BEIJING — Who is going to sleep in the spider-infested room? The drawing of straws is merciless, and in the end it's Jimmy Lin Chih-ying and his 4-year-old son who will spend the night there. This Taiwanese actor and his son are among the guinea pigs for reality TV show Where Are We Going, Dad?, first released in China in late 2013.
The concept is simple: Young fathers, all of whom are well-known actors, spend some time with their kids in a totally strange place, usually in rural areas to which they aren't accustomed. The objective is to test their tolerance of different living conditions and their capacity to remain good role models for their kids, no matter the situation.
This popular series has attracted audiences from all over China, in large part because of the touching ways in which the relationships between father and child are demonstrated.
The first episode was filmed in Lingshuicun, a village 120 kilometers west of Beijing. Since then, it has been virtually impossible to find spaces in the local parking lots. To meet the growing demand of tourists flocking from the capital, villagers began this summer to mobilize in every way they could.
Tan Qingmei, 42, is ready to seize the opportunity to make some money. She has set up a food stand to sell soup, fresh fish and incense products. She is thankful to the crew who brought visitors here and changed her economic prospects. "In the past, we earned less than 20,000 yuan [$3,300] each year, and lots of people left for the big cities to get jobs," she says. "The village was almost empty."
Liu Hai, one of Tan's neighbors, is also happy about this change. Along with his brother, he runs a hostel that is now successfuly despite a lot of competition in the area. "Before, there were only four hostels, and now there are more than 30," he says, noting that demand is so strong that he's still able to make a good living. "My older brother used to look after this hostel when I had to go to Beijing for some temporary work, just like my son did," he says. "Now, it's no longer necessary. We can come back to the village knowing that there is enough food to eat at home."
In the hostel's ground-floor restaurant, he shows us the photos he took of the film crew. During the May 1 holiday, there were so many tourists in the town that some guests had to sleep on the floor of the restaurant.
Almost everywhere in the village, old buildings are being restored. Wang Huiyuan, 71, is having his bathroom renovated. "I want to be able to host tourists in my place," he says, his eyes shining. "I've already invested 30,000 yuan [$4,900] in this. At the moment, my wife and I only make 700 yuan [$115] per month."
Another village, Chuandixia, also plays host to masses of weekend tourists. Apart from the TV show's influence, urban youth also come to find out what the real countryside is like. Ironically, it's the same countryside from which their parents fled to build new lives in the cities.
But this younger generation is returning to look for an easier way of life — and clean air too. Lin Jia, a tourist visiting with her family, says that she wanted to show her son what "tough life" is, but also how to barbecue.
Several meters away from them, a man in his forties explains how he grew up in the countryside and now wants to find some fragments of his childhood here. "City life is so stressful, so intense," he says. "It's not as calm and natural as it is here."
Xiao Shui, 24, totally agrees. "Look at those big cities in China! They're all very much alike. The traditional mansions have all been pulled down, or rented to foreigners." What she likes here is to "smell the grass, enjoy the view, breathe clean air, and eat vegetables that are much tastier than in the city."
A return to roots
People are setting up electric cables and replacing their roofs so that they can put traditional tiles on them. It's the same all across the country, as people try to rebuild authenticity. Central authorities have chosen about 1,500 villages steeped in history, and allocated over a billion yuan ($1.6 million) to restore them. But, they'd better hurry up, because according to the official numbers, more than 900,000 hamlets disappeared between 2000 and 2010.
Still, not everything has disappeared. Xiao shows us a photo that she has taken off a wall, and it bears the following inscription: "Arm our brains with Mao Tse-tung's thoughts." There's neither nostalgia nor regret here. "I just wanted to remind myself of the old China where I came from," she says.