Why the Chinese Are About to Fall in Love With Israel

Reality show founded by 'China's Oprah' films celebrity couples, including male army colonel turned female ballerina, traveling through Israel.

Yael Einav
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The shooting of "Lu Yu's Presents" in Tel Aviv-Jaffa.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yael Einav

The Dead Sea, Masada and a Golan Heights kibbutz called Ortal are about to become really popular in China, predicts Chinese television producer Yin Junjie. That's because Chinese celebrity couples will be filmed at those sites as part of a popular reality show founded by the talk-show host who has been dubbed "China's Oprah."

Viewership of the debut season of "Luyu's Presents," which shows Chinese celebrity couples completing a series of challenges in various foreign countries, reached 300 million, and the show recently shot part of its second season in Israel, during an intensive two-week shooting schedule.

"Israel is going to be on the map," said the show's producer, Yin Junjie. And it isn't just bluster: "Luyu's Presents" has been a gift for tourism in Australia and France, two of the locations of the first season. Now Israel, as well as Greece, will have a chance too.

The show's producers expect viewership in the second season to rise by tens of millions of viewers, or even hundreds of millions.

It's not just the people on the show who are celebrities. Its creator and host, Chen Yulu, has been called “China’s Oprah” for the talk show, “A Date with Yu Lu,” that she developed and has hosted since its inception in 1998. In “Luyu’s Presents,” the winning couple in each season ends up with a present that symbolizes their love for each other.

Jin Xing and her husband, Heinz-Gerd Oidtmann. Photo by Emil Salman

For the second season, the competition began in Greece and then moved to Israel, where the show said goodbye to a pair of famous Chinese actors. Three couples participated in the Israeli segment: Jin Xing, a transgender woman who once served as a (male) colonel in the Chinese army and arguably China’s most famous ballerina, as well as being an actress with her own television talk show. She took part in “Luyu’s Presents” together with her German-born husband, Heinz-Gerd Oidtmann. The second couple is a pair of comic actors, Hu Ke and Sha Yi, who essentially function as the comedians of the show. The model Chun Xiao and the popular singer-composer Peng Tan complete the cast.

The show’s crew consists of around 200 people in all, in China and abroad, working with 17 fixed cameras, two aerial cameras and 20 additional cameras in different places.

Each participating couple follows a different route, planned out in accordance with the items each person wants to give to his or her spouse. The show tests each couple’s relationship in extremis. At the Dead Sea, the couples had to recite an ancient Chinese poem while floating in the water. In Jerusalem, they searched for a decorative item for a future challenge, decorating a space at Kibbutz Ortal, in the Golan Heights. At Kfar Hanokdim, in the Judean Desert, they lived in Bedouin tents and gathered medicinal herbs, and in Jaffa they sang in the street for donations.

The cast of the second season of Chinese reality show 'Lu Yu's Presents' learns some Israeli folk-dance moves at Tel Aviv University. Photo by Moti Milrod

Oidtmann said the busking challenge was difficult, especially for Jin, who longed to escape and go shopping. She somehow found the time to buy souvenirs anyway. Oidtmann can’t wait for the kibbutz segment. “There, I hope, she won’t find anything” to buy, he said. Jin is a megadiva with a strong personality, members of the production crew say.

For Yin Junjie, the Masada segment was the toughest: The couples slept in tents and cooked their own meals, climbing up before dawn to watch the sunrise from atop the ancient site. The production crew didn’t sleep for two days, making sure that everything was in order.

Dancing at the university

At every shooting location, Jin steals the show. Her new nighttime talk show is one of the most popular in China, and Jin was once a candidate for China’s minister of culture. She began her wide-ranging career when, as a 9-year-old boy, she was admitted to the army’s dance school and named China’s best male dancer at 17. Jin retired from the army at the rank of colonel.

Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

After gender confirmation surgery that was among the first in China, Jin became a leading dancer — as a woman, this time — in the national ballet company. She has since founded her own modern dance company, Shanghai Jin Xing Dance Theatre, and has appeared in movies and many television shows. She is a judge on the Chinese version of “The Voice” and a regular participant in official receptions for foreign heads of state. She met her future husband on a flight from Shanghai to Paris, and they are raising three adopted children.

“I am in love with Israel,” said Jin, relating that her first visit was in 2006, as a guest of the Culture and Sports Ministry. This week the participants in “Luyu’s Presents” attended an Israeli folk dance session at Tel Aviv University. Choreographer and folk dance session leader Gadi Bitton taught them a complex Israeli couples dance, during which the Chinese celebs pretended to be overwhelmed by the difficulty of the steps.

Afterward, the three couples performed before 1,000 or so Israeli dances and four judges, who graded them. Jin and Oidtmann squeaked into first place. “Here I learned that Israel is many things, not only difficulty and wars,” Jin said, adding that in Tel Aviv she sensed the freedom with every breath. “I have friends in Israel, and when I was offered Kuwait and Italy, I persuaded the production to send us to Israel.”

Throughout the series, the couples give each other presents and reveal the story behind each one. “This time I decided to give a present to my husband,” Jin said as she sent a picture of herself dancing at Tel Aviv University to her 4 million or so followers on the Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo. Oidtmann "is German, and he is very sensitive to events in Israel, said Jin. "I learned to love this very special country. We’re actually too old for the nonsense they ask us to do on the program, but it’s my gift to my husband and myself."

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