Professional wrestling in North America and much of Europe has been a part of popular culture, in some shape or form, since the early 1900s. In Japan while the time frame is condensed Puroresu may be said to have dominated and left a truly lasting impact on pop culture. Superstars from around the globe have crossed over into other media, and with them came the tropes, tenets, norms, and rules of the squared circle. Innately we understand the pinfall, the count out, the foreign object. We recognize tried and true gimmicks, and have moved beyond usage of the foreign heel (in many cases, but not always.)
China doesn’t have this context. Or, perhaps I should say, these hang-ups.
With pro wrestling only existing in mainland China for fourteen years, the majority of the population are unfamiliar with the nuances and expectations that accompany the art.
Herein Oriental Wrestling Entertainment have a near-blank slate to work upon, and an audience that needs education to be able to grasp, come to terms with, understand and, eventually, love pro wrestling. There’s also a need to tailor the product to Chinese market trends and cultural tastes, and to navigate the waters of government approval if the company is to grow as large as they have made clear to me that they wish to become. The ways in which they’ve set out, thus far, to accomplish these domestic market goals may, however, be jarring to a first time international viewer familiar with the landscape of this performance art.
While the exact presentation of all four of OWE’s shows, particularly from an online video standpoint, has evolved from each one to the next, there has been one specific constant that is remarkably unusual for pro wrestling.
Ring announcer, and VP, Michael Nee provides commentary to the audience throughout the shows, broadcast on the venues’ loudspeakers. This is extraneous to the role he serves in hosting the shows, announcing matches, and translating English for the audience. This commentary has, at times, mentioned the moves and called some action, but is primarily geared towards things like leading chants in support of performers, booing the heels (all of whom, thus far, are the foreigners) and reacting loudly and excitedly to big moments. This serves as a lesson, of sorts, to the audience on how to participate and interact with professional wrestling’s “theatre in the round.” The efficacy of this educational tactic is difficult to measure, but having watched all four shows they’ve filmed, it appears that towards the end of each event the audience picks up on the interactivity of the show quicker, and more willingly.
“There’s no background reference when it comes to wrestling for the Chinese audience,” Michael Nee says in this article from the South China Morning Post, is a point that is driven home by the opening segments of the third show, if you watch them on QQ video, where a package is played that explains the rules of the matches to the audience. It scrolls text along with footage captured from the first show showing how a pinfall victory is attained, and that if you aren’t back in the ring by a ten count you lose. This segment is part of a looping set which also shows highlights of their stars’ previous outings, including excursions, and recaps things a bit. This plays in the venues, and not just on the stream.
Both of these would be highly unusual for attendees of a pro wrestling event outside of mainland China, with only Kaiju Big Battel standing out from the crowd for how their commentary is broadcast to the audience, but not the why.
Likewise, beyond the educational efforts, the presentation of OWE’s shows would still be seen as quite unusual. Their goal isn’t simply to present pro wrestling but “to make the wrestlers famous idols,” which is why the Chinese articles, when run through translators, call the company a young men’s action idol troupe. This is reinforced, from the events’ opening moments, with dance routines and Kung-Fu weapons demonstrations from OWE’s roster and musical performances by Chinese pop idol groups such as SNH48 and CKG48 interspersed with the actual matches at key moments throughout the event. Their events have a variety show feel to them, with the wrestling ring as the central focal point.
This Idol culture driven model is also incredibly lucrative, with this article echoing statements made to me by Mr. Nee during my talk with him in Las Vegas. The Shanghai-based SNH48 is fifteen times more lucrative than AKB48, the Japanese originator of this idol culture model, because of quirks of Chinese spending habits online. They will make frequent payments through services to support their favorites in the groups. While this is not immediately viable, the long term goal may be to use paid fan ranking votes to influence the direction of storytelling and main event positions, rewarding the audience for buying into the product and reinforcing this behaviour in a growing middle-class with newfound disposable income. It also allows them to easily expand into additional media, such as film, television, and music – all of which their executives and investors are familiar and successful in.
While it is, most assuredly, a professional wrestling company running a professional wrestling show, it is a new kind of beast influenced by the unique opportunities, and demands, that running in mainland China presents. In a chat I had with Ho Ho Lun, he compared OWE with other companies in the fledgling Chinese scene, saying that “OWE is putting wrestling into Kung Fu,” whereas people such as The Slam have strived to put Kung Fu into wrestling. This is not just an effect of the Shaolin Kung Fu background of its students, but by necessity. For the company to reach the heights of success which it aims to achieve, it must not run afoul of the government. To that end they have consulted with the government, to determine what is acceptable, with Michael Nee indicating in that same article I’ve been quoting that OWE “will use this to spread Chinese martial arts culture to the world, to make our young Chinese generation go for martial arts, become stronger and healthier.”
On the flipside, the WWE, the benchmark for China’s understanding of what pro wrestling is, is seen to “have too much hate or conflict” in its content. This concern does not, as of this time, have any tangible impact on how the in-ring action is carried out, and seems directed at storytelling in the grander soap opera sense.
When you put all of this together with a language barrier and OWE’s roster full of big, bold characters heavily influenced by both modern Chinese pop culture and their deep reserves of history and legend, you wind up with a product which is both remarkably engaging and feels very unfamiliar to an audience who have expectations.
OWE have made it clear that their ambitions are to be international, but one must wonder whether or not their uniquely Chinese characteristics could get in their own way when they expand, and whether or not they can train a foreign audience to appreciate the way they are training a domestic audience to appreciate pro wrestling.