The Memories on the Return of Pearl Princess

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Asian for Asian: Remembering The Return of Pearl Princess from A Chinese-Filipino Perspective

During early 1998, the fairytale-like historical drama, The Return of the Pearl Princess (还珠格格), created a huge stir in the television scene in China. With the unbeatable record of an average daily rating of 47% that peaked at 65%– the drama is crowned as the highest-rating drama in the history of Chinese television. Characters’ names such as ‘Xiao Yan Zi (小燕子)’, ‘Zi We (紫薇)’, ‘Huang Ah Ma (皇阿玛)’ amongst others had became household names with the popularity of the drama. Additionally, the actors and actresses involved in the production had boosted their popularities with the growth of the drama – and they are still among the biggest stars in the Chinese entertainment industry for more than 17 years. With the huge success of the drama, the drama has been released in different countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia – which was dubbed into more than 10 different languages (See figure 1). Specifically, in the Philippines, the drama was broadcast by QTV, a secondary network of one of the biggest television network in the Philippines, GMA, last 2008.

Introduction: Asianovela – The Asian ‘Fairytales’ for Asians

Before the international broadcast of The Return of the Pearl Princess, the Philippine television market has been penetrated with imported television programmes as early as 1960s. The Mexican soap opera (known locally as teleserye, a Filipino term derived from the words tele, or television, and serye, or series), Marimar, garnered as high as 50% rating in the Philippines during its run. With the success of Marimar, local television networks realized the importance and market of teleserye in the Philippines. Primetime then came into the television scene, where dramas are being broadcast during the 6PM to 10:30PM block; family television time – based on the industrial time viewership – now, became the ‘Teleserye Primetime’ for Filipino audiences. To cater to the Filipino audiences’ demand and need for imported television series, two of the major broadcasting companies in the country, ABS-CBN and GMA, started to broadcast foreign television series.

After Meteor Garden, a Taiwanese television series, was introduced to the Philippines audiences on 2003, the so-called ‘Asianovela’, a portmanteau of the words Asian and telenovela, started to trend in the Philippine television scene. Asianovela includes television series from different countries in the continent that can be differentiated into the following: Chinese-made ‘Chinovela’, Japanese-made ‘Japanovela’, and Korean-made ‘Koreanovela’. These countries have contributed hundreds of teleserye that have been dubbed into Filipino to satisfy the Asianovela needs of the Filipino audiences (Vinculado, 2006). Most of the Asianovela revolves around the stories of family, romance, kinship, and friendship, which are strongly linked to the cultures and values that we Asians are believing in. Until today, there are several Asianovela that are being broadcast in the Philippine television networks such as Legendary Women and Stairway to Heaven. To examine the personal memories of the series’ fans, online platforms such as forums and video-sharing channels will be considered in collecting the thoughts from viewers. Moreover, this article will discuss the influence of the drama to the Filipino and Asian audiences, and also, to its core target audiences, the viewers from mainland China, and how the drama is being remembered until today, since it was first broadcast 17 years ago.

No Other Princess: Chiung Yao’s Asian Cinderella

Comparing to other romance novels by Chiung Yao, the writer of The Return of the Pearl Princess, the drama has created different kinds of buzz amongst Asian television series. Typically, historical dramas tend to be serious and packed with emotional scenes. Yet, the wise creator of the drama, Chiung Yao, created a different kind of fictional historical drama series with The Return of the Pearl Princess. During its premiere in 1998, the drama created an unbeatable record in Chinese television scene, which caught the attention of the viewing public, and many had considered The Return of the Pearl Princess as comical renderings or slapstick (喜剧 in Chinese), where the drama is focused on the happiness of its main characters, and any other events in the story are comedically exaggerated. The drama differentiates itself with Chiung Yao’s other works by highlighting the exciting and blissful happenings inside the imperial palace, which attracted many students and family audiences, who just want to relax during the night and escape from the heaviness of their lives at least for an hour. It must be noted that exposure to media influences an audience’s perception of reality. Based on Granello’s research (1997) involving young female audiences’ perception towards the television programme, Beverly Hills 90210, the text or program is said to be decoded and interpreted in terms of the viewers’ social and life experiences. In fact, the story of The Return of the Pearl Princess followed the fairytale archetype (Liu, 2015), which was loved by millions of viewers worldwide. An avid television viewer, Brown Monkey (2005) on 54 Forum, notes about how the theme of Asianovela is linked with the fairy tale Cinderella:

[By] theme, Asianovelas always [expose] about a poor but beautiful woman who is actually from a rich family. She dreams to have a handsome man as her prince, but must face challenges from his family. Even though he gets married with other woman, she still makes a relationship. Finally, the ending is much like Cinderella’s story. So, I conclude that most Asianovelas are like Cinderella.

