Almost a decade since the end of the hit American TV series Friends, the show — and, in particular, the fictitious Central Perk cafe, where much of the action took place — is enjoying an afterlife in China's capital, Beijing. Here, the show that chronicled the exploits of New York City pals Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey is almost seen as a lifestyle guide.
Tucked away on the sixth floor of a Beijing apartment block is a mini replica of the cafe, orange couch and all, whose owner Du Xin introduces himself by saying, "Everyone calls me 'Gunther' here."
Indeed, he is a Chinese version of cafe owner Gunther from the show, down to his giddy passion for Rachel (the character played by Jennifer Aniston).
"I'm crazy about Friends," Du says. "For me, it's like a religion. It's my life."
'Religion' Turned Business
The extent of Du's Friends obsession is clear on entry to Beijing's Central Perk. The level of detail is scary: same window, same doorway. People sitting on the orange sofa are watching TV — reruns of Friends, naturally.
The cafe only serves snacks mentioned in Friends, and the menus are even annotated.
For instance, the menu informs anyone ordering cheesecake that it was — in season 7, episode 11 — the subject of Rachel's exclamation to Chandler (played by Matthew Perry): "You stole this cheesecake. That is wrong!"
Now, Du's "religion" has turned into a successful business, with a second Central Perk recently opened in Shanghai.
Du says he had no idea how popular the cafes would be, but he's discovering that they serve as unofficial Friends fan clubs. The enthusiastic response from customers amazed him.
"It's beyond my imagination," he says.
Reruns of the show serve as a language-learning tool for Chinese university students. The show is particularly popular for its use of colloquial language and as an introduction to American culture. It's also popular because of the laid-back, friendship-filled lifestyle it portrays, far from the stressful, competitive world that Chinese young people inhabit.
"That's why we like Friends," says Du. "We're looking for this kind of life."
When asked for an example, he cites Chandler as an inspirational figure.
"He quit the job he hated, and he found another one he liked," Du says. "This TV show also told us you have to choose a living way you like.
"I learned a lot from Friends: how to treat friends, girlfriends, my wife, how to be generous, how to be gentle," Du enthuses. He believes friendship in China is not that pure, saying ruefully that people think more about "how to take advantage."
Friends' Lasting Appeal
Next door to the cafe, Du has taken his Friends fervor a step further, building a replica of the apartment that Joey (played by Matt LeBlanc) lives in — down to an identical foosball table. The project took about six months, Du says.
Calvin Le, an English teacher from California who has come to have a look with German friend Adrian Andre, says the replica is "amazing."
"[It's] small, but it looks exactly like what it looks like on the show, so it's pretty cool," Le says, pointing out DVDs of the TV show Baywatch and the replica of an oversized TV cabinet that Joey made.
Some young Chinese even admit to secretly hankering for the world of casual sexual encounters depicted on Friends. Over the series' lifetime, the six friends hooked up with at least 85 other characters on air, though one epic survey by a dedicated fan counted 138 sexual partners mentioned on the show's 236 episodes.
Even for some bolder young Chinese, bound by family and tradition, such wild abandon is unthinkable.
Friends fans come from far and wide to visit Central Perk. Qiu Yu, who lives in Beijing, has brought a friend visiting from Taiyuan, more than 300 miles away. It's her first stop in the capital.
For Qiu, the main attraction of Friends isn't the sexual freedom, but the fact that the lives of the six friends are their own, free from the constraints of their families.
"I think their lives are very free, very happy. They can do whatever they like. For Chinese people, the influence of our families is quite big," Qiu says. "So we yearn for that lifestyle."