Meet the cast of China's first ever LGBTI web series, Rainbow Family


Jack Smith meets the cast of China's first ever LGBTI web series, Rainbow Family  

Admittedly, a sitcom centered around a friendship between a gay man and his female best friend isn’t an original concept. But Rainbow Family – the second season finale of which just premiered on YouTube and a number of domestic platforms – is no cheap Will & Grace knock-off. Instead, it’s an intriguing mashup of bawdy comedy, surrealist flights of fancy, poignant sentimentality and digital product placement tailored to a sophisticated viewership.

The plot centres on Zanzan (played by Mumu), a swoonsome gay man who shares a flat with best friend and self-proclaimed fag hag Song Yi (played with consummate comic timing by Ma Xinmo) and flamboyant fashion victim Austin (Ma Tang). Also in the mix are Austin’s lovelorn ex-boyfriend – the compulsive glutton Lin Xiaozun (He Xiaodou) – and two hunky, straight interlopers from Zanzan’s past. Throw in ripped abs, a misappropriated crate of designer lube, sleeping pills and a running gag involving a Taser and you’ve got a show that, when it hits its stride, is genuinely entertaining (and also a great way to develop your
Chinese polari).

While plenty of tropes that Will & Grace engendered are present – particularly Song Yi’s unrequited love for the fastidious Zanzan – from the outset, Rainbow Family is a Chinese web series aimed at a Chinese audience and has earned a legion of avid fans for its trouble. The series is partly produced by gay social network Zank and the name-dropping gets a little wearying at times (at one point the cast even accept jobs at the company). Fans, however, seem to tolerate this blatant product placement, perhaps because the show’s characters are just so darn likeable.

Rainbow Family is hopeful,” says actress Chen Peishan, who has a recurring role as Zanzan’s tomboy colleague Meng Li. “Characters fall out, but they make up. Problems get resolved. I think people respond by thinking, ‘Wow, that’s the kind of life I want to have!’”

Mumu, whose gravelly voice and fresh-faced looks have made him an instant pin-up, agrees that Rainbow Family seems to have hit the right note with Chinese audiences. “It’s like pop music,” he says. “To me, Chinese pop songs are all about ‘Oh, I’ve been jilted, why?’ while foreign songs are ‘Hey, I’m so awesome! You must like me!’ There’s a lot of tragedy in everyday Chinese life, but we also find the humour.”

The show ducks fewer topics than you might think, considering that depictions of gay characters in the media are technically banned in China. Coming out (in one episode, Zanzan struggles with an unannounced visit from his conservative father), ‘lavender’ marriages between lesbians and gay men, the pressures faced by ‘leftover women’ and even date rape are all touched upon. While many situations are twisted to comic effect, with occasional lapses into schmaltz, there is more social commentary packed into a single 20-minute episode of Rainbow Family than you’ll find in the entire run of a typical CCTV drama serial.

Ma Tang feels this is what makes Rainbow Family more than just entertaining. “If we can show people what gay life can be like, more people will be willing to come out.” Perhaps more than any other cast member, Ma has struggled to distance himself from the character he portrays. “My close friends know what I’m like in real life – and that’s not Austin!” he laughs, adding that fans of the show often assume that he too is a camp, catty and fashion-obsessed disco diva. 

He Xiaodou, who plays Austin’s lovesick ex, Lin Xiaozun, has also found himself the focus of attention from fans who strongly identify with his approachable on-screen persona. “Gay people living cut off in villages or small cities watch online. They contact us to ask for advice because they don’t have anybody else,” he reveals. “That kind of person can’t tell the world who they are.

“I got one really long message from someone who was leaving Beijing because he’d come out to his parents and his entire family had ganged together to force him into a marriage. You can’t just turn your back when people reach out, even though there’s nothing you can do or say to comfort them.”

Mumu feels that shows like Rainbow Family can be a force for good in China. “However you look at it,” he grins, “we’re still better off than Russia! People are homophobic because they don’t understand what being gay means. Lots of straight people watch our show and they see there’s not much difference there.”

Rainbow Family (一屋贊客)Seasons one and two are currently available with Chinese subtitles on Tudou, Youku, and YouTube, where English-subtitled versions of the first three episodes can also be found.


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