Thursday will be filled with panel discussions and a special session on teaching Tiananmen to high school and college students. All events are free and open to the public, so if you’re in the Philadelphia area, please join us.

Five Tiananmen-related things to check out:

  • The website for The Gate of Heavenly Peace has a thorough chronology of the protests, as well as suggestions for further reading and some excerpts from the film.
  • Frontline produced an episode titled “The Tank Man,” which is available in full at the PBS website.
  • The South China Morning Post is compiling all its Tiananmen anniversary coverage on a dedicated page at its website (requires registration).
  • One of the most readable accounts of the Tiananmen protests and June 4 that I’ve seen is in former Beijing correspondent Jan Wong’s book, Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now.
  • Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn of The New York Times shared a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the protests. If you have a NYT subscription, reading through their archive is fascinating. I found the stories by searching for “Tiananmen Square,” then setting the date range from April 15 through December 31, 1989 (just to make sure I captured everything).

There will be much more written about the 25th anniversary as the spring goes on, and I’ll compile more stories here over the next few months. If you’re on Twitter, use the #TAM25 hashtag to search for tweets, or when you’re adding your own links to the conversation.

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A Cold, Creamy Taste of Home

A lot of first-time visitors to China exclaim to me that they’re astounded to see so many familiar American chain restaurants. You can find McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks in all but the smallest cities (and even those will almost certainly have a KFC), but the country’s first-tier megalopolises (Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou) offer much, much more. Outback Steakhouse, Subway, Hooters, Ruth’s Chris, TCBY, TGI Fridays, Dunkin Donuts, Mortons, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Sizzler, Cold Stone Creamery … if you’ve come to China but don’t like Chinese food, there are plenty of familiar options. (Though, really, Chinese food is excellent and you should give it a chance. Start with real wonton soup and you’ll be a convert in no time.)

As accustomed as I am to seeing American strip-mall restaurants pop up in Shanghai, though, I still couldn’t believe my eyes a few weeks ago when I came across this ice cream shop on the fourth floor of a shopping mall in the Xujiahui neighborhood:


Bassetts Ice Cream? Bassetts Ice Cream from Philadelphia?? In Shanghai???

My first thought was that it had to be a knockoff. This is not unprecedented: China, of course, is known for its imitations of foreign goods, and that includes restaurants. I’ve had a very credible fake Chipotle meal in Shanghai, and I’ve heard that there’s a burger joint nearby whose food can easily be mistaken for that served by In-N-Out. But almost as soon as the idea entered my mind, I swept it aside. The colors and logo were exact matches to those at the Bassetts stand in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market that I’ve been going to since I was a child. Besides, I reasoned, Bassetts is famous, but it’s not really that famous. Copycats only make sense when the original is instantly recognizable.

I went inside and asked the girl behind the counter, “Is this Bassetts Ice Cream from Philadelphia?” She nodded and pointed to a video screen above the counter, which was playing footage of scenes from the Reading Terminal shop. A picture of the Liberty Bell. President Obama accepting a cup of ice cream. Yes, this place was the real thing.

“I’m from Philadelphia!” I told her.

She smiled politely but briefly. “Oh, really?”

So, we weren’t going to bond. Okay. Still, I couldn’t just walk into the store, ask a question, look around, and leave—I obviously had to buy some ice cream.

Though she wasn’t much of a conversationalist, the server was eager to help me choose a flavor. “Would you like to try anything?” she asked, holding up a tiny spoon for sampling. I pointed to “WHYY Experience” (WHYY is Philadelphia’s public television station), and she scooped out a tasting. Chocolate-covered pretzels, a little bit of butterscotch—it was good, but I was looking for something a little more basic.

Aha! Pistachio. I’ve never seen pistachio ice cream in China before, and it’s one of my favorites. I ordered a small cup and only blanched a little when I realized that the price was 32RMB. My single scoop of ice cream cost $5.* (And I enjoyed every. single. bite.)


Given both the cost and calories, I don’t intend to make frequent trips to Bassetts. But I did head down there again yesterday afternoon, for two reasons: (1) I finished an important chunk of work on my first book proposal (more about that later) and wanted to celebrate/reward myself, and (2) I’ve had a sore throat for three days (spring allergies, I think) and needed to soothe it with something other than Cepacol drops. A cup of peanut butter swirl did the trick, at least for a few hours.

