Meet the Cast of 《蜗居》

Posted in Pop Culture at 3:48 pm by Benjamin Ross

I’m now a little over 2/3 through 《蜗居》 and it is shaping up to be a truly captivating series. 《蜗居》 is not fast moving, nor action packed. The plot develops at an unforced, natural pace, relying little on sensationalism or action. Instead, 《蜗居》’s strength its complex and dynamic characters…whom I would like to introduce below.

There is no one central character in 《蜗居》, but if I had to approximate who figures most prominently in the plot it would be Hai Ping. Hai Ping is in her late 20’s (possibly early 30’s) and lives with her husband Su Chun in a tiny apartment in Jiangzhou, the fictional city where 《蜗居》 takes place. She is a graduate of a top tier university but is currently working in a dead end office administrative job.

Hai Ping with husband Su Chen

Hai Ping’s tragic flaw is in her greed, although this manifests itself in what she wants for her family, not for herself per se. Namely she wants to buy a condo. The driving force behind this is her daughter Rang Rang. Since apartment is too small and their expenses tight, Rang Rang is being raised in their hometown by Hai Ping’s parents. Once a condo is purchased, the plan is for Rang Rang to return to her parents.

Hai Ping’s husband Su Chun is your typical Chinese Zhang San (John Doe). He has a danwei job as a designer which provides a modest income, drinks and smokes in moderation, is faithful to Hai Ping, but also does nothing to stand out as an exceptional husband or father. This is not good enough for Hai Ping, and she frequently berates him on account of his mediocrity.

Hai Ping’s sister Hai Zao has also moved to Jiangzhou upon graduation from college. Hai Ping too works an office job in Jiangzhou and lives with her boyfriend Xiao Bei. Seven years younger, Hai Zao is naïve, immature, and inexperienced compared to her older sister whom she frequently turns to as role model and advisor. Hai Zao’s has deep admiration and feeling of gratitude towards Hai Ping, which turns out to be her own tragic flaw.

Hai Zao with boyfriend Xiao Bei

Hai Zao is prettier than Hai Ping and has attracted the attention of Song Si Ming, a married, wealthy, government official in his 40’s. The casual work relationship between the two evolves into a full-fledged affair, which the two manage to keep secret from their respective partners for some time. Hai Zao thus remains trapped in between two separate lives, her legitimate boyfriend Xiao Bei, and her sugardaddy Song.

Xiao Bei is Hai Zao’s boyfriend (and also my favorite character thus far). Like Su Chun he holds a steady job and is not independently wealthy. However, unlike Su Chun, he knows how to please women. Whether it’s cooking her dinner, taking her out window shopping, or sending cute instant messages to Hai Zao (whom he calls “Little Pig”) during the work day, Xiao Bei always knows how to make Hai Zao smile. Additionally, when it comes to serious matters such as finances or major decisions, Xiao Bei always has a prescience which seems behind his years. In short, he is excellent husband material…which is maybe why he is getting the short end of the stick? Xiao Bei is also perceptive and intelligent and it is seemingly only a matter of time until he finds out about his girlfriend’s affair.

Hai Zao with other boyfriend Song Si Ming

Song Si Ming is not the bullheaded, chain smoking, pleather man-purse toting, tinted window Audi driving, alpha male know-it-all Chinese bureaucrat that we all love to hate. He is well-mannered, soft spoken, doesn’t smoke, and has yet to be belligerently drunk on camera. Outwardly he treats others with respect and has the calm demeanor which would seem to make him an ideal family man. At face value, Song is likeable guy, one who seems to have retained a sense of humbleness regardless of his immense financial resources. Song seems to have everything a man could want, good job, beautiful wife, healthy kid, etc. Yet as he looks at himself in the mirror one morning, he realizes how old he has become. With all his money and success, he still feels a void in his life—a void which can only be filled by the object of a new obsession, Hai Zao. This proves to be his downward spiral as his obsession with Hai Zao tears him from his family and sends him on a mad quest for control and power. Cognizant of Hai Zao’s connection to her sister, on multiple occasions Song uses his money and power to bail Hai Ping and Su Chun out of otherwise formidable situations. Ironically though, it is often Hai Ping, not Hai Zao who is uncomfortable with this tacit arrangement.

Thus we have the bulk of the cast. There are several other minor characters, but the majority of the plot focuses on these key individuals. I’ll try to keep posting as I finish up the show. The deeper I get, the juicier it becomes.



The Five* Year Plan: Ben’s going back to school!

Posted in Announcements at 11:00 am by Benjamin Ross

Back in October I mentioned that I was in the process of applying to Ph. D programs. Well, the yearlong process of researching departments, studying for the GRE, hunting down professors, sorting transcripts, writing essays, submitting applications, and waiting for responses is finally complete.

This fall I am going to begin a masters/Ph. D program in Sociology at the University of Chicago.  The focus of my studies is going to be Urban Sociology, and I plan to tailor my research towards the urbanization of China.

Over the past thirty years China has been the site of the largest rural to urban migration in human history. Similar to how European rural peasantry poured into North American urban areas in the decades around the turn of the 20th Century, Chinese peasants are now flooding Chinese cities at unprecedented rates. The migrants come to work in factories, on construction sites, in restaurants, barbershops, or any of the multitude of new jobs necessary to support China’s export market and nascent consumer classes.

In the wake of the United States’ own urbanization, the 1920’s and 1930’s saw a explosion of new sociological theory and research. Much of this body of research was conducted in Chicago, which was the de facto Shenzhen of the early 20th Century. Using models from American urbanization as well as current work done in China, I am hoping to examine the Chinese urbanization process and its corollaries as they are unfolding today.

