Big news in China: ‘Mythbusters’ blew up a Chinese popcorn maker

January 24, 2013

Chinese Central TV, or CCTV, is one of the most-watched news networks in the world, with viewership sometimes in the high hundreds of millions. This week, the network turned to a story that has been generating increasingly wide discussion in China: a popular U.S. TV show, it seems, had investigated China's street vendor-style popcorn maker. And those silly Americans just couldn't figure it out, to the fascination of far-away Chinese viewers.

Our story begins in November, when a Discovery Channel show called "Mythbusters," hosted by a couple of special effects veterans, looked into the old-school popcorn makers used by many Chinese street vendors. The metal, teardrop-shaped container is filled with popcorn, sealed, and cooked over a charcoal flame. The popping happens when the street vendor opens a lever on the side that shoots air into the metal cooker, relieving the pressure and shooting out freshly popped popcorn.

If that sounds kind of like a miniature bomb, that's because it is, which is why one of the "Mythbusters" hosts decided to put on a giant bomb suit and cook the popper way above normal temperatures. The test went about how you'd expect (watch the original below): when the "Mythbusters" host opened up the release valve, the canister exploded from all the pressure, sending popcorn everywhere.

Chinese viewers seem amused by the fact that an expensive American TV show could so overthink, and somehow make dangerous, a banal popcorn maker that would seem cozily familiar to many urban Chinese. They also seem fascinated, as in often the case when Western media looks at China, by how they are perceived and portrayed. It's a funny reminder of the mutual interest between China and the West, particularly the United States, and of the still-wide cultural gap that we're slowly closing from both ends. Imagine how it would look if Chinese TV featured a wide-eyed segment on the dangerous magic of American hot dog carts.

The "Mythbusters" segment, in its two months since airing, has been covered by CCTV, Sina Web, People's Daily, the South China Morning Post, and the ultra-popular 163.com. It's also hit the China blogs: both Beijing Cream and Shanghaiist have picked it up.

The South China Morning Post gathered some of the representative Web discussion. Commentary seems split between nostalgia for how much better popcorn tastes from one of the streetside cannons, now rarer than they were a decade ago, and the usual mixture of fascination with China's image in the United States and passionate disdain for the Westerners. "Wearing explosion-proof gear? The US imperialists are scared silly now!” one Chinese Web user wrote on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter. Another added, “Americans are a joke. Have they not seen the world?”

The South China Morning Post also has a video of the cannon in its natural habitat, on a Chinese streetside. Fair warning: the explosion is a little loud. Looks delicious.

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Max Fisher | January 23, 2013