China and its famed “one billion customers” lure plenty of foreign companies to the PRC, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised to find that Bassetts Ice Cream had set up shop in Shanghai, as well as Taiyuan (known as China’s dirtiest city due to its coal-mining industry) and Fuzhou (a coastal city across from Taiwan). Still, Bassetts is an otherwise regional brand—its American ice cream parlors are located in Southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, plus an outlier in Alabama. Apparently, however, its China outlets are paying off; in a 2013 Philadelphia Inquirer article, the company owner reported that China now accounts for 20 percent of Bassetts’s sales. Like other restaurants, Bassetts has tweaked its products for the China market, making ice cream-filled mooncakes in the fall and offering green tea and black sesame flavors at its shop yesterday.

I can’t say that the store was doing a brisk business on either of my visits (I could count the customers, including myself, on one hand), but that section of the mall just opened a few months ago, so maybe things will pick up as the weather gets hotter. I can definitely promise that in this expat Philadelphian, Bassetts has gained a loyal, if occasional, customer. And next time, I’m going to try the black sesame.

* This is about a dollar more expensive than Baskin Robbins here and probably about the same as Häagen-Dazs. At the low end, a cone of vanilla soft-serve at McDonald’s or KFC is 3RMB ($.48).

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LA Review of Books: Ping-Pong Powerhouses and Table Tennis Tales

Glenn CowanI think this will be my final post related to last month’s literary festivals. I saw journalist Nicholas Griffin speak at the Capital M Litfest in Beijing about his new book, Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game that Changed the World, and not long after managed to get my hands on a copy. I really enjoyed reading this book; what I knew about Ping-Pong Diplomacy was pretty much the sum total of its Wikipedia page, so I learned a lot from Griffin’s detailed account of how the whole thing went down—and how many times it almost got derailed by miscommunications and missed signals. I also learned more than I ever expected about the history of ping-pong and its importance in Cold War politics:

The 1971 “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” between China and the United States is often treated as a mere historical footnote, a quirky prelude to Richard Nixon’s path-breaking trip to the People’s Republic a year later. In his recently published book, Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World, journalist Nicholas Griffin, whom I saw speak about his book at Capital M’s literary festival in Beijing last month, seeks to redress that oversight. The result is an informative and entertaining book that covers far more ground than the single week of Ping-Pong Diplomacy itself.

The photo is of Glenn Cowan, the media darling of the trip whose life ultimately ended in disappointment and tragedy. I think this is an amazing picture. I’ve found that it’s often difficult to explain to American college students just how different and how isolated from the United States China was during the height of the Mao years. But I think the physical distance between Cowan and the Chinese onlookers, plus the disparity between their outfits, does a lot to demonstrate that gulf. I’m definitely using this photo, as well as a lot of tidbits gleaned from Ping-Pong Diplomacy, in my Modern China class in the fall.

Read the rest of my review at the LA Review of Books China Blog.

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Five Great Things about Beijing

In the mostly friendly Beijing-Shanghai rivalry game, I’m firmly on Shanghai’s side. I spent six months in Beijing in 2005, and have made regular visits since then, but I’ve never quite warmed up to the city. When people defend their choice to live in the capital, I point to Beijing’s chronically smoggy skies, its often crippled Internet, and the interminable length of its city blocks, which makes walking around more of a slog than a pleasure. But I know that Beijing has its cheerleaders—as I’ve said before, they keep making movies celebrating their city (recent new entries include “Happy in Beijing” and “Rhapsody in Beijing”)—and during the five days I spent there last week, I gave myself stern instructions to keep an open mind and hold the Beijing jokes to a minimum.*

And really, Beijing does have many things to recommend it. I’ve narrowed my list down to five ways in which it’s a great city—both in general, and specifically when compared to Shanghai:

1. The Airport Express: Shanghai has its ultra-modern Maglev that’s supposed to connect Pudong Airport to the city. There’s only one problem: the super-cool seven-minute ride only gets you about halfway into Pudong district. It’ll take you an additional 45 minutes (or more) on the regular subway or in a cab to reach most destinations in central Puxi, the heart of Shanghai. Beijing’s Airport Express train may not reach a top speed of 431 km/h, but the ride from Capital Airport to the Dongzhimen subway station only takes 20 minutes, and Dongzhimen is a useful transfer point in the central business district. The Airport Express also only costs 25RMB to ride, versus 50RMB for a Maglev ticket. The Maglev is impressive—and any first-time visitor to Shanghai should ride it once—but it’s not actually a useful piece of urban infrastructure. The Airport Express most definitely is.

