How a Chinese #MeToo musical whipped up a storm before the censors stepped in

  • The Chinese version of Cell Block Tango prompted a storm of online abuse and a swift reaction from the censors, but its maker says she wants to keep on making musicals that will appeal to the Chinese public
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 5:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 6:23pm

For Tuyouqin it was a “surreal couple of days”.

The young musician suddenly found herself the centre of attention with her call for women to “stand up and fight”.

Her latest song highlighting the plight of women across China had become an instant hit, attracting millions of views on the social network Weibo – and then came the backlash.

She soon found herself battling with the censors and her social media accounts were bombarded with messages. Although some hailed her as a hero and role model, others described her as a “feminist dog” and warned her she would be dealt with by the authorities.

But Tuyouqin told the South China Morning Post she did not care what her critics think, adding: “I know clearly why I wanted to do the song.”

Her version of Cell Block Tango, from the musical Chicago, was inspired by the rise of the #MeToo movement and features six monologues telling the story of women who killed their husbands and boyfriends “because they deserved it”.

The stories, told in a variety of Chinese dialects, were inspired by real-life cases from across the country.

“We did not even have to dig deep,” the student at the Central Conservatory of Music, said. “This kind of news was on the front pages.”

When the song was first posted on Weibo at the end of October it attracted more than 50 million views and was shared tens of thousands of times.

It was all a little unexpected for Tuyouqin, which is not her real name, and her collaborators. She has been sharing her own songs and remakes of musicals online for a decade without attracting much attention.

“Our team was shocked, we only expected this to be shared by our small musical community,” she said. “Previously my songs and musical remakes only had a few thousand shares or likes at most.”

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But her strong feminist message – reinforced by the chorus “scumbags should be killed, killed, killed, killed killed!” – clearly struck a chord this time, with many internet users noting how true-to-life the stories told in the song were.

But almost as swiftly as it rose to prominence, it ran into trouble.

The song appeared to have offended many people, with some accusing her of pitting men against women, creating violence and disharmony and setting a bad example to children.

One of those monologues is titled Didi, the name of the country’s most popular ride-hailing app.

It tells the story of a woman who was repeatedly harassed and threatened by her driver ex-boyfriend until she tied him to the passenger seat of a cab, poured petrol on him and burned him alive, but the title is a fairly clear allusion to the case of a Didi driver who was arrested earlier this year after a female passenger was raped and murdered.

The next day, Tuyouqin received a message from Weibo that her song had been reported by “Orange Technology” – the same name as Didi’s parent company – and the post was deleted without further explanation.

The following day, Tuyouqin posted a modified version online in which “Didi” was replaced by “Beep Beep”.

The removal of the original version appeared to have generated even more interest in the song, with web users wanting to discover why the original had been deleted. Within a day it had been shared more than 90,000 times.

Within twenty four hours it had been deleted again, the time along with Tuyouqin’s entire Weibo account – just like scores of posts and petitions supporting the #MeToo movement have been taken down by censors.

Again, no explanation was given and she said there was no channel for her to complain.

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But despite the backlash, many other people were supportive as internet users posted stories about friends, neighbours and relatives being harassed by men and told to drop the matter after they complained.

Some said women needed to unite and stand up for themselves, while others marvelled at how true to life the stories were and admitted that “reality is much more cruel”.

“Even though the stories were not entirely true, you could certainly see the resemblance to many past incidents,” Tuyouqin said.

The stories told in the song, which was given the Chinese title Scumbags of the Middle Kingdom, were all based on real-life cases.

One of the monologues focuses on a woman married to an abusive saxophonist who fought back and beat him to death with his instrument.

An another tells the story of a man who strangled his infant daughter so her body could be sold for 20,000 yuan (US$2,900) and given in a “ghost marriage” to a man who had died recently.

Tuyouqin said she had initially been motivated by nothing more than her love of musicals.

Two years ago she watched the movie version of Chicago and instantly fell in love with the genre.

She said she had been mesmerised by the film’s star Catherine Zeta-Jones and thought that Cell Block Tango was such a “refreshing way” to tell a story that she resolved to make a Chinese version.

But she could not initially decide how best to do it until the start of this year, when the #MeToo movement hit China.

She realised that the song was the ideal vehicle to highlight the plight of women across China.

Tuyouqin started writing immediately with a Shanghai-based lyricist.

Her friend suggested that they should write the lyrics in a range of regional dialects – not just the most widely spoken forms such as Mandarin and Cantonese – to highlight the fact the problem occurs all across China.

The pair then had to find six singers to perform each part and an actress to film the video, a process that took them eight months in total.

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Tuyouqin is hoping that her brief moment of online celebrity will not prove to be a one-off.

She has already been contacted by theatres and investors interested in future collaboration and the publicity has helped sell out tickets for a new musical she is working on in Beijing’s Tianqiao Theatre.

The new work also focuses on social issues and tells the story of the police investigation into the sudden death of a woman and – in an allusion to China’s online environment – how public opinion and rumours affect the case.

She has already spent more than 100,000 yuan of her own money on staging the show, and has also had to recruit friends to work unpaid on the show.

Ultimately, she says, her goal is to create musicals that will appeal to Chinese tastes and win new fans converts to the genre.

“As long as I can afford it, I will keep doing it,” she said. “I think if we combine musicals with local culture and history, more and more people will love Chinese musicals.”