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."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It's almost 10 years since the end of the hit TV series "Friends," but the show and, in particular, the Central Perk Cafe, where much of the action took place, are enjoying an afterlife in the capital of China. In this postcard from Beijing, NPR's Louisa Lim introduces us to some Chinese fans of Chandler, Joey and the gang.
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: I'm in a normal apartment block in Beijing and I'm going up to the sixth floor, where something quite surprising awaits. Oh, my goodness, here it is. It is a replica of Central Perk from "Friends." It has the same window, the same doorway. And just walking in the door, there's even the same orange sofa fill with people watching "Friends" reruns.
DU XIN: My name is Du Xin. Everyone calls me Gunther here.
LIM: So I'm now with the Chinese Gunther. He's the owner of the Central Perk Cafe in Beijing.
XIN: I'm crazy about "Friends." I'm a huge fan. For me, it's like a religion. It's my life.
LIM: I just wonder, though, 'cause I think for young Chinese people, life is really competitive, you know, getting an education, passing your exams, finding a job, finding an partner. It's all like a big competition. With "Friends," they're never worrying about money. They're never worrying about jobs and things like that.
XIN: So that's why we like "Friends." We're looking for this kind of a life. Maybe one day if you like you can find a good job you like, just like Chandler. He quit the job he hated, and he find another one he liked. So I think this TV show also told us you have to choose a living way which you like.
LIM: For the Chinese Gunther, the lifestyle has turned into a business with a second Central Perk in Shanghai. The cafe serves the snacks mentioned in "Friends," the menus even annotated so you know which show Rachel mentions cheesecake and what she said. We sit in the next room to the cafe, where Du Xin's built a replica of Joey's apartment, complete with foosball table.
As we chat, we're interrupted by visitors wanting to see Joey's apartment, including Calvin Le, an English teacher from California.
CALVIN LE: It's really cool. How long did it take you to put this all together?
XIN: About half a year. Everything you have to find a carpenter to make it together.
LE: It's so funny. This is exactly how it's like in the show, too. You know how it's like too big, TV frame thing 'cause Joey built it and he didn't really do the measurements right.
(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "FRIENDS")
LIM: Strange as it may sound, "Friends" is an English language teaching tool in Chinese universities. So, "Friends" fans come from far and wide to visit the cafe. Today, Beijing Qiu Yu has brought a friend visiting from Taiyuan, more than 300 miles away. It's her first stop in Beijing. What Qiu Yu likes about "Friends" is the sense of freedom from responsibility.
QIU YU: (Through translator) 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, so we yearn for that lifestyle.
LIM: To some, that yearning also extends to the world of casual sexual encounters, as depicted on "Friends." Over the series lifetime, the "Friends" characters hooked up with at least 85 other people, according to one estimate.
(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES, "FRIENDS")
LIM: Such scenes win giggles from the devoted Chinese fans at the cafe. So before I leave Central Perk Beijing, I'm just going to sit down on the orange couch and catch up with a few "Friends" episodes. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.