Industrialisation of Young Hope

Nationalistic and at times priggish, American Dreams In China is nevertheless an entertaining ride

No wonder this was a mainland hit. Peter Chan’s American Dreams In China is a rags-to-riches story that shows how the underdog Chinese beat the Americans at their own game — first through the industrialisation of dreams, then through free market capitalism. Luck, bumps, over-ambition and shattered friendships are necessary mixes along the path, but at the end the message is as clear as the surface of a Jiuzhaigou lake — while aspiring Chinese of the 1980s looked up to the US as the beacon of wealth and economic wonder, today it’s China Inc — its riches, its values, its bombast and its never-give-up defiance that shame the falling-from-grace Americans.

Huang Xiaoming in American Dreams In China.

Nationalism once meant pride in one’s military; now it means pride in one’s economy. We’ve seen a number of Chinese films based on the former, but American Dreams In China is a prime specimen of the latter. As for non-Chinese audiences, the movie, a decade-spanning drama-comedy about three buddies who build an English-tutoring empire from scratch, is earnest and pedestrian. Its inspirational bullet points and David-vs-Goliath story feels run-of-the-mill, and the adulation the film is so ready to shower on its self-made, successful characters strips away much of the business-dealing dogfight. It’s quite startling, too, that the cinematographer is the celebrated Christopher Doyle, the maestro of lush painterly frames, because except for a few shots, the film looks pretty stale.

What holds it all together is the roller coaster friendship of the three leads. Cheng (Huang Xiaoming) is a country bumpkin whose mother borrows money from her entire village to send him to a university in Beijing. On his first day on campus Cheng meets Meng (Deng Chao), a pompous, ambitious son of a middle-class family whose members were all educated in the US and Wang (Tong Dawei), a long-haired, arty type. It’s the early 1980s, and Cheng, Meng and Wang share a passion for all things American. They pepper their Mandarin conversations with English idioms (their accents are forced, and bad), they recite Robert Frost’s poems, they’re determined to obtain an elusive visa to study in the US, they even stand up in class to defend the American concept of freedom and equality against their conservative, US-bashing professor.

Today, as the traffic of dreams switches direction, as Americans queue up to pry open the Chinese gates and not vice versa, the film could have played as black comedy, with naive young Chinese (of the 80s) believing that the US is the wonderland of limitless possibilities, which of course isn’t true, despite the ironclad conviction of us Far East-dwellers. Chan, the director, plays up this reversal of fortune in the mode of melodramatic irony: The American dream is best realised somewhere that’s not America.

Of the three friends in the story, only Meng made it to New York, where his high hopes quickly disintegrate into earning pathetic tips and living in a squalid rundown room. Meanwhile in Beijing, Cheng and Wang open New Dream, an English-language tutoring school specialising in prepping Chinese teenagers to study in the US. From just one classroom in an abandoned factory, New Dream grows as it feeds on the fervid dream of States-bound Chinese who arrive clutching their TOEFL workbooks and dictionaries like manifestos. Soon the school expands into a multi-billion-yuan empire — a factory of dreams, sort of — with over 3 million students. Meng returns from New York to help his friends, but their relationship faces a big test when they have to decide whether to conquer their idol and devil — the US — by going public in the New York Stock Exchange.

The New Dream story is supposedly based on a real, successful tutoring school. Still, for evidence of devotion in the task of mastering English, the little-seen documentary Mad About English (2008) will probably let you understand how the language became a national passion for the Chinese prior to the 2010 Olympics and how education can take the form of mass industrial manufacturing — like teaching English in a packed football stadium. American Dreams In China carries its Chinese flag ostensibly and while its underdog narrative is entertaining enough, the film gradually slips into preaching mode. This is a story about how wrong the US is, but more than that it’s about how right China can be. As Cheng, Wang and Meng triumphantly subdue their American bullies (played by the worst actors possible) and prove that Chinese culture has its place in the cut-throat globalised world, the film speaks the truth. It should also speak more than that — corporate China, rising and stroking its ego, is following in the footsteps of America, its idol and enemy. We often end up becoming someone we hate, but that’s a bigger drama waiting to be told.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist