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'Sexy Beijing' charts capital's life

Story Highlights

• First "Sexy Beijing" episode drew more than half a million views
• Show interviews people on topics from "double happiness" to English names
• Host Anna Sophie Loewenberg is "Su Fei" to the show's Web audience
• Danwei TV aims to show China in more accessible fashion than hard news
By Elizabeth Yuan
CNN
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(CNN) -- To her Chinese friends -- and Web audience of hundreds of thousands -- she's "Su Fei."

No matter that a popular brand of sanitary napkins bears the same name.

Anna Sophie Loewenberg's full name is a mouthful for the average English speaker, let alone a Chinese one.

Like Carrie Bradshaw, the lead character in "Sex and the City" on which "Sexy Beijing" derives its inspiration, Loewenberg's alter ego Su Fei is a singleton looking for love.

But at its heart, her Internet TV show "Sexy Beijing" offers a lighthearted peek into daily life in China's capital, with Loewenberg, who writes and edits the show, interviewing the city's people on various topics.

Topics range from how Christmas is observed among Chinese to the popularity of wedding picture-taking, Beijing's Jewish population, the differences between city and country life, and the pursuit of "double happiness." The latter expression refers to the the Chinese symbol conjoining two characters for "happy" and is popularly used at weddings.

Each episode lasts five to 10 minutes.

"Meeting all those people made me wonder, "How do Chinese people come up with their English names, and why do they need them anyway?" Su Fei ponders in English, as she taps on her computer.

The set-up is purely Bradshaw, with Su Fei echoing her naive journal musings in English voiceover, even as a computer program translates her typed "pinyin" -- English phonetic sounds of Chinese characters -- back into Chinese. However, it's in Mandarin that Su Fei asks Beijingers what they think.

In the episode "Lost in Translation," Su Fei encounters Beijingers whose chosen names include "Frog," "Smacker," "Angelina," "Tony" -- and "Samanfar," a preferred choice over the more mundane-sounding "Samantha."

For the 32-year-old Loewenberg, the name "Su Fei" stuck thanks to a Chinese friend she made shortly after arriving in China in 1996 and the immense popularity of the book, "Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy." She came to China with Volunteers in Asia, a public service and teaching program, and "most of my friends did not speak English," she recalled. Hearing people say her Chinese name "reflected a new part of myself, a person who lived in China," said Loewenberg, who dove into Beijing's fledgling punk scene as a chronicler -- and rocker.

Prior to arriving, Loewenberg knew little about China, except that it was a part of her family's mythology. As Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, her grandparents, both Jews, fled in 1933 for Shanghai and arrived there with her father, then six weeks old. "They lived in Shanghai until the Japanese attacked in 1937," the Los Angeles-born Loewenberg said. And during those years preceding the family's ultimate move to the United States, "my father says he feels it was one of the best times of my grandparents' lives."

Sophie was the name of Loewenberg's grandmother, after whom she was named, she said.

"I know my grandfather studied Chinese," Loewenberg said. " ... And I felt almost like it was part of my grandmother that I brought back here. I always wondered how she felt in China. Did they want to spend the rest of their lives in China?"

China never left Loewenberg, not even when she left it for grad school in 2000. In fact, on the eve of leaving, she had "Su Fei" tattooed on her back to always remember that part of her identity. "It hit me that no one would call me 'Su Fei' again," Loewenberg said.

At Columbia University's School of Journalism, Loewenberg focused on the Chinese dating scene in New York for her master's project and preferred doing her reporting assignments in Flushing and Chinatown. One adviser "kept telling me, 'Don't pigeonhole yourself by always focusing on China,'" she recalled. "For me, covering China is the opposite of feeling pigeonholed. It's uncharted territory in English-language journalism."

She'd later make a documentary, "China Pirates," on how the piracy of CD's, tapes and DVD's gave birth to a generation of Chinese youth culture. She'd also work for a U.S. production company that made documentaries with a China-focus. Both projects would bring her to China months at a time.

Return to China

Eventually, former colleague Jeremy Goldkorn and his friend Luke Mines persuaded her to move back to China last year and join them at Goldmines Film Productions. Goldkorn -- who previously was managing editor of the English-language entertainment weekly Beijing Scene for which Loewenberg had written, had already started a popular Web site Danwei.org and was looking at expanding into Web TV. Would she join them on film projects and help them get this business off the ground?

Loewenberg jumped at it, but after coming up with the concept for "Sexy Beijing," she thought hard about using parts of her real identity. Did she want to include that she was single? A Jew? Her name "Su Fei"?

"You could take your glasses off, and you can look really gorgeous," Loewenberg recalled her mother as helpfully saying, in an attempt to get her to ditch her horn-rims.

She kept them.

"Ultimately, the focus of the show is an interview show. It's not really, at its core, about me. It's really because I want to bring up a few topics and interview Chinese people on the street, so I might as well be authentic about it," she said, pointing to filmmakers Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, who have injected themselves into their documentaries.

The show was conceived as an answer to Danwei TV's other short program, "Hard Hat Show," in which Goldkorn interviews people in China's media and business spheres, ranging from migrant workers and executives to podcasters and bloggers. Whereas "Hard Hat" focuses on China's construction boom and the pace of Beijing's growth -- hence, the hard hat that Goldkorn wears on the show -- "Sexy Beijing" tackles love, sex, relationships and women's issues, Goldkorn said.

Both are attempts to show China in a way that's more accessible, entertaining -- and quirky -- than the more serious fare found in Western media, such as CNN, Goldkorn said. "There's more going on here than most people who read about China know," he said.

A Web hit

Viewers have responded. More than half a million have seen the first "Sexy Beijing" episode, "Looking for Double Happiness," since it was posted last July, Goldkorn said, pointing to combined figures on Danwei.tv, YouTube and Chinese video-sharing site Tudou.com. YouTube reports more than 313,000 views of the "Double Happiness" episode on its Web site.

The "Double Happiness" episode even exceeded the audience for Goldkorn's "Hard Hat" interview with sex blogger Muzi Mei.

Danwei is well positioned to capitalize on China's Internet boom. The country saw a one-year jump of 23.4 percent - or 26 million users - to 137 million last year, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. And that's still a small Internet penetration, considering the country's population of 1.3 billion, the survey pointed out. Only the United States exceeds China in the number of Internet users, according to InternetWorldStats.com, and that distinction won't last for long, if the current trend keeps up.

So far, eight episodes of "Sexy Beijing" and 25 of the "Hard Hat Show" have been published on the Web, Goldkorn said. He hopes to further develop other programs, such as "Danwei Music," which profiles Chinese and western musicians, and "Choice Cuts," a showcase for young filmmakers.

In addition to developing shows for Web TV, Danwei is also eying cell phones and iPods for its content and selling advertising in the run-up to the Olympics, Loewenberg said.

In the short term, Loewenberg was already anticipating the arrival of her psychiatrist father to Shanghai this month. That he would be coming for a psychoanalytic conference was not being overlooked, Loewenberg said in a follow-up email. Expect to see a "Sexy Beijing" episode with Su Fei and "her Freudian pop" at his childhood home.


story.sufei.jpg

Anna Sophie Loewenberg, as "Su Fei," interviews Beijingers about their daily lives for the Internet TV show "Sexy Beijing."

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