Nothing says success more than longevity. Awards are flattering and financial compensation has ebb and flow but decades of popularity transform attention into institution. Wai Lai Xi Fu Ben Di Lang first aired on television in China on November 4th 2000 and is still on the air today. More than three thousand episodes have vetted this program as one of the most beloved productions to ever air on TV in China and the world. The planet has changed a lot since the show first appeared on Guangdong TV and the creators of the show decided that it needed an update in its second decade. Production designer Dong Lei was hired to achieve an updated but not overly modern look to Wai Lai Xi Fu Ben Di Lang. Lei’s inclusion in the production was almost predestined as his father was a costume designer on the show and Dong himself grew up watching the program on screen and behind the scenes since age ten. The story and the characters were literally a part of his childhood and he grew up with them. His concepts of how the show should look more than a decade after its original aesthetic was intuitive. This was not however without its challenges as the show is known for its traditional sentiment and the producers of the show did not want to abandon this facet which was so responsible for the success of one of China’s longest running hit shows.
The pillars of culture, community, and family are what Wai Lai Xi Fu Ben Di Lang is built upon. The long enduring and consistently increasing fan base of this program has endured for decades. When the producers decided they needed to update the show after more than a decade on air, they did so with some trepidation. They chose Dong Lei as the proper production designer to navigate this for a number of reasons. He was of course qualified in the production world with the appropriate skills and an impressive resume. His father’s work on the show for so long had given Dong the vantage of the show’s look on the TV screen as well as on set watching the filming (he even appeared on the show as an actor once as a young boy). His mother (Hu da fen, a professor of Cultural Studies at Guangzhou University) gave him a greater knowledge base of the different cultures present in the family featured in the story. Finally, his studies (he possesses a Bachelor’s degree is oil painting) and construction knowledge gave him a very capable working skill set and artistic sensibility.
Even with his ample skill set, Dong concedes that he was somewhat intimidated to take on the mantle of production designer. In spite of the fact that he had quite literally grown up knowing the cast and crew as both actors and in his personal life, revamping such an established and beloved program carries a lot of pressure. The new direction he created was done thoughtfully and with extreme care as he relates, “I designed the new family hotel very carefully. I retained most of traditional design and decor for the windows, doors, and the ‘Tian Jing style’ structure. ‘Tian’ in Chinese means sky and ‘Jing’ means ‘well’… the type which pulls water from the ground. In America, people prefer to put their garden or yard in the back of the house but traditional Guangzhou culture prefers to put their garden/children playground in the middle position of the house. The strucutre consists of the Master room on the north side, Guest room on both west and east sides, and the south side has a door leading to the living room; three rooms with one door surrounding the garden. This creates the sense of a private garden and living amongst nature. Also this structure is like a well, people can see the sky even in house. That’s why the Guangzhou culture calls this ‘Tian Jing.’ This kind of style in our set helps the audience to remember the old Guangzhou style house. For the living area (family residence) I kept this traditional style but for the hotel part I combined a western style with a modern Chinese interior design. The balance of old and new bridged the divide for the audience naturally and created a new story and new look.
Wai Lai Xi Fu Ben Di Lang revolves around the lives of the Kang family who lives on Chang Sheng Street in the Liwan District of Guangzhou city in China. At heart, the show derives its comedy from the drama revolving around the friction between the non-local culture and the local culture in Guangzhou. It tells the interesting stories that have taken place between the Kang family and their neighbors who also live on Chang Sheng Street. The patriarch of this family, Kang, er Shou, and his wife Wang, yu Lian have four sons. The wives of these sons are from different regions and cultures of China, sometimes even speaking different languages. The show displays the idea that family sticks together in spite of the sometimes vast differences that exist. It’s a show about unity which has generations of fans in China.
The stories discussed in the program do not lean away from the provocative. When the Chinese government outlawed motorcycles in Guangdong, the effects were exhibited in the plot. When the government allowed two children per family after decades of only one, this was also woven into plot points. Even so, the essence of the show is humor. Bright colors and simple designs from Dong conveyed a sense of light and levity to the show’s aesthetic. He stipulates that his work on Wai Lai Xi Fu Ben Di Lang taught him a great deal about what was really important for the show. Dong states, “This show is such a massive production. When I first started I had so many grand ideas about the look and what I would do. While I was able to implement the majority of these, what I discovered is that there is so much involved in management skills…particularly on a production of this scale. Each production has something to teach and a chance to grow. I feel so fortunate to have grown up watching these characters and to contribute to the next period of success for Wai Lai Xi Fu Ben Di Lang has been a great honor.”