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Letter from Shanghai

Letter from Shanghai: Class and capitalism mix with comedy

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By Andrew Higgins
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Amid throbbing music and wild applause, Zhou Libo waddled onto the stage mimicking the gait and gestures of Mao Zedong, Communist China's founding father. Spotlights played across big, gold Chinese characters trumpeting the theme of the night's performance: "I'm Crazy for Money."

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In a country where leaders don't take kindly to mockery, proclaim socialism as their guiding creed and demand obedience to Beijing, Zhou is an unusual phenomenon: a stand-up comic who ribs officials, celebrates wealth and extols what he and many others in this most cosmopolitan of Chinese cities view as the superiority of their metropolis.

Beneath the gags, delivered in a mix of Mandarin and Shanghai dialect, lurk some of China's most sensitive issues. "I want to make my audience think," Zhou said in a backstage interview shortly before showtime at the Shanghai International Gymnastic Center. "China's political environment is a lot more relaxed than people outside think."

While Beijing authorities crack down hard on any stirring of disrespect in Tibet and other areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, they've let Zhou vent -- albeit often in a dialect most Chinese don't understand.

He makes cracks about "garlic munchers" in the capital and outsiders who don't share Shanghai's sophisticated ways. Other favorite topics include sky-high real estate prices and the gyrations of the city's stock exchange -- also touchy subjects with China's dour leaders.

The comedian's Shanghai shtick has won him a huge following among the city's prosperous bourgeoisie, a class that Mao and a handful of fellow revolutionaries vowed to eliminate when they gathered here in June 1921 to establish the Chinese Communist Party.

After starting out in a 700-seat Shanghai theater, Zhou moved his show this year to the Gymnastic Center, which has 3,700 seats. His performances all sold out despite an average ticket price of more than $50, roughly two weeks' wages for the average Chinese.

He has also produced a series of best-selling DVDs and a "dictionary of humor" to help decipher his Shanghainese punch lines, nearly all of which get lost in translation.

"My audience is mostly white collar. I talk about fairly complicated things for fairly complicated people," Zhou said. "I let simple people talk for the simple people."

This year, he caused a stir by declining an invitation to go to Beijing and take part in a lowbrow TV variety show over Chinese New Year. The show, an annual event on China's main state-run television channel, is pitched mainly at peasants and migrant workers who return to their villages for the holiday.

Zhou said he turned down the offer because he knows "nothing about peasants. My culture is urban culture." Shanghai, though itself primarily a city of immigrants, has a long history of looking down its nose at outsiders. But, as in other big cities, the tension has increased sharply in recent years as migrant workers from the countryside have flooded in looking for work.

In Shanghai, the animosity bubbled to the surface in December after an incident on a breakfast radio show. Xiao Jun, the show's host, read out on air a text message he'd received from an angry listener: "I beg you not to speak Shanghai dialect anymore. I hate you Shanghainese." Xiao, in rude terms, told the unidentified author of the message -- apparently a newcomer to the city -- to get lost and go home.

The exchange prompted a heated discussion, particularly on Web forums. Outsiders blasted Shanghai, with one Web post ridiculing its "aboriginal" dialect. Natives, meanwhile, said there is no place for newcomers who don't show respect.

Zhou, the comedian, has sided firmly with the love-it-or-leave-it camp. Shanghai, he said, "is a melting pot like America" but has no place for those who reject its ways. "If you can't fit in, why come?" he said during his show.

The audience loved it. Among those applauding was Huang Jianqiu, 47, a designer who took his wife, an office worker, to the performance. Their tickets cost a total of $110.

Zhou "speaks about our lives and our problems," said Huang, who explained that he wouldn't mind his daughter marrying a foreigner but would have "serious objections" if she fell in love with a peasant from Anhui, one of China's poorest regions. "It's a question of culture," he said.

Anhui, a major source of migrant labor, looms large in Shanghai's phobias about what many view as uncultured and potentially dangerous bumpkins from the sticks. In a widely followed case, an out-of-work Anhui migrant was sentenced to death last year after a Shanghai court convicted him of murdering a Canadian model who lived in the city.

For all his irreverence, Zhou takes care not to go too far. He never challenges one-party rule and, while mimicking Mao and several leaders who are still alive, he's avoided trying to imitate Hu Jintao, China's very buttoned-down party chief and president. Zhou insists this isn't because he might get in trouble but because Hu is just too bland: "Not every leader can be impersonated. Some leaders don't have any clear special characteristic."

Special correspondent Wang Juan in Beijing contributed to this report.



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