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 tv.sohu.com 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.
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.)
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.
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.