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In China, ‘Mad Men’ reflects reality of modern life

Employees of Ogilvy & Mather Advertising in Beijing dressed up for a "Mad Men" party held on November 4, 2011.
(Ogilvy & Mather Advertising)

BEIJING — Just after Memorial Day 1966 on the TV drama “Mad Men,” suave Manhattan ad man Don Draper is serenaded at his 40th birthday party by his 26-year-old sex kitten of a second wife, Megan. She prances suggestively around their luxe high-rise apartment in a black chiffon mini-dress, delivering a sensual rendition of the French song “Zou Bisou Bisou” while his office colleagues gape, puff on Lucky Strikes and sip cocktails.

That very same month in China, in real life, things were headed in a much less bourgeois direction. Mao Tse-tung’s May 16 Notification helped usher in the Cultural Revolution, a decade of proletarian zealotry that sent millions of city dwellers to do manual labor in the countryside. Schools were closed, temples smashed and the chaos roiled the economy. By some estimates, 2 million people were killed over the following decade.

So it’s not exactly 1960s nostalgia that’s driving young, urbane Chinese professionals like Ken Ji, a 28-year-old from Shanghai, onto the Internet to spend hours with Don Draper, or Tang Deleibo, as he’s known in Mandarin. Yet hundreds of thousands of viewers like Ji have turned the Madison Avenue period drama — which explores issues of suburban ennui and changing social mores around sexism, racism, individuality and homosexuality in the time of JFK and LBJ — into an improbable Chinese niche hit.

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While Americans may see “Mad Men” as an escapist retro-cool trip to their parents’ boozy, bygone, better-dressed era, Ji and many of his fellow fans view the program through a different lens. In this country — where 63% of workers are exposed to cigarette smoke on the job, the divorce rate is rising as fast as GDP and boardrooms remain bastions of men who banquet — the AMC show is less like a portal to a lost past and more like an oddly relatable snapshot of the present, or maybe even the desirable future.

“I think it reflects reality. You can see from ‘Mad Men’ that U.S. was already sort of open in the 1960s. China is developing and moving toward the stage reflected in the show,” said Ji, who works in the international department of the real estate Internet portal Soufun and has watched all five seasons of the series in the last two months, many downloaded to his cellphone. “You can apply the characters in the show to people around you. Don is probably my favorite, but I like Megan too.”

Like “Mad Men’s” characters, young white-collar workers in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are often imbued with an alluring sense of living in a nation on the rise, even as they grapple with rapid and disorienting social, cultural and economic change.

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Sabrina Wang, a 31-year-old senior manager in the corporate communications division of Ogilvy & Mather China, is such a fan that last year she had a “Mad Men” party at her home in Beijing and encouraged friends to come dressed like characters from the show.

Wang is particularly enamored with budding feminist Peggy Olson and sexy queen bee Joan Harris, two complicated women who transform themselves from secretaries to positions of substantial power, and not just because they slept with men in the firm. “They’re very confident. They are like women in China, struggling for their lives, trying to get jobs, compete with male professionals and show their talent,” said Wang, whose office also threw a “Mad Men” soiree last year.

“Mad Men” is licensed by Lionsgate for viewing on the portal https://www.sohu.com with Chinese subtitles and is available on some Air China international flights. It is one of scores of American shows benefiting from the increasing popularity and legitimacy of Internet TV, which offers spicier fare than China’s bland state-run channels and gives busy professionals the convenience of when-you-want it viewing in a nation largely devoid of on-demand programming, DVRs or TiVos.

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To be sure, “Mad Men” seems unlikely to ever notch the popularity of American crime shows like “Prison Break” or “CSI,” which attract tens of millions of viewers here. And it’s far less of a phenomenon than “Friends,” which spawned a series of books with scripts from each season translated into Mandarin. (Beijing even boasts a Friends Café, modeled after the Central Perk coffee shop on the series.)

Still, on the Chinese social networking site https://www.douban.com more than 400 group discussion topics are devoted to the 1960s drama, with subject headers ranging from “My life is very similar to Don’s,” and “I love women like Joan” to “I bought Don’s wallet, let’s talk about ‘Mad Men’s’ influence on your daily life” and “Season 3, Episode 7: Peggy slept with Duck and I’m disgusted!”

One of the most avid “Mad Men” fans on Douban is a 28-year-old employee at the video website Youku who lives in Shanghai and goes by the online handle Ellie. She recaps every episode (she’s seen each one twice), commenting on the plot, dissecting the fashions, answering other fans’ questions and analyzing characters, including Pete Campbell, a WASP-y, impetuous young account executive.

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“I think Pete is just like the single child born in 1980s from Shanghai,” she opined in June. “He is from a very good family, very arrogant, desperate to prove himself. I don’t know why he is never very happy with the reality, and he always appears as a lost soul.”

Ellie, who studied advertising in college and graduated in 2007, worked at the advertising firm BBDO before joining Youku. She said one of the creative directors at BBDO was an enigma à la Don Draper. “Like Don, he was a mystery — only in his case, no one knew if he was gay or straight,” she recalled in a phone interview, asking that her full name not be printed lest her old boss realize she was talking about him.

Although the American political subplots of “Mad Men” often escape her — “I don’t understand much of the race problems,” she said — one segment she did grasp was when Don’s partner Roger Sterling, a World War II vet, sabotages a bid for a Honda campaign because of his lingering anti-Japanese feelings. China has recently seen a spate of anti-Japanese demonstrations rooted in animosities and territorial disputes dating back to that war. “I wasn’t surprised that Roger did that, because that was WWII. What surprised me was that he said it directly to the customers,” she said. “I was shocked he could say that in the office.”

Part of the resonance of “Mad Men” in China may be that just like America in the early 1960s, there’s a widely shared sense that the country is on an upward trajectory. Though there may be warning signs of choppier waters ahead, no one can fathom exactly how it will all turn out.

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And like in the U.S. of the ‘60s, the consumer culture here is growing rapaciously, and advertising is evolving from simple, direct messaging to a more creative, glamorous business of sophisticated campaigns. But while the often unprincipled principals of “Mad Men” had to contend with a new medium called television, China’s ad men — and women — are now dealing with the Internet and mobile phones.

Although Chinese businesses remain strongly male dominated — in the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Gender Gap report, China ranked 61, way behind the U.S. (17) and Iceland (1) but ahead of Italy (74) — advertising is among the sectors in China in which women have made bigger strides. Martin Murphy, managing director of global brand management for Ogilvy & Mather’s Shanghai branch, noted that his office is headed by a woman.

Murphy, a native of Argentina who spent many years in the U.S. before moving to Shanghai, said watching “Mad Men” in China was a peculiar yet special experience. “The show appeals to me because it captures a hinge moment in U.S. history — the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. There were tectonic changes happening, with women, with civil rights. There’s a fascinating tension. You see it, but the characters don’t,” said Martin, 40. “When you watch it in China, a good case can be made that that’s what’s happening here now, a big societal shift. There’s the pull between tradition and change, the pull between East and West.

“I don’t think there are many countries you could watch this in and feel like you’re part of the hinge moment.”

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julie.makinen@latimes.com

Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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