The Shanghai Expo has not been the best showcase for American culture. There have been problems with fundraising, a US pavilion design that has been unfavorably compared to an air-conditioning unit, and most recently, reports that Chinese visitors exhausted by the three-hour wait to enter the pavilion have spit on pavilion staff when they finally get inside. Some of those who put off visiting the restroom to avoid losing their place in line promptly use the pavilion floor as a de-facto toilet, and with such frequency that pavilion workers have developed a coded alert system to notify custodial staff. No, this is not the sort of cultural exchange pavilion planners or the Shanghai city government had in mind. But this weekend at least one channel for Sino-US cultural exchange was restored, if briefly, by muscled louts in sparkling spandex thongs. American professional wrestling, the "sport" best described as gladiatorial combat directed by Mel Brooks, has come to China, and it is a huge hit.
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE.NYSE), the largest professional wrestling organization in the US, has been in China since 2007, and it has apparently built a fanatic fan base. 8,000 free tickets were given away for the event, called the Shanghai SmackDown, and were gone in an hour. Fans outside the Expo Cultural Center where the event was to be held showed up at 6am to get in line. Tickets in hand, they milled about the center hoping to catch a glimpse of WWE’s talent lineup. The hard-core fans were easy to pick out. A young man surnamed He was loitering outside in the blazing heat in a Rey Mysterio mask (modeled on Mexican professional wrestler’s masks). He said he’d bought it on Taobao for RMB119. He’d also picked up a wrestler-themed shirt, hat and pin. "I’ve been watching professional wrestling for four years online," he said. "I want to work for the WWE." To that effect he had brought his CV and a clumsily translated note asking for a position in the marketing division. But he was willing to work in other roles as well. "I think I could take Rey Mysterio," he said. "I’m not as strong but I’m really flexible."
Most of the people in line that early were male. I asked if they had girlfriends. One fellow did but she preferred not to come. Mr. He is single, but has plans to date Eve, one of the female professional wrestlers who would pin snarling Alicia Fox to the mat later that night.
This is not to say the event was a male-only affair. There were plenty of young women in line and the venue itself had mothers with children who brandished their WWE action figures. One little Shanghai family had brought their son who held his figures in both fists throughout the match. His mother said he watched the dubbed programs on local television. Dubbing versus subtitles is a matter of debate among fandom: "Translating ‘The Undertaker’ into Chinese sounds ridiculous," said one fan. Much of wrestling English is incredibly idiomatic, not to mention bizarre, and it’s difficult to find a Chinese voice talent who can approximate the timbre of super-sized (mostly) white men bellowing elaborate threats.
Which is why it is better live. We had expected the Chinese fans do behave as they usually do; sit in their chairs, applaud politely, and wave inflatable glowing wands. But not in the least: From the first match on, fans were out of their seats screaming "You suck! You suck! You suck!" (in English) at the wrestlers from the "dark side," namely Chris Jericho, Sheamus (an Irish offering with pasty skin and spiked orange hair) and Alicia Fox, who is mean. Yes, the fans had picked up the fact that part of the spectacle of professional wrestling is fan behavior, and they did their best with homemade placards, and in one quaint instance, a homemade Chinese fan. Another singularly noticeable fellow struck shirtless muscle poses throughout the match. We were not the only ones surprised. "I had no idea it was so popular," said a journalist from state media, shaking his head.
The Chinese sports market is hard to crack. Basketball does well now that China has produced homemade stars, but American football, baseball, and a host of other sports have singularly failed to penetrate. Even the World Poker Tour, once considered a shoo-in, flopped on the mainland. But professional wrestling looks certain to boom, despite the fact that there are no Chinese professional wrestlers (although there is one Japanese competitor, who did not attend). WWE programs are already broadcast in 10 provinces, as well as available online, and the WWE says it has a consistent 350% growth rate and high ratings.
It might seem odd that Chinese fans can identify with the wrestling performers, but on second glance, there is plenty of cultural resonance. Chinese fans have no problem with a "fake" sport – the Chinese word for professional wrestling is shuaijiao biaoyan, "wrestling theater." As a sort of violent morality play, there are plenty of simple plotlines that people here recognize: melodramatic speeches, nagging girlfriends, corruption, cheating and factionalism. It is also extremely athletic, but more akin to an acrobatic routine than an actual competition. The announcer compared it to kung-fu, and while visually it looks more like sumo wrestling using folding chairs and tightropes, the coordination it takes for a 400-plus pound man to belly-flop from the top of the turnbuckle onto a luckless opponent without killing him is significant. "I love the skill," said one of the fans. "The point of kung-fu is to kill people, but this is about determination."
The fans also appeared to appreciate the opportunity to cheer for the underdog and the little guy. Rey Mysterio, for example, was paired against Chris Jericho, easily twice his size, but managed to beat him through a series of airborne acrobatic pounces. The crowd loved it. Likewise they cheered Randy Orton, even though he had lost to Sheamus. Through it all, the local fans bounced up and down out of their seats to express their support or disdain.
The obvious question is, how long will it take for China to start producing professional wrestlers of its own? The country is certainly better fed these days, but it is still short on 300 plus pound guys who are solid muscle from toe to sternum. Still, in a population of 1.4 billion, there are surely some who are willing to give and take brutal smackdowns, probably for a fraction of their US counterparts’ wages. So the next question naturally follows: How long before the WWE starts outsourcing smackdowns to China?