May 17, 2010

A Love Affair with Love Affairs: Kobe Bryant in China

And that’s why Kobe Bryant might be so popular here, because (a) He plays basketball really well, and (b) He has, like so many Chinese people, cheated on his spouse.

Commercial breaks are one of the (only) redeeming qualities about NBA broadcasts in China. When broadcasts back home cut to close-ups of the McDonald’s breakfast menu, or of a female bartender mocking a guy for not ordering a Miller Lite, broadcasts in China usually cut to highlight reels. I’ll take highlights any day over some floozy claiming that Miller Lite is an enlightened beer choice.

One of the would-be commercial breaks that was cooked up for the playoffs, and which plays sporadically during every Los Angeles Lakers game, is a lengthy homage to Kobe Bryant – two-plus minutes of nothing but Kobe. As if that weren’t ridiculous enough, Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” plays in the background. That’s right: Kobe Bryant is going to heal the world – or maybe he already has. It’s hard to tell.

The first time Jackson hits the chorus…Heal the world, make it a better place…there’s Kobe hitting game-winning shots against Miami, then Milwaukee, then Sacramento.

For you and for me and the entire human race

There’s Kobe raining on Denver in last season’s Western Conference semifinals, and Magic Johnson being so roused by Bryant’s brilliance that he gives him a standing ovation.

…There are people dying. If you care enough for the living, make a better place for you and for me…

The clip is utterly ridiculous if you have even the vaguest notion of what the lyrics to this song mean. The song is about, you know, saving the world, and Bryant is a basketball player – and not a particularly likeable or philanthropic basketball player at that.

Whatever the clip is supposed to insinuate about Bryant, it speaks to his popularity in China. And Brant’s popularity in China is undeniable. writer Mike Celizic, who covered the 2008 Beijing Olympics, began an article about China’s obsession with Kobe thus: “It would be an insult to say that Chinese basketball fans treat Kobe Bryant like a god. And Kobe would be the insulted one.” And Denver Post writer Mark Kiszla, also covering the 2008 Games, wrote that “Kobe Bryant is bigger in China than the Great Wall.”

His Lakers jersey has for years been the most popular in the nation. And yesterday, during a mid-class break, one of my friends’ students literally wrote “Kobe Bryant” in huge letters on the board. In smaller letters, between Kobe and Bryant, he wrote, Heal the world. “You got to see this,” my friend, a Bostonian, told me. I walked into the glass, took one glance at the board and turned to the 17-year-old who penned it. “Heal the world?!” I said, exasperated. He nodded and pulled out his phone, which had as its background a picture of Kobe Bryant. It’s no surprise that the kid was wearing a purple Bryant jersey.

Why, though? Why is Bryant so outlandishly popular? Sure, he’s one of the best players out there, and he’s won championships, and girls think he’s a good-looking guy. These are surely all factors in Bryant’s popularity.

But I am intrigued with a different hypothesis, one posed by my Bostonian co-worker: Bryant’s history of having extramarital affairs may actually enhance his popularity in China. Because if you do a little research on infidelity in China, you realize that while Americans may have cringed at Bryant cheating on his wife, more than a few Chinese guys probably just nodded. And then went out to buy a Bryant jersey.

If you don’t remember, Kobe was accused of sexual assault in 2003 by a 19-year-old Colorado woman. The charges were ultimately dropped, but they nonetheless prompted a teary-eyed press conference at which Bryant admitted that he cheated on his wife. In 2004, a police report was leaked that contained further confessions from Bryant: he had slept with more women than just his 19-year-old accuser.

The Chinese can relate to extramarital affairs. A China Daily article published in October of 2008 – two months after Bryant became the de facto king of China during the Olympics – discussed the popularity of the Chinese movie “Painted Skin,” which has a plot revolving around a man, Wang Sheng, who must decide whether to stick with his loyal wife or leave for his lover. A Beijing newspaper posted an online survey asking their readers, “If you were Wang Sheng, who would be your choice?” According to the article, there were about 1,100 people who responded, and less than half said that they would choose the wife (the good-husband option). More than 30 percent said that they would like for have both women (the Kobe Bryant option). Forty-five percent of those surveyed said that affairs were “quite common” among couples they knew.

“The survey, by some degree, revealed people’s real attitudes toward extramarital affairs,” Zhou Xiaopeng, a consultant with the China Marriage Society, is quoted saying.

This article from Reuters asserts, “‘Second wives’ are common among government officials and businessmen in China.” And this article from the Los Angeles Times, about an official named Li who was busted for having four mistresses, says:

Li’s transgressions were minor compared with those of other public officials. A top prosecutor in Henan province, for example, was recently stripped of his post and Communist Party membership after investigators alleged that he embezzled $2 million to support his lavish lifestyle -- and seven mistresses….

So common is the practice [of having mistresses] that it has spawned an industry of private detectives snooping on cheating husbands and their paramours.

Tiger Woods poses another interesting facet of the affairs-in-China topic. This article from a Sydney-based newspaper discusses how, while companies are increasingly skeptical of Woods’ image and his ability to market their products, Tag Heuer, a luxury watch maker, has taken a nuanced, country-by-country approach to handling Woods. Guess which country hasn’t seen a decrease in Woods exposure?

“Very quickly we have taken sides,” [CEO Jean-Christophe] Babin said. “We stay with him but, as he wants more privacy and as he won't play for a while, in the countries where the issue is quite sensitive we won't use him much.”

Consequently, in the US, Woods's image has been removed from the company's advertising. However, it remains on the Tag Heuer website and, in China, use of it has been increased.

Peter Hessler succinctly discusses affairs in China in his book Oracle Bones. In this scene, he rehashes tales from one of his former students, Emily, who herself was courted by a married man.

During dinner, Emily regales me with stories about the factory owners. One of her boss’s colleagues was a Chinese-American who, after recently arriving from San Francisco on business, had gone to Emily’s office, faxed his wife a love letter, and then immediately gone out and hired a prostitute. Emily’s own boss was always leering at the young women in his factory, and most of his friends were the same. In a nearby plant, another Taiwanese owner had become so distracted by his two Sichuanese mistresses that his company had gone bankrupt.

This stuff happens a lot here. And while it isn’t necessarily accepted, it’s still common, and a basketball player who himself has (or at least had) a penchant for mistresses is something that Chinese men can relate to.

Like so many unattractive aspects of Chinese cultural – be it poverty or joblessness or the number of deaths in an earthquake – quality statistics on extramarital affairs are hard to come by. Sure, there are online surveys; Tag Heuer has upped its use of Tiger Woods in China when other companies have washed his lecherous face from their ads; Hessler’s student obviously experience China’s love affair with love affairs first hand. But there is at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that affairs in China are, if not more prevalent than in the States, then at least viewed differently, almost like it is an inherent part of society as opposed to a nary-discussed secret that people do their best to ignore.

And that’s why Kobe Bryant might be so popular here, because (a) He plays basketball really well, and (b) He has, like so many Chinese people, cheated on his spouse.

I’ll admit that this could very well be a specious claim; maybe Bryant is popular for more predictable reasons. Like that his string of three straight NBA titles culminated the same year that Yao Ming entered the league. Or that he plays in one of the biggest and most recognizable cities in America. Personally, though, I think that 19-year-old in Colorado helped solidify Kobe’s god-like status in China.

In his article on Bryant’s popularity in China, the Kiszla wrote, “Sure, the man can hoop. But he’s not exactly the finest example of American virtue. So why does China go absolutely gaga for Kobe?” Maybe Kiszla missed the point. Maybe Kobe’s not popular despite his marital transgressions, but because of them.

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