Minami Funakoshi senior contributor

After Viral Video, One Foreigner Gets Crash Course in Chinese Censorship

Screenshot of “Laowai Style”

“I had no idea it would become so big,” said Jesse Appell, director and producer of the now-viral “Laowai Style” Internet video.

The video—a parody of Gangnam Style—was shot in one day, with no budget. Within twenty hours of its posting, “Laowai Style” had 60,000 views on Youku, China’s Youtube, and was featured on the front page of the site. Now, seven weeks later, the video has been viewed more 371,000 times and has gathered almost 1,200 comments.

“Laowai” is a Chinese term meaning “foreigner,” literally, “old outsider.” It can convey endearment or derision, depending very much on the conversational context and, it must be said, a foreigner’s point of view and even mood.

One comment by @Celine416 caught Appell’s eye: “I am the director of the 2013 Global Spring Festival Gala production team. I hope you can participate in the special pre-show, the winner of which will be able to participate in the recording of the Gala.” Appell contacted @Celine416, and seven weeks later, he was on a blue-and-white neon-lit stage, dancing away on BTV, the largest local station in Beijing, with twenty laowai backup dancers.

In a conversation with Tea Leaf Nation, Appell said the goal of his video is “to take on Chinese stereotypes about laowai and show that we live like authentic Beijingers too–we can use chopsticks, don’t all eat at KFC, and don’t get ripped off at Silk Street [a Beijing shopping center famous for counterfeit goods and intense bargaining].”

Appell does not claim that being a foreigner in China is exactly the same as being a local. Many Chinese people have made parodies of Gangnam Style as well, but very few have gone as viral as Appell’s “Laowai Style.” On a larger level, foreigners often have more freedom in China; they do not have to take the grueling Chinese university entrance exam, they are not tied down by the notorious household registration system, and they can leave China whenever they please.

“I know there are differences between foreigners and Chinese people,” Appell admitted, “but what I wanted to show was that there are many more similarities than most Chinese people realize.” To show, in short, that foreigners do not see themselves as being better than the locals.

Busting stereotypes may have been Appell’s intent, but that message appears not to have reached a portion of his audience. “I didn’t understand what he was singing but I still loved it—it’s fun to see so many foreigners dance on stage. It’s like a party!” commented one Chinese woman in the audience at Appell’s BTV studio taping.

Oftentimes, Chinese television stations use foreigners in their shows to make the show seem “fun.” The producers know that Chinese audience enjoy seeing foreigners dance and sing on television; it is a well-tested, safe way to increase viewership. When a producer from Anhui Satellite Television approached Appell about shooting a segment on “Laowai Style,” the producer asked, “We loved Laowai Style. What else can you do? Can you do other dances? Can you sing anything by Jay Chou? Is it OK if we make some changes to the lyrics of Laowai Style?” When it became clear that the Anhui station was uninterested in the message of the Laowai Style video, Appell rejected their offer.

This tendency to cast foreigners into the role of the jester, however, does not necessarily mean that Chinese television producers are unwilling to grant creative control to foreigners. BTV, the station for which Appell ultimately chose to perform, agreed to preserve most of his original lyrics. There were three lines, however, that they asked him to revise. One described a laowai who doesn’t wait for the light to turn green before crossing the street, another a laowai who avoids Beijing’s north third ring road at all costs during rush hour, and the third, a laowai who won’t be cheated when he shops at the tout-filled Silk Street Market.

When Appell asked why he needed to revise the lyrics, the producer simply answered, “We check ourselves,” meaning they self-censor. Chinese media often undergo careful self-censorship to avoid being “blacklisted” by the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), the regulatory agency that overseas media censorship. As long as media productions do not attract SARFT’s attention, the level of supervision a production receives remains low. Once SARFT flags the production as a target of censorship, however, the number of hoops it has to jump through before airing multiply. This not only makes production highly inefficient but further restricts a media company’s creative control.

“Everyone just wants to be safe and avoid trouble,” Appell explained. But the fact that productions are simply playing it safe implies that there is room for negotiation.

“They told me to change three lines, I told them I don’t want to, and they backed down pretty quickly on two of them. The one they didn’t back up on—a laowai who won’t be cheated when he shops at the Silk Street Market—I know I really did need to change.” The line was changed to describe a laowai who can “cut a good bargain” at the Silk Street Market; producers may have felt it unwise to imply that one of Beiing’s major shopping attractions was rife with cheats.

“Foreigners tend to just say ‘yes’ to whatever the producers tell them to do. They don’t think to say ‘no’ because they don’t think they have that option,” Appell explained. “Many foreigners go on TV not to send out a message or change Chinese society but because they think it would be fun. Very few people know much about how Chinese TV works.”

Although Chinese television still tends to regard foreigners simply as entertainers, Appell remains optimistic that this prejudice can be dismantled as foreigners acquire a better understanding of Chinese media. “During the entire process, I was interested in poking here and there and to see what they would concede on.” He continued, “I think once I know more about how the Chinese TV industry works, I will be able to navigate Chinese censorship and still send out the message that I want.”

Appell is hopeful that his message will resonate, even if most viewers enjoy his video for the wrong reasons.

“Maybe not everyone got the message; maybe they were just excited to see twenty foreigners dance on stage. But while they watch us dance, they are still listening to the lyrics. But even if only one out of ten people get the message I was trying to send, I am still reaching so many people. It might take a while to reach everyone, but I’m not too worried—I’ll just do what I can.”

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Minami Funakoshi

After spending her childhood in India, Malaysia, and Japan, Minami moved to the U.S. to attend Yale University. Currently, she is studying abroad in Beijing and Taipei to improve her Chinese. She will work as an editorial intern at the Wall Street Journal Hong Kong Office through the Robert L. Bartley Fellowship Program.
  • ethanjrt

    1) I love that you chose the still with Alex in the background.
    2) FYI for editing purposes: two of your paragraph end with “To show, in short, that…”followed by an identical idea.
    Interesting comment on pushing back against censorship.
    Keep on rocking the articles!

    • minami

      Oh oops completely missed that. That’s what happens when you split up the editing process, I guess. Thanks for pointing it out!