The Return of the Pearl Princess can be considered as an Asian Cinderella story, where the story can be considered as an example of rags to riches archetype – where Xiao Yan Zi(小燕子), a common citizen, accidentally becomes the Pearl Princess. In the Philippines, there are many TV programs that cater to the dream of millions of Filipinos to become rich instantly – reality shows and games shows are considered as their paths to become rich. Considering the economic status of the Philippines, more than half of the population belongs to the low-income class (De Castro, 2013); the majority fulfills their ambition and dream of changing their status from rags to riches. In contrast, the success of The Return of the Pearl Princess is not only because of its similarities with the Western fairytale Cinderella, but also, it is the exhibition of traditional fairytale archetypes in the show. For instance, the setting of the show is within the imperial palace. The characters such as the Prince, stepmother, and other elements such as tragedy, hardships, and of course, romance between characters (Liu, 2015) are present. Thus, The Return of the Pearl Princess became a huge hit not only in China but also in different countries because of its fairytale archetype that can create cross-cultural understanding amongst viewers. Moreover, Chinese culture has been presented in the Philippine context since the 20th century when the Chinese businessmen arrived at Philippine islands to do trades with local Filipinos. Consequently, Chinese culture is something that is not foreign to Filipino audiences; thus, it is easier for Filipino audiences to understand and appreciate soap operas that involve Chinese culture.

Collection of Memories

The Return of the Pearl Princess became a key memory point for many Chinese people who were born in the 1980s and in the 1990s. The drama eventually became part of the people’s childhood and teenage memories. Until today, people are still reminiscing about the drama across different social networking platforms in the Internet, from forums to Sina Weibo, a microblogging site in China. With the burgeoning of technologies, people started to create their own memories of the drama in several ways.

A certain ‘吱吱为姿孜’ (2015) on Weibo posted pictures (See figure 2) of her relocating the shooting locations of The Return of the Pearl Princess in Chengde, China last June 2015. The post garnered almost 5,000 reposts, 1,000 comments and 11,000 likes. The post was even reshared by Zhao Wei, the actress who played Xiao Yan Zi, herself. As an opinion leader (Chan & Misra, 1990) who influences the general public with innovative information (Black, 1982), 吱吱为姿孜’s original post generated buzz all over the Internet in China, where the devoted fans of the drama started to reminisce their childhood memories once again. The innumerable comments by the netizens show that The Return of the Pearl Princess craze has not yet died in the hearts and memories of the viewers. “After seeing the photos, I wanted to watch the series once again. It’s part of my childhood,” a netizen ‘Hey__Bella’ expressed her thoughts after seeing the throwback post by ‘吱吱为姿孜’. The location-hunting boosted the interest and desire of Chinese netizens to re-watch the drama once again and act as a remembrance of their own childhood.

The posting of comments and memes on forums and other digital platforms have extended the collection of memories by generations. Amongst the most common theme of the comments, most of the avid fans agreed that the drama is really the key point of their childhood memories (heyi0202, 2008). Based on the timeline of different forums (Baidu Tieba, Tianya, etc.), the audiences’ recollection of memories about the drama is still on going until today. The latest post on Tianya about The Return of the Pearl Princess was posted by sanxiao100 on 4 October 2015, who re-watched the drama during the long weekend of the last Chinese National Day. Aside from that, memes (see figure 3) created by various netizens in China hyped up The Return of the Pearl Princess craze once again, where people started to use classic scenes and dialogues from the drama to correlate with their daily lives and share with their colleagues and friends.

On the other hand, the drama does not just create another Chinovela craze in the Philippines; it also boosted the popularity of Chinese artists in the country. Zhao Wei, for instance, who portrayed Xiao Yan Zi in the drama, has gotten a huge number of fans in the Philippines. Vicki Zhao Wei Philippines and Zhao Wei Enthusiasts Yahoo! Group was created by netizens ‘dudung_nix’ (2009) and ‘baby wei’ (2004) on PinoyExchange and Network 54 forums, respectively. Vicki Zhao Wei Philippines even founded a text clan, a mobile community which the group has similar interest or hobby, to connect and update the members with the latest happenings of Zhao Wei.

Conclusion: Own perspective, own understanding

As a Chinese-Filipino who grew up in the Philippines, Chinese entertainment meant Sunday morning dramas with half-bald, pony-tailed men and emotional women in cheongsam, coupled with traditional Chinese music that is very pleasing to our grandparents’ ears. Because of the globalization of media, major broadcasting companies in the Philippines started to import foreign drama, especially Asian television series, to cater the demand of eager Filipino audiences. Moreover, The Return of the Pearl Princess triggered the author’s curiosity to be open-minded to another dimension of Chinese historical drama with its fairytale-archetype-kind of storyline. The drama also stands out from the modern romance Chinovela that majority of the Filipino audiences are craving for. Consequently, Asian television series are making the Asians become more ‘Asian’. With the oriental values and beliefs that are being shown in the television series, Asians are starting to adopt the ‘changing-dimension’ media that the major television stations that are broadcasting. Furthermore, television is slowly becoming a means of escapism to many people as a way of lessening the stress of everyday life.