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Censorship in China

Friends sitcom’s disappearance from video website mourned by its huge Chinese fan base

Millions of social media posts lament Sohu’s removal of the US television show, which has proved a hit in China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 1:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 11:35pm

Millions of Chinese fans of Friends have been left heartbroken after a video site dropped the hit US sitcom, beloved by millennials in China for its endearing young characters and as an English conversation resource.

Sohu had broadcast reruns of Monica, Rachel, Chandler and the gang since 2014, but abruptly stopped in April, citing “copyright issues”.

The move has prompted anguish on Chinese social media sites such as the Twitter-like Weibo, where a “Friends offline” hashtag has generated millions of posts.

Many have called for Sohu to renew its Friends rights, while others have offered advice on where to download pirated episodes of the Emmy-winning show, which originally aired in the United States from 1994 to 2004.

It’s a window through which Chinese can learn American culture.
A Chinese fan of Friends

Centred on a group of young New Yorkers, it became a global hit through syndication, but perhaps nowhere more than in China, where it first gained a following from pirated DVDs or illegal downloads before streaming rights were secured.

Millions of Chinese youngsters identify with the theme song’s lament – “your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA” – and relish the chance to practice their American-style English.

Some English language courses in China even assign the show as teaching material.

Guo Yujin, a customer service executive and long-time Friends fan, called the programme “a window through which Chinese can learn American culture”.

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“I learned so much conversational English, things that you can’t learn from books,” she said. “Books have the most boring grammar, but this is very lifelike.”

Guo spoke while having lunch in the Friends theme cafe in Shanghai, a spot-on recreation of the Central Perk hang-out frequented by the cast in the show.

The proprietor is 39-year-old Du Xin, a Friends fanatic who calls the show his “faith”. He opened his first cafe in Beijing in 2009 and also has one in Guangzhou. 

They feature Central Perk’s signature window logo and big orange couch, plus a television that loops episodes all day.

Coffees come with messages like “I (heart) Rachel” and “I’ll be there for you” traced into the foam, and customers frequently queue up outside on weekends.

Tammy Cai, a friend of Guo’s visiting from Hong Kong, said the cafe was the most important stop on her itinerary.

“I only need to come here; the rest I can just glance through,” Cai said.

Du got hooked after Friends was there for him during a romantic break-up while he was at college.

“The show gave so many things that we long for, such as the love between Chandler and Monica, and Rachel and Ross. That is from an ideal world and that is what ideal love and ideal marriage look like,” he said.

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However, Du – who took Gunther as his western name after the fictional cafe’s barista – said the Friends cafes were losing money, due to rising competition from proliferating coffee houses in China as the drink gains popularity.

Another potential threat is that Warner Bros, the show’s producer, recently acquired the “Central Perk” copyright, causing speculation that it may build its own cafes.

Du is ploughing ahead, with his latest project being a single-room hotel called “Monica’s bedroom”, designed like the character’s room in the show. He is also selling Friends memorabilia, from mobile phone cases to T-shirts.