Dreaming in Chinese

Updated: 2013-05-22 09:10

By Liu Wei (China Daily)

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Dreaming in Chinese

A scene from Hong Kong director Peter Chan's new film American Dreams in China. Provided to China Daily

Limelight | Peter Chan

New Oriental is a Chinese business success story, and now a Hong Kong filmmaker has brought the story of this English-language company to the big screen. Liu Wei chats with director Peter Chan.

In 1993, three young men started an English training class, which has grown to become the largest private educational service provider in the Chinese mainland.

Now, a Hong Kong director has brought the story of New Oriental to the big screen in the film American Dreams in China.

"To me, the 'American dream' is going from rags to riches by fair play," says Peter Chan, director of smash hits such as Comrades: Almost a Love Story and The Warlords. "It does not necessarily happen in the United States, actually over the last 30 years, it has happened most frequently in the Chinese mainland."

The story of New Oriental is a classic rags to riches tale. When Yu Minhong, a former English teacher at Peking University spent all night posting advertisements for his TOEFL and GRE classes on Beijing's lamp posts, he probably did not realize he was launching an educational empire that would grow to boast 17,400 teachers and 2.4 million enrollments in 2012 alone.

The year was 1993 - 15 years after China decided to revive its economy by reform and opening up. Tens of thousands of young people left China to see the world and many of them chose to study in the US. Yu's English class and these young Chinese eager to connect with the rest of the world benefited each other.

One scene in the film illustrates how drastic social change has been over the past 30 years and its impact on individuals. When the protagonist, loosely based on Yu Minhong, makes lots of money for the first time, he throws the notes into the air in excitement.

Chan said he personally does not find the scene, written by his scriptwriters, believable. He protested that it felt a bit fake, but almost everyone on his mainland team, including actors, scriptwriters, and even editors, told him they had done the same thing when they first started making money. Han Sanping, chairman of China Film Group and one of the film's producers, told Chan he should have made the scene longer.

"The special era has made many things dramatic and romantic, which fascinates me," Chan says.

Money, however, comes with its own problems. In 2006, New Oriental became the first Chinese educational institution listed on the New York Stock Exchange, but as the company grew, Yu and his co-founders Xu Xiaoping and Wang Qiang started to clash. Xu and Wang are no longer managing New Oriental and run their own venture capital firm.

Chan's film ends when the company is listed on the NYSE.

"Before the company gets listed, the shares the three friends fight for stand for dignity, but after entering the stock market, the shares stand for real money, that is when things get ugly," he says.

He does not want to make a Chinese version of The Social Network, David Fincher's film about the founding of Facebook that features the breakdown of the relationship between the founders.

"If my film has a sequel, that could be another The Social Network," the 51-year-old director says. "It is not that I am more optimistic about humanity now, I am not, but at my age I have accepted the fact that life is unhappy and humanity is flawed. I cannot change it, but I no longer want it to bother me."

American Dreams in China is therefore not a deep exploration of modern business but focuses more on how the three good friends work together to establish the company and how their friendship survives in the business world.

"This is a film that makes me happy and I am sure the audiences happy, too," he says.

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