Qianmen, Tiananmen Square, and Mao’s Mausoleum on a perfect blue-sky day in Beijing

Qianmen, Tiananmen Square, and Mao’s Mausoleum on a perfect blue-sky day in Beijing

2. Spectacular sights: Shanghai’s waterfront Bund is classic and beautiful, and the winding streets of the French Concession are pleasant and lovely, but Beijing has the jaw-dropping photo ops. The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, Jingshan park, two Summer Palaces (Old and New), the Olympic Park (kind of aging badly, but worth a visit), Beihai park plus dozens of other green spaces scattered across the city, Yonghegong Lama Temple, the hutongs … I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot, but those are the must-see Beijing attractions that I can name off the top of my head. Shanghai is a great place to live and hang out; in terms of tourist sites that will knock your socks off, though, I think we have to concede that Beijing has the advantage. The Pearl Tower just looks kind of sad in comparison (though its Shanghai history museum is awesome!).

3. (Sometimes) Excellent weather: I accidentally wound up timing my Beijing trip perfectly, as Michelle Obama was in the city for three of the days I was there. Magically, the smog cleared and blue skies appeared when she arrived. I had expected, based on my previous Beijing spring, that it would still be chilly in late March, but the weather was early-spring perfection: sunny, breezy, warm. Maybe any city looks better when spring arrives, but Beijing seems to wear the season particularly well.

4. Absolute legibility: I’ve probably spent a total of about eight months in Beijing, versus close to three years in Shanghai. Yet I can navigate Beijing with almost freakish accuracy (I’m known in my family as somewhat directionally challenged), whereas I can still get turned around by Shanghai once I venture out of my neighborhood. Why the difference? Central Beijing is an almost perfect grid, with Tiananmen Square at the center. As long as I know where I want to be in relation to the square, I can get anywhere. Shanghai’s winding, twisting lanes are pleasant to wander, but make it easy to find yourself lost.

Lunch at Laobian Dumplings

Lunch at Laobian Dumplings

5. Dumplings and Xinjiang food: Shanghai has a lot of good dumpling stands, but my sentimental favorite restaurant in all of China is Beijing’s Laobian Dumplings. Are they the best? Probably not. But I used to eat there two or three times a week (they had a location just around the corner from my school), and I go back every time I’m up there for a steamer of carrot-and-egg dumplings. Beijing also has way better Xinjiang restaurants than Shanghai, serving dishes from western China like cumin-coated roasted lamb skewers and saucy chicken and noodles. I had never even heard of Xinjiang food before I came to China, and now it’s one of my favorite cuisines—but only in Beijing. (Well, I’m sure it’s even better in Xinjiang, but I’m still trying to find a time to go there.)

And, of course, have I mentioned the Friends’ Café?

*Postscript: After I wrote this list, I started to worry that it could sound annoying or condescending—like, “Wow! I always thought Beijing was terrible, but it’s actually only not bad!” It’s not intended in that way at all. Rather, I feel like other Shanghai expats and I spend a little too much time Beijing-bashing, and I wanted to clarify that there are indeed many things that I like about the city, and several ways in which it definitely has an advantage over Shanghai. I might joke about Beijing, but I do it with affection, not malice.

Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the same way I treat New Jersey.

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A Brief Encounter with the Chengguan

Shanghai is enjoying some absolutely glorious spring weather right now, and since it’s not likely to last long, I’m trying to savor it while I can. I went for a walk after lunch today, passing fruit stands filled with mountains of newly arrived pineapples on every block I traveled. Though I’m not a big fruit eater, by the time I had reached the produce store closest to my apartment and saw a pile of pineapples next to the door there as well, I decided to stop for one.

Chinese fruit vendors will prepare a whole pineapple for you, using what’s basically a lethally sharp vegetable peeler to remove the tough exterior spines with short, fast strokes. They then employ a curved, semi-tubular tool to cut channels in the pineapple meat, eliminating the roots of the spines. There were several other customers ahead of me, so after I picked out my fruit and paid for it, I got into line to wait my turn at the pineapple-prep station on the sidewalk.

