- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2004

NEW YORK - There aren’t many reality shows in which a guy, racing around a track against fellow contestants, slides into the finish line, skins his elbows and offers this assessment: “You bleed and sacrifice for the people.”

Then again, there aren’t many reality shows in which all the contestants are speaking Chinese — at least, not that many that use the American landscape as muse, backdrop and all-purpose obstacle course.

Take four teams of young people steeped in Chinese culture — from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the mainland and the United States. Pit them against each other—? but in a nice, collaborative way. Then send them on a weird road trip through New England, Amish country, the rural South and Miami Beach.

What you end up with is “Quest USA,” a compelling bilingual reality show envisioned by its producers as the first in a series of real-life exploits by ethnic Chinese from all over. It’s “The Real World” meets Kerouac meets “The Simple Life 2” — in Mandarin, with heavy overtones of politeness and a very Chinese sense of duty and commitment to teamwork.

“We wanted to do Americana: Amish country, Mystic Seaport, those things that are very much American,” producer Sarah Zhang says.

The show, which chronicled an eight-day odyssey and was shot on a budget of $60,000, aired this fall on two channels in New York and is available now on DVD. It includes a throbbing soundtrack — a pure product of globalization that includes the unlikely fusion sound of “Chinese bluegrass” and a cool track by the band Notorious MSG called “Dim Sum Girl.”

Now the producers begin a second, more daunting quest — to air the show on mainland Chinese television and get the Beijing government and a major Shanghai production company involved in producing a sequel, “Quest China,” which would involve teams running across the Chinese landscape and encountering various unique challenges there.

Mrs. Zhang and her husband, the show’s executive producer, returned from China a few weeks ago, and she’s brimming with optimism that the project can start filming next spring. She says Shanghai Media Group, a television powerhouse, is “extremely interested” in helping produce a show where teams from the United States, Australia, Canada and China would turn the Chinese countryside into a playground.

“Our goal is to show the real China to the outside world — and also what China looks like now. Foreigners only want to see ethnic and exotic culture. They don’t know how advanced China is now and that Shanghai looks like the city from the future.”

China is dabbling in reality TV as its reform process opens up the culture in many respects; among its latest entertainment efforts is a reality show filmed in the heavily Muslim (and heavily restricted) desert region of Xinjiang. But it’s still a dictatorship. That means it’s a place where government officials — both central and local — don’t always cotton to outsiders running around with video cameras.

Arranging to film such a show in China will undoubtedly involve delicate negotiations and endorsements from the top levels in Beijing. In addition, says Mrs. Zhang, “The government doesn’t want to promote too much American ideology. They don’t want to see too much backstabbing in order to succeed.”

“Quest USA” turned out to be an odd cultural spectacle. Contestants rapped, performed farm chores in Amish country and had an egg-eating contest in Roanoke. They got loaded on Miller Genuine Draft in motel rooms and started talking about sex. They raced little cars in Daytona Beach and competed in “mud skiing” in northern Florida.

All in Chinese with English subtitles — and the occasional lapse into English, in which they are all fluent.

Unlike many such shows, which are ultimately nihilistic, this one offers a glimpse into what good reality TV can be — putting people against unfamiliar backdrops and seeing how they react, thus getting a window into their lives, their culture, their outlook.

That’s something “Fear Factor” will never do.

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