If you happen to be in Singapore and switching television channels around midnight, you may be surprised to find a popular Chinese period drama showing on local TV.
Chinese costume dramas enjoy wide popularity in Southeast Asia. In fact, the region has become the largest overseas market for Chinese TV series, accounting for about two-thirds of the total overseas sales. Audiences in many parts of the region have large ethnic Chinese communities who can relate to the themes of the exported programs from China.
According to the Beijing International Copyright Exchange Center, Chinese shows are exported mainly to Southeast Asia, and these commonly feature martial arts and historical dramas.
Based on data from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, the export value of Chinese TV shows reached $10 million in 2010 and $12 million in 2011.
Period dramas from China are more popular among foreign audiences compared with historical dramas from other countries. But when it comes to contemporary dramas, those from the United States and South Korea hold sway.
Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia are major buyers of Chinese costume dramas, says Wang Xin, deputy director of the international sales department at the State-owned China International Television Corp (CITC).
Valerie Ng, a Malaysian, says she has watched the Chinese time-travel TV series Bu Bu Jing Xin (Startling by Each Step), which she says was well received in her country and neighboring Singapore.
The show, based on the debut novel by Tong Hua, centered on the romance between a Qing Dynasty prince and a young woman from the 21st century who was transported back in time to China’s last imperial dynasty after being involved in a near-fatal accident.
“I love it because of the story line; there’s always a twist to it. I also love the historical side, the sights, costumes, cinematography and superb acting skills of the actors”, Ng says.
Bu Bu Jing Qing, the sequel to Bu Bu Jing Xin, was recently shown in Singapore, she adds.
Ng says she has also seen The Legend of Zhen Huan, another popular Chinese costume drama, which first aired in China in November 2011.
It delves into the power struggle among the wives of a Qing Dynasty emperor, a major draw among television viewers. The beautiful scenery, lavish costumes and lessons in court etiquette and classical poetry were also major attractions of the soap drama, which had been popular in Southeast Asia.
Chance Jin, who has lived in the Philippines for 11 years, says Shen Diao Xia Lu (The Return of the Condor Heroes), adapted from Chinese author Jin Yong’s famous martial arts novel, has also been shown on local TV. The series was dubbed into Filipino.
Jin says he has yet to see a modern Chinese drama in the Philippines, where he concedes South Korean soap operas are “very popular”.
In May, a TV version of the popular Chinese tale, Journey to the West, was shown in Myanmar by the privately owned TV station Sky Net.
According to Wang from the CITC, export of the company’s TV series to Southeast Asia makes up about 40 percent of overseas sales; Hong Kong and Taiwan 30 percent, and South Korea and Japan nearly 30 percent.
“The exports (of Chinese dramas) to other countries or regions except Asia are very few. In general, nearly 90 percent of Chinese TV series are sold to Asia,” says Wang. Costume dramas are the most popular of CITC’s exports, he adds, owing to their “excellent production, gorgeous costumes and refined props”.
“The (ethnic) Chinese in Southeast Asia have the same ancestral lineage, history (and) culture. They may be curious about Chinese history and culture, and want to learn more through these TV dramas.”
But while the export of Chinese TV series has increased in recent years, it is not without challenges.
Based on data from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, the export of Chinese TV series suffered a trade deficit between 2005 and 2011. Overseas sales of Chinese TV series account for only about 5 percent of the total sales volume, with export price relatively lower than those of the US and South Korea.
The deficit may be partly attributed to the overall quality of Chinese dramas when compared with South Korean dramas, considered generally to be of better quality and more appealing to Asian audiences. Wang says Chinese TV producers should improve the quality of their exported programs to be on par with South Korea.
Still another factor limiting the appeal of Chinese dramas transported to Asia could be the limited plots.
Meng Jian, a journalism professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, says exported Chinese TV series mainly deal with martial arts and conflicts among emperors’ concubines. In the long run, stories about ordinary people have a broader appeal to foreign markets.
Chang Jiang, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University of China, says: “We should note that Chinese TV series (televised) in overseas markets mainly depend on (the reception of) overseas Chinese communities, so real cross-cultural communication in foreign countries is very weak.”
More creative control should be in place with Chinese TV series, he says, adding that the production of the shows should maintain international standards.
“Only in this way will the overseas buyer be willing to accept our TV series,” Chang says. He also believes that producers should pay close attention to overseas audience research.
However, local production outfits in China are presently either not willing or unable to invest in such research. Hence they end up with products that do not appeal to foreign markets.
“They are just trying their luck,” Chang concludes.