A Stage for Overnight Success
The gala also retains an established reputation for catapulting unknown performers from obscurity to super stardom almost overnight. Before the 1987 edition, Taiwan-born singer Kris Phillips (费翔 Fèixiáng) was a nobody, his unsold albums lining the back shelves of record stores across the country. Yet his rendition of the song “A Torch of Fire in Winter” (《冬天里的一把火》Dōngtiān lǐ de yī bǎ huǒ) during that year’s gala instantly transformed him into a household name. The song’s chorus, “You’re just like a torch of fire in winter, whose flames warm my heart” (你就像那冬天里的一把火，熊熊火光温暖了我 Nǐ jiù xiàng nà dōngtiān lǐ de yī bǎ huǒ, xióngxióng huǒguāng wēnnuǎnle wǒ) caught the public’s imagination and drove Phillip’s album to sell 1.6 million copies. The song was so popular that a bemused Philips was even blamed for a wildfire that caught in the forests of northeast China shortly after that year’s Spring Festival.
The example of Phillips and others like him inspired a train of wannabe stars to journey to Beijing and petition for a place on the show. Zhao Benshan (赵本山), renowned as the “King of Skit,” is now a gala fixture, having appeared on every show bar one since his debut in 1990. The Dongbei native and his dark blue Maoist-era suit (中山装 Zhōngshānzhuāng) instantly won over nationwide audiences with skits taking off rural customs and speech, and punchlines that became public catchphrases overnight.
Zhao Benshan dressed as a peasant in the 1999 skit “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”
But it took a degree of perseverance for Zhao to get his start on the show. At his first attempt in 1987, Zhao was encouraged by crosstalk actor and 1983 gala host Jiang Kun to set out for Beijing on a mission to transform his local notoriety into national fame. His suitcase was loaded with videotapes of his performances, as well as a canny secret weapon—10 bottles of Maotai Chinese liquor, with which he intended to bribe gala directors for his shot at fame. But the rustic Zhao didn’t even make it past the front door, let alone get a chance to ply decision-makers with expensive bottles of liquor. Frustrated, he spent the remainder of his time in the capital cooped up in a hotel, polishing off one bottle of Maotai a day. When the last drop was finished, he returned home, but still managed to get his troupe to reimburse him by claiming he had dished out all the bottles as bribes. How’s that for chutzpah? It was a humbling experience, and a far cry from Zhao’s current position as one of the show’s major draws.
Yang Xue, a 26-year-old girl from Jilin Province, recalls that her family used to eat dumplings around midnight on New Year’s Eve in keeping with tradition in northern China. But in recent years, they’ve polished off the dumplings ahead of time to ensure they’re ready for Zhao’s skit, which usually takes place just before the bell toll for midnight at the end of the four-hour show.
Yang’s family is by no means unique in having centuries old traditions altered by the advent of the gala. Mr. Zhu, a Shanghai native in his fifties, recalls that his pre-TV New Year’s Eve ritual involved offering sacrifices to the ancestors and performing a kowtow ceremony, before gathering the whole family for a reunion dinner. After the meal, the younger kids spent most of the night outside lighting firecrackers and playing with peers (though hopefully not at the same time), while their elder siblings helped parents prepare more food: steaming buns and rice cakes, stir-frying peanuts, sunflower seeds and pine nuts, as well as making meat balls and dumplings.
Yet even Zhu reserves his nostalgia for the days when neighbors would sit together to watch the gala on a black and white TV set. “There were few choices of TV channels and programs in the 1980s. Unlike today’s pop stars who frequently hold individual concerts, the gala was a once-in-a-year opportunity for us to see a whole range of stars all at the same time.”
A Summary of the Year
The gala strives not only to showcase the talent of the moment, but also to serve up lighthearted references to the key events of the preceding year. In 1998, the blockbuster movie “Titanic” wowed audiences at Chinese movie theaters, capturing the heart of millions at a stroke and prompting a curious piece of stagecraft from the directors of the 1999 gala. In the skit “The Experienced Takes the Lead” (《老将出马》Lǎojiàng chūmǎ), Chinese actors re-enacted the classic scene in which Rose stretches out her arms and falls back into Jack’s embrace. However, in a playful attempt to introduce some Chinese characteristics to the scene, the directors replaced the iconic ship’s deck with a large orange tractor.