For the first two years of my program, I will essentially be a fulltime classroom student. Years three and four will be spent teaching classes and starting independent dissertation research. From that point on, the focus becomes finishing (and hopefully someday publishing) the dissertation. This is where it’s difficult to predict a timeframe. Officially, funding for the program lasts 5 years, but the general consensus from current students and faculty is that 6 or 7 years is more realistic, and also preferred… hence the asterisk in the title.

While the American Midwest will now be my home for most of the remainder of the decade, I will likely be spending several summers, or possibly a semester or three, conducting fieldwork in the Middle Kingdom.

School starts in the end of September and at that time I plan to move to Hyde Park where I will probably remain for the first year or two in order to be close to campus. In the meantime I will still be interpreting, watching Chinese television shows, and hopefully blogging as well.

And yes, in case anybody was wondering, my writing sample for grad school applications was about Chinese barbershops. I’ll try to post it in the days to come.



Getting Started on 蜗居

Posted in Pop Culture at 9:26 pm by Benjamin Ross

After finishing Fen Dou and taking a short break from Chinese television shows, I am now 11 episodes into a new series, Wo Ju (蜗居).  Broadcast in 2009, Wo Ju has been the most popular and controversial series to come from Mainland China in some time.  Due to its controversial subject matter, Beijing TV pulled the plug on Wu Ju ten episodes in, and Shanghai moved it from prime time to a late night time slot.  Many people (myself included) have thus taken to the Chinese Internets to watch the series in its entirety.

I am currently 11 episodes into Wo Ju, and the following is a brief synopsis and analysis of what has gone down so far.  (There are some minor spoilers coming, so if you don’t want to know the result of the first 11 episodes, I’d suggest you stop reading here.)

蜗居 dwelling narrowness

Wo Ju begins with a couple, Su Chun and Hai Ping, who both grew up in rural China, have recently graduated from top tier universities and moved to Jiangzhou, a fictional Chinese city reminiscent of Shanghai.  They live in a tiny studio apartment and work low-level, white collar jobs, providing just enough income to scrape by.  Yet they are happy just to be together, content that they are “making it” in the big city.

The story then flashes several years into the future.  Su Chun and Hai Ping are still in the same studio apartment living the same post-college lifestyle.  In the interim however, two major changes have occurred.  First, Hai Ping’s sister Hai Zao, seven years her junior, has also graduated college, and at Hai Ping’s encouragement is looking for a job in Jiangzhou.  Secondly, Hai Ping is now pregnant, further compounding the stress of living in a cramped studio apartment.

Hai Zao soon finds a job as well as a boyfriend (Xiao Bei), and begins her own life in Jiangzhou.  Once their baby (Rang Rang) is born, Su Chun and Hai Ping face the spatial limitations and inconveniences of raising a child in a studio apartment.  While visiting Jiangzhou, Hai Ping’s mother is appalled at their living conditions and convinces Hai Ping to allow her to take Rang Rang back to the village.  The plan is for Rang Rang is to be raised in the village until Su Chun and Hai Ping can afford to purchase a condo.  Hai Ping is reluctant to give up Rang Rang (Su Chun is indifferent), but realizes there is no better option.

Again we flash forward several years and Su Chun and Hai Ping travel back to their home village where Hai Ping spends every moment with her beloved daughter, now a toddler.  However, she is discouraged to find that Rang Rang hardly regards her as more than a stranger, having been raised her entire life by her grandparents.  This brings Hai Ping to a sudden realization.  She and Su Chun must no longer delay home ownership.  For the sake of keeping their family together, they need a condo, and they need it now!  But the problem is that neither she nor Su Chun have enough money for a down payment.  This problem is continually exacerbated as real estate prices escalate.

Meanwhile, Hai Zao has been doing very well for herself, both at work and in her personal life with Xiao Bei with whom she is now cohabitating.  But as an attractive, young female Hai Zao must deal with 陪酒, an annoyance common in the Chinese business world for young women like her. 陪酒 refers to accompanying her boss to face-garnering business meetings (over meals, on the golf course, etc.) for the sole purpose of drinking and socializing with his potential business partners.  Hai Zao despises this aspect of her work and even contemplates quitting her job.  Ironically though, through these social engagements she strikes up a seemingly innocuous relationship with one of her boss’ business partners, Song Si Ming, a wealthy married, businessman in his forties (for point of reference, Hai Zao is still only a few years out of college).

Su Chun and Hai Ping meanwhile continue to struggle with the financial realities which subject them to living in a cramped studio apartment and subsisting on instant noodles.  They still cannot afford a down payment for a condo, and Hai Zao, who credits all her success and good fortune to the help and guidance of her older sister, feels compelled to rectify the situation.  The issue comes up in casual conversation between Hai Zao and Song Si Ming, and Song Si Ming cordially offers to loan Hai Zao the money for Hai Ping’s down payment.  It is apparent, but not spoken, at this point that Song Si Ming has an interest in Hai Zao which extends beyond platonic and business relations.  It is also apparent that he has something which Hai Zao, or more specifically Hai Zao’s sister Hai Ping needs, cash.  Thus we have the setup for a situation which has to potential to become quite juicy.

Up to this point, I can already tell that by all measures that Wo Ju is a show of much higher quality than Fen Dou.  The acting is better, the production level is of relatively high quality (I haven’t seen a single overhead mic yet), and the story line is much more realistic.  (The plot of Fen Dou was about as plausible as your average Harry Potter flick).  But what I like most about Wo Ju so far is that it showcases real problems and conflicts which are regularly encountered by Chinese urbanites, such as corruption, infidelity, and the housing bubble.  It portrays them in a realistic light, and without cheesy miracle fixes and crackpot story lines to undermine the plot’s integrity.  I still have 24 episodes left, so I’m sure there is much more action ahead.  I’ll try to keep everybody posted.

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