Standing a foot taller and six inches broader than anyone else on HuaiHai Lu, the young man who calls himself Red Laowai (George to his Mother) is easy to spot. Although this is his first trip to mainland China, George has already gathered a large following by recording video clips singing (mostly Communist) Chinese songs and releasing them on the internet.
“I love the passion of those songs. They’re just so much fun.”
Clips of a white American singing songs like “我的中国心” (My Chinese Heart) were always going to find an audience online, but just to be on the safe side, the first few webcam videos were shot naked from the waist up.
“I guess it could be seen as disrespectful to sing with my shirt off. But haven’t you seen all of the clips like that on YouTube? Americans don’t get dressed up to sing!”
Some Chinese netizens did get offended though, to the point where there were death threats in the comments.
“I don’t remember the Chinese phrase they used, but anyway it means to be placed up against a wall and shot“.
Reaction to the videos changed according to where the videos were hosted; on YouTube, expats and other foreigners were pretty negative.
“Oh I’m sure they hate me to the very bottom of their hearts. Maybe they wish they were up there?”
But on Chinese sites such as Tudou and Youku.com, the clips continue to be loved by Chinese people all over the world.
Dongtai Lu market is a tourist trap near Xizang Lu which churns out fake junk from the Greatest Hits of Chinese History (all major currencies accepted), particularly the trappings of the Cultural Revolution.
Red Laowai is like a kid in a candy store amongst the revolutionary knick-knacks on Dongtai Lu. He buys two complete PLA outfits of a green jacket, green trousers, red-starred cap and Chairman Mao bag.
All of the negotiations are done in a confident, fluent Mandarin and when he buys the essential “little red book” of Mao’s quotations, he insists that it isn’t the version with an English translation.
Clearly George is serious about his Chinese study, but from the early videos, it’s not clear whether Red Laowai is entirely serious about the emotions expressed in the old Communist songs. Were the videos an expression of true sinophilia, or was it all just meant as a joke? George says his famous hobby started out as a mixture of both, but recent events have pushed him towards a more definitive stance. After all, between the snow storms, train crash, Olympic torch rally, Tibet riots and earthquake, the middle ground towards China has become a very narrow strip.
“As everything’s happened over the last year, I’ve definitely become more and more pro-Chinese.”
In fact the latest videos show Red Laowai singing at benefit concerts in his home town of New York. We asked him how that happened:
“I went to a May day rally thing to see what was going on and give some support. A guy there recognised me and forced me up on stage to sing”
Following the disaster in Sichuan, the same guy gave George a call and asked him to sing again at an earthquake benefit.
“I was so nervous I forgot the words” he says on his popular Sina.com blog, but it’s still a confident performance by someone who obviously relishes the spotlight.
So, any plans to sing in Shanghai?
“Yeah, I’m going to make a little stage on Nanjing Dong Lu and perform a pro-Mao show until I get beaten up.”
He’s joking (probably) but don’t be surprised if there are a few things planned that he prefers to keep quiet for the time being.
After all, despite the death threats, snide comments, and embarrassment of his work colleagues discovering the videos, Red Laowai is clearly having a blast. Plus, by the look of many of the positive comments on his videos and blog, it’s unlikely he’ll spend much of his vacation in Shanghai looking for dates.
As a fun afternoon with a genuinely likable man comes to an end, Shanghaiist can’t help but ask:
“A lot of people are going to wonder whether this is all just a way to meet girls”
“It would be a pretty elaborate way to do meet girls don’t you think?”
And we have to agree that yes, yes it would.