The parody of “Titanic” is just one instance of the gala playing out sketches that parallel current cultural phenomena. In 1999, the huge popularity of the TV drama “Princess Huanzhu” (《还珠格格》Huán zhū gég)—a comedy about an unruly adopted daughter of Qing Dynasty (1616-1911) Emperor Qianlong—earned the female lead “Little Swallow” (小燕子 Xiǎo yànzi) a role as one of the gala hosts, while another actress in the drama also appeared on stage in a sketch.
While the gala focuses on light pop culture, a show rarely unfolds without at least a passing nod toward important political and social events. In 2009, the directors were faced with a particularly sticky conundrum, as the previous year had proved a momentous one in good ways and bad, encompassing the tragic Sichuan Earthquake, the Beijing Olympic Games and the successful launch of the Shenzhou 7 Manned Space Mission, not to mention the onset of the global financial crisis. This smorgasbord of key events provided rich source material for the writers and choreographers, and the show featured appearances from astronauts, Olympic champions and “Cola Boy,” made famous by asking for a cold bottle of Coke the moment he was rescued after being buried in debris for 80 hours following the Wenchuan quake.
Isaac Hou, the first contestant of “I want to Perform in the Spring Gala” to win a spot on the television show
But the format drew sharp criticism from some corners for leaning too heavily toward a political agenda. The complaints brought into relief an ongoing argument over the true popularity of the gala, especially with younger generations. A well-known joke illustrates the debate: a Chinese guy registers an account on a matchmaker website in search of a marriage partner. One day, he is surprised to find that all the girls who have shown interest have deleted him from their friend lists. He inspects his profile carefully and finds out that someone has secretly logged into his account and changed his “hobbies” to include “watching the CCTV spring festival gala and walking with caged birds (a common hobby among old Chinese men).”
Xiao Shufeng, a woman in her thirties from Shandong Province, hasn’t watched the gala for three years. “Boring,” is her immediate response when asked for her opinion on the show. “Every year it’s the same old faces. The skits are stale and superficial, always following an inflexible model of trying to be amusing while sprinkling in sentimental elements. I felt like I was watching a CCTV News broadcast instead of an entertainment program,” she said.
However, some of those who agree with Xiao still can’t tear themselves away. “Though the gala is boring, I’ll still watch it,” writes one blogger, “otherwise I’d be hopelessly ‘out’ the next day when everyone starts criticizing it on the internet.”
Even creator Huang Yihe has conceded that the proliferation of Chinese entertainment shows has chipped away at the gala’s reputation, with many younger viewers now having more fun criticizing it online than actually watching the performance.
Conversely, overseas Chinese represent an increasingly loyal audience. For Mr. Guan, who emigrated from China to the U.S. city of Philadelphia, the show’s appeal lies in its evocation of his hometown, family and traditional Spring Festival celebrations. “It doesn’t matter whether the gala itself is engaging,” Guan says. “What matters is that the whole family sits around the dinner table and enjoys the rare occasion of a reunion with the TV on.”
Pretender to the Throne
Many viewers, loyal aficionados or otherwise, will pass the time in the run-up to gala night by guessing which stars will make an appearance, while the director does his or her level best to keep the content of the show under wraps. However, last year’s show was groundbreaking in that three of the slots were made public in advance. These were filled by the three finalists of the reality TV show “I Want to Perform in the Spring Gala” (《我要上春晚》Wǒ yào shàng chūnwǎn), which follows grassroots artists as they compete to appear in the gala.
After just one full year on air, the reality show already threatens to eclipse the gala itself in terms of popularity. Last year’s winners, consisting of a street performance duo, a female singer plucked from the underpasses of Beijing and a group of street-dancing migrant workers from Shenzhen, were by far the most popular of the debut acts in the 2011 gala. Mrs. He, a Beijing native in her fifties, is unequivocal over which show gets her vote, “I love to watch ‘I Want to Perform in the Spring Gala’, but not the real Spring Gala.” Yet despite audiences’ preference for the reality show over its esteemed predecessor, the two enjoy a symbiotic relationship, one which organizers will hope will for the time being deflect attention away from the gala’s perceived shortcomings.
Cover image from VCG