On an ordinary Wednesday afternoon at around 3pm, the city’s new Sherlock Holmes cafe was packed with fans, including the outdoor garden where two young women were bundled up against the 5-degree-Celsius cold and sipping afternoon tea with milk in delicate cups.
They’ve found a new haunt, along with other like-minded fans of British detective fiction.
The successful BBC TV series “Sherlock” has been a sensation in China where fans are riveted by the detective’s meticulous deduction and his special relationship with Dr John Watson. They’re also devouring Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian detective novels, with all the period details. In the same vein, “Downton Abbey” in its fourth season has a mass following. More than 1,000 related items, including identical costumes worn by the characters, are available online.
The cafe named Sherlock on Ruijin Road S. isn’t overwhelmingly Victorian or decorated like an English gentlemen’s club, or Holmes’ Baker Street residence. But there is wood and leather, lots of books and Sherlock Holmes novels, test tubes for Sherlock’s arcane experiments, as well as posters for the TV series and London tourism. Sherlock postcards sell for 4 yuan (66 US cents) and Sherlock trinket boxes for 30 yuan. The TV series is screened from time to time.
“There is nothing extraordinary here, but since it’s called Sherlock, I feel I should at least give it a try,” says Zhao Mengdi, a 24-year-old civil servant sitting in the cramped cafe, which was opened six months ago.
Zhao has followed “Sherlock” for four years and like other fans was thrilled when the third season was finally released early this month after a two-year-wait. To fill the time between seasons, she repeatedly watched former episodes starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a modern-day Sherlock in London.
The 37-year-old British actor is known online as “China’s gay, erotic god.”
Last year, when British Prime Minister David Cameron visited China, he opened a Sina Weibo Twitter-like account. Messages overwhelmingly urged him to speed up filming and release of Season 3.
When it did premiere in China, it was viewed more than 5 million times in the first two hours on video website Youku.com. China was one of the first countries where it was shown.
Shanghai Daily talked to other fans of “Sherlock,” “Downton Abbey” and other British period drama.
Henry Li, a senior at the University of Virginia, read all the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries before watching the BBC series. He doubted the TV version could live up to the original.
“But I have to say, setting the plot in modern fashionable London is clever. Though I love the carriages and revolvers in the books, this is a fresh view with new plots,” says the student in biomedical engineering who returned to Shanghai for the holidays.
“You can’t really compare the two, though sometimes there are surprising details reminiscent of the novels, and that’s great.”
Many Chinese fans find the series, with just a few episodes each season, more like a movie. They enjoy the tight plotting, “unlike American TV series with ridiculous and irrelevant scenes,” Li observes.
Sexual orientation in the British drama has aroused huge discussion on Chinese social networks, since Holmes’ relationship with Watson, played by Martin Freeman, is clearly an unusual friendship. This leaves room for the audience’s imagination.
Sprouting online groups
Online Sherlock Holmes groups and clubs have sprouted across all major social networks where viewers delve into the tiniest and most obscure clues to prove their homosexual attachment. Viewers make videos, including music videos, and put Holmes and Watson together like a real couple using Photoshop. They also write scripts for the two men.
Some fan groups are devoted to combined curatrices, such as Sheriarty (Sherlock and his criminal nemesis James Moriarty), Jimlock (Jim Moriarty and Sherlock) and WH (Watson and Holmes). The Sheriarty and Jimlock fans believe the two men are struggling in a love-hate relationship, while WH is a gay “couple” beloved by most fans. They are frequently described as a “cute” and “adorable” duo.
“It is amazing that a TV series could have such cute protagonists performed by just the right actors with great gay-citement,” says Cassandra’s riddle, an online commentator.
Lillian Shao, a 28-year-old stock broker, studies a popular online article on British dining etiquette, containing 20 principles — all derived from “Downton Abbey.”
She noted that ladies must sit straight and never touch the back of the seat while eating; tea must be poured before milk is added; tea must then be stirred back and forth between the 6 and 12 o’clock positions.
“Goodness, I felt like a savage after reading all this etiquette,” she says.
Shao says some of her friends, having seen the drama, are actually considering taking an etiquette course and refining their table manners.
The opulent settings, elaborate costumes, rigorous manners and post-Edwardian details of the Yorkshire country estate have captivated Chinese TV viewers.
Beautiful film language
“The film language is so beautiful that scenes could be preserved as computer wallpaper to enjoy,” Shao says. “They are so richly detailed — from a bouquet of flowers to a dazzling hairpin — that they are a pleasure to watch,” Shao says.
When searching “Downton” on shopping website Taobao.com, more than 1,000 ladies’ items pop up, including vintage-like gowns and accessories exactly like those worn by characters. The style is becoming very popular in some circles.
“I like the rich aroma of Britain in the drama as well as the profound culture and nobility,” says Chen Xiaoyi, 31, a biomedical engineer.
“But I was freaking out after I had to wait for eight months for the next eight-episode season,” she says in jest.
Other reasons to watch “Sherlock” and “Downton” are the “lovely accent and the wise and humorous dialogue,” Chen says.
Youku.com, the video website, says, “British TV drama has sophisticated production and each features unique style. The stories are short, compact and well-organized. This will lure more and more viewers.”
Many Chinese viewers were first attracted to British costume drama by the Jane Austin classic “Pride and Prejudice” (1995) starring Colin Firth as Mr Darcy. Many people still watch it.
“I was astonished because it fulfilled all my expectations,” says 30-year-old reporter, Yang Yang. Now she watches all the British costume dramas, especially classics like “Sense and Sensibility” and “Brideshead Revisited.”
“British costume dramas are depicted to a nicety and the storyline is precisely controlled — by comparison, American drama is a mess,” Yang says.
Youku.com is the biggest website showing British drama, including “Sherlock,” “Downton Abbey” and “Black Mirror.” They have generated significant advertising revenue.