Up to 50 million Chinese regularly tune into the country’s most popular dating show, If You Are the One (Fei Cheng Wu Rao), 非誠勿擾, or by its literal translation ‘If not sincere, then do not disturb.’
And therein lies the fascination for Western audiences in gaining greater insight into Chinese popular culture.
While the excessively blinged-out chrome set looks like Fountain Gate shopping mall crossed with a Hillsong Rock Spectacular, its scratch-the-surface-get-more-surface appearance and absurd sound effects, epileptic lighting and biliously mawkish 90s pop can be somewhat deceiving.
Because whether it’s the lone male suitor doing his best to impress the panel or the 24 single women registering their interest or otherwise at their personal podium, none seems the slightest bit inclined to sugar-coat their responses.
As a female contestant famously retorted to a smitten bachelor who suggested they go on a bike ride, “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.”
In its earliest incarnation around 2010, If You Are The One’s young professional contestants became increasingly obsessed with annual earnings and material possessions. One male contestant even went so far as to present his bank statements to the audience.
It was around this point that officials from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television stepped in to regulate the show, claiming it was spreading the wrong values and in so doing curbed all references to financial wealth and sex. Regardless of The Party’s efforts towards the taming of the shrewd, If You Are the One remains one of the country’s most popular shows, with contestants enjoying fame and on occasions infamy as a result of their one-off appearances.
Curiously there is also an Australian connection. The show was based on the presciently named Taken Out, which was axed by Network Ten in 2008 after just a month, only to have its format re-imagined and successfully exported to 19 countries including China.
The irony is that it bombed in Australia because it was deemed thimble-deep in terms of character and plot development. Instead Australian audiences have chosen to delude themselves that The Bachelor, Beauty and the Geek and The Farmer Wants a Wife deliver greater depth and gravitas. So it’s intriguing that what was dismissed as too low brow for Australians is in truth far more sincere, transparent and insightful than any of the televisual navel fluff we choose to pick over here.
If You Are the One is both a juggernaut and a genuine conundrum; populist life writ large while simultaneously charming and strangely modest.
Perfect matches don’t occur too frequently, with the male suitors more often than not leaving empty-handed. Yet when a coupling does eventuate, the grand prize is usually no more than a pair of shoes.
And for losing males, If You Are the One’s equivalent of the diamond-set memento is to have his email address splashed onscreen at the end of the show.
As avid watcher Jonathan Rowbotham noted ‘It’s macabre, scary, awkward, touching, trite, profound and the best introduction to modern Chinese culture ever. I think the clincher for me is the way it can transform from the trite and shallow to soft and profound in a nanosecond.’
This post is dedicated to Jonathan Rowbotham, who regularly read my blog and suggested this show as a subject for it. ‘If you haven’t seen it and you like The Shaggs and Jan Terri, then I think you’ll like this.’ Indeed I do. Thank you and goodnight.