Just as the produce vendor was greeting me and picking up my pineapple to clean it off, a portly, smartly-uniformed chengguan officer strolled up, swinging a bottle of sweet iced tea in one hand and waving his other to get the vendors’ attention. Chengguan (which I wrote about for Dissent magazine last summer) are “urban management” officers, unarmed para-police responsible for enforcing laws related to hygiene, peddling, municipal appearance, and environmental protection. They are often thugs and don’t hesitate to resort to violence—which has resulted in the deaths of several street vendors over the past few years.

Women moving pineapples off the steps while the chengguan studies his cell phone.

Women moving pineapples off the steps while the chengguan studies his cell phone.

There was no physical violence today. The officer yelled for the two women running the produce stand to move their tables of pineapples and oranges off the shop’s steps, telling them that everything had to be within the walls of the store. The women had obviously realized that an attractive pyramid of fresh pineapples outside the entrance would lure customers in (it worked on me!), but the chengguan wouldn’t permit it. He also spotted a few pairs of shoes airing out to the side of the steps (a very common practice here) and barked at one of the vendors to move them. She scurried over to the shoes and quickly gathered them up in her arms, while the other woman grabbed a crate and began stacking pineapples in it. When the crate was full, she pushed it under one of the tables inside the store. What had been an eye-catching display of merchandise only three minutes before was now dismantled, the pineapples shoved out of sight.

After the chengguan saw that the female vendors inside were following his orders, he turned his attention to the male fruit-seller, who was preparing my pineapple as fast as he could. As I pretended not to listen, the officer yelled at the man for getting pineapple shavings all over the sidewalk (he did have a cardboard box to serve as a trash can, but often worked so fast that bits of pineapple skin went flying beyond the box’s walls). The produce vendor promised that he would clean the sidewalk as soon as he was finished my pineapple. He hastily scraped away the last few spine roots and shoved the fruit into a bag for me. “Thank you,” I said, but the normally friendly vendor just turned away and started gathering discarded scraps of pineapple from the sidewalk around his work station. The chengguan leaned against the building, checking his cell phone and drinking his iced tea as the three produce vendors rushed to comply with his orders and I walked away.

As I wrote in that Dissent article last summer, the chengguan send chills up my spine. That’s still true. I hate their arrogance and the pleasure they seem to take in bossing people around. I hate the harsh, demeaning way I hear chengguan yell at street peddlers when they don’t react to orders fast enough. And whatever minor violations my local produce vendors might have committed, they run a clean, well-maintained store that always looks nice—that’s why I shop there. If the chengguan really want to improve Shanghai’s appearance, my suggestion is that they patrol the sidewalks and make dog-walkers clean up after their pets. Pineapple peels, to be frank, are the least of our problems here.

But dog owners are generally middle-class, while produce vendors tend to be migrants from smaller cities or the countryside. And from what I’ve seen over the almost 18 months I’ve lived in Shanghai, the chengguan only enforce the rules when they’re sure that the “rule-breakers” are from a weaker socio-economic position than their own.

Store steps clear of fruit displays

Store steps clear of fruit displays

Curious to see how things had played out after I left the fruit store, I worked at home for a couple of hours and then walked back down to buy some apples. As I approached the shop, the chengguan officer was standing on the sidewalk opposite, still checking his cell phone every few seconds. Just at that moment, a small SUV with the chengguan crest painted on the doors drove up and honked. The officer climbed into the backseat and they drove away. By the time I had picked out two apples and was in line to pay for them, the produce vendors had taken note of the chengguan’s departure and the women rushed to reassemble their pineapple and orange displays on the shop steps.

Reassembling the fruit displays on the shop steps as soon as the chengguan departed

Reassembling the fruit displays on the shop steps as soon as the chengguan departed

“Urban management” isn’t necessarily a bad idea—it would certainly improve my quality of life if cars stopped turning right on red at 50 miles per hour when pedestrians are in the crosswalk. But the chengguan system is a complete waste of time, and often bad PR for the Chinese government. Officers appear, shouting orders, and their targets scramble to comply with them, but as soon as the chengguan leave, things return to the way they were before. I’m not sure what this cycle of authority and resistance accomplishes, but it definitely isn’t fulfilling the World Expo 2010 slogan that I still see all over Shanghai: “Better City, Better Life.”

