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'Chinese Idol' a syrupy tearjerker
By Xu Wei

Another reality TV show has fallen victim to the sins of many reality shows in China - sensationalism, sentimentality and tears.

This time it's the first edition of "Chinese Idol" - recently renamed "Voice of the Chinese Dream" - the Chinese version of "American Idol" that has been airing since April on Dragon TV.

The format has been so "localized" and tweaked to appeal to popular tastes that it has generated controversy for focusing too much on contestants' sob stories, hard-luck tales and inspirational struggles.

So important has the supposedly heartwarming "story" behind the contestant become that some biographies have been hyped and distorted. Internet users have been quick to point out inconsistencies and what they call lies.

Still, it's very popular. The show airing at 10pm on Sundays in Shanghai is the top-rated show in its time slot. Nationally it's second only to Jiangsu Satellite TV's controversial - and critics say tacky - dating show "If You Are the One."

Because China's new President Xi Jinqping has called for the nation to realize the "Chinese Dream," the show's producers changed the name to "Voice of the Chinese Dream" ("Zhongguo Meng Zhi Sheng" ?D1ú????éù)

The Chinese version retains the original format's four-member jury panel, audience voting and a tough test for vocals in the early elimination rounds - singing without instrumental accompaniment.

But there are quite a few changes, notably a lot more sensational parts of the show - narration of contestants' personal stories, tears when they are forced to leave the stage, and surprise guest performers with powerful stories that move the audience to tears.

Director Wang Leiqing says "the goal is to make a heartwarming and inspirational series about people's never-ending efforts to pursue their dreams - rather than a simple singing contest."

Shanghai college student Elena Zhang is a fan who says it's acceptable to inject some emotional personal stories but it shouldn't be overdone.

"The taste of Chinese audience differs from Western tastes," Zhang says. "Chinese are more likely to be concerned about a performer's story than their performance or stunt. But overuse of stories to catch public attention is a bad idea and can be a turn-off."

She cites the example of 16-year-old contestant Michelle Lu, who has been called a "liar" by some Internet users who researched her online.

Lu told the audience that she comes from a poor divorced family and that she bought all her clothes second-hand from street vendors, paying no more than 50 yuan (US$8.14) for the very outfit she was wearing on stage.

Some Internet users researched her background and said on their Sina weibo microblogs that the story can't be true, that the girl is too mature for her age and her singing is too sophisticated. They said her mother was spotted carrying an expensive Burberry handbag.

In the latest episode last Sunday, Lu burst into tears in the face of doubts and questioning from both the audience online and judges.

"The words of netizens do hurt," she said. "I promise I never lied."

Professor Wu Gang, a media expert from East China Normal University, says personal stories are hyped to get more attention for the show.

"American Idol" never delves into contestants' personal stories and tries to sensationalize them, he says, adding that the show is well-received and credible.

Genuine stories

"When Chinese producers focus too much on the stories instead of the real talent, the show's credibility will be questioned since stories can be made up," Professor Wu says. "It may work briefly to raise ratings, but in the long run, audiences will get bored with the whole genre of domestic star-making shows."

Some contestants and their stories appear to be genuine.

One contestant was Guo Shai, a 19-year-old electrical welder's apprentice from a remote village in northeast China. He had no musical training, but he had a dream of being a singer.

Villagers laughed. Guo surprised the audience by performing Adele's hugely popular "Rolling in the Deep." Judge Han Hong said she was impressed and wanted to mentor him.

Singer Li Qian from Lijiang, Yunnan Province, has released several albums and is quite popular but she never dared appear on stage - before "Chinese Idol" - because she is ordinary-looking.

She was praised for her courage in showing up before an audience that puts a premium on glamour. Now her fans know what she looks like.

Another change in the "Chinese Idol" is the return of four eliminated contestants who were very popular with the audience. On July 14 they will brought back to vie for the final 12 places in the show.

The final will be held on August 25. Finalists will have a chance to appear in the Chinese version of the Broadway musical "Mamma Mia!" in Shanghai early next month, release albums and give a concert.

James Morriscotterill

One of the most popular male performers is London-born James Morriscotterill, whose mother is Chinese from Hong Kong and whose father is British.

The 28-year-old is handsome and has a distinctive voice, but he was extremely shy - he didn't look directly at the judges - and his Chinese was poor. Still, he impressed the audience with his first song, Adele's "Someone Like You."

After weeks of coaching, competition and language training, he has improved his Chinese and appears more confident, singing the sad ballad "Beijing, Beijing."

Morriscotterill quit his job at a big insurance company in the UK and moved to Taiwan to pursue his musical dream. He was influenced by his father, a lawyer who formed his own band.

He says he is taking part in "Chinese Idol" so that he will eventually be recognized as a professional singer. He says singing can reduce sadness and distress.


The 27-year-old Tibetan singer Yangjima (she uses one name only) of the Menba ethnic group has been called "a goddess" by fans online because of her "angelic and tranquil voice."

She sings barefoot on stage.

In typical fan hype, she is also called "little dragon maiden," referring to a character in Jin Yong's martial arts novels.

Yangjima graduated from the acting department of the Communication University of China, but decided she would rather promote independent music to young people than to act.

"I am not a goddess," she says. "That title is far beyond me. I am outgoing, I like to tease my friends and I enjoy being a mimic."

Coco Lee, one of the judges, says she is already a big fan of Yangjima and hopes to introduce her to international audiences "because she will win honor for the Chinese people."

Ai Fei

One of the more experienced contestants, 26-year-old Ai Fei has been singing in pubs in Beijing for six years.

The native of Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is dynamic in her dancing and appears a bit wild. Her idol is Beyonce.

Some people say her singing style is too sophisticated for a young pub singer. Ai responds that many people misunderstand pub singers who "work very hard every day for their dreams."

"I don't do this just for fame but for life experience," she says. "This show encourages us to exceed our previous performances and try something new."

Popular reality TV shows in China

Talent shows are extremely popular in China, especially in summer. Besides "Chinese Idol," viewers can watch the second season of "The Voice of China" on Zhejiang Satellite TV and "Happy Boys" on Hunan Satellite TV.

Adapted from a Dutch reality series, "The Voice of China" will start airing at 9pm this Friday.

Last year, the first season of the show attracted an average viewership of 4 percent of the total mainland TV audience, making it the most popular talent shows of the year.

Unlike other shows, this one selects competitors through blind auditions in which the judges only hear the voice of the singer.

Now in its third edition, "Happy Boys" singing contest this season says it will explore how young singing idols energetically pursue their dreams while staying natural and true to themselves.

"Chinese Idol"

Dragon TV, Sunday, 10pm

"The Voice of China"

Zhejiang Satellite TV, Friday, 9pm

"Happy Boys"

Hunan Satellite TV, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, 10pm

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