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The One about the Café in Beijing

Plenty of Western television shows are popular in China. When I lived here between 2006 and 2008, Lost and Prison Break occupied my classmates’ free time, while Gossip Girl became a hit after I left. More recently, the English-language press has developed a mini-genre of articles exploring the Chinese appetite for various Western TV shows: House of Cards, Sherlock, The Big Bang Theory, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and more. Some of these series are so popular, in fact, that the Chinese website has formed agreements with Western channels to release new episodes of shows like Scandal and The Americans just hours after they air in the U.S.

It will be interesting to see, though, if any of these series will match the enduring popularity of Friends in China. Because while other shows may come and go, Friends, it seems, is forever.

I’ve known about the lure of Friends ever since coming to China in 2005, when one of my language teachers and I had a conversation about the American TV series that Chinese viewers enjoyed the most. She said that while she and her girlfriends liked to watch Sex and the City, they found some of the subject matter embarrassing (“Do you and your friends actually talk about things like that?!?” she asked me, both fascinated and horrified). Friends, although it still touched on topics that most young Chinese wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable discussing in mixed company, was comparatively PG-rated. Its relatively simple dialogue also helped those trying to learn English improve their American slang, and I’ve found multiple “Friends English” workbooks and guides in Chinese bookstores over the years.

Books that use Friends dialogue to help improve one's spoken English

Books that use Friends dialogue to help improve one’s spoken English

Even today, the show is still so popular in China that there’s a Friends-themed café in Beijing, which I heard about in a report by NPR’s Louisa Lim last year. As two rigorous scholars dedicated to serious research into Chinese popular culture, Jeff Wasserstrom and I headed over to the café on Thursday afternoon, since we were both in Beijing and wanted to check it out. (There’s also a Sherlock-themed café in Shanghai, which Jeff has been to but I have not. It’s on my to-do list—the latest reason why I love my work.)

Exterior of the Friends’ Cafe in Beijing’s Chao Wai SOHO shopping mall

Exterior of the Friends’ Café in Beijing’s Chao Wai SOHO shopping mall

The coffee shop is a meticulous replica of the show’s Central Perk, down to the large orange velvet couch in the middle and exposed-brick walls. It’s on the sixth floor of a shopping mall—so it takes more effort to get to than any of the street-level Starbucks that seem to populate every city block—but the café was more or less full with Chinese customers at different points during the hour we spent there (we appeared to be the only researchers/tourists). A big-screen TV played clips from Friends episodes, and most people seemed to be working with one eye on their laptops and one eye on the television. Whenever an actor uttered the punchline to a joke, everyone in the café laughed.

Inside the Friends’ Café

Inside the Friends’ Café

Jeff and I ordered drinks, and the waiter urged us to select cupcakes from their menu of six—one flavor named after each Friends character. We both picked the “Chandler” (chocolate and peanut butter), then settled back with our oversized coffee mugs and continued looking around the room, commenting on how weirdly accurate the coffee shop was. Jeff spotted a guitar in the corner and joked that he could try to play Phoebe’s “Smelly Cat” song. One of the waitresses was passing by and overheard him. “We have a Smelly Cat!” she said. “But he smells very good.” I never saw the cat, but there was a cage and feeding dish next to the door.

After taking dozens of photos (the servers were clearly accustomed to this) and paying “Joey” the waiter for our drinks and cupcakes, Jeff and I took one last glance around the café and left. What did we learn from this brief field trip? I’d say that what surprised me most is that the café doesn’t just seem to be a gimmick. I half-expected it to be closed when we got there, or that the only people inside would be the staff. But the Friends’ Café actually appears to be popular, and while my Americano was excellent and the Chandler cupcake pretty good, I’m betting that Chinese customers go there less for the food and more for the atmosphere. Something in Friends—its soap opera plots, its image of a safe and comfortable life in New York City, its exploration of what it’s like to be young and confused—has resonated with Chinese viewers and continues to do so. I can’t really claim to understand it, but I think the popularity of Friends will endure long after Downton Abbey disappears from the screen.

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