In a bright pink button-up dress, white knee-highs and dangly earrings, a daringly confident Su Fei saunters into a swanky Beijing boutique hotel for an evening of speed-dating, where she’ll sit down with 21 eligible bachelors — like Hai, Wukejia and Richard.
But for Su Fei, a curly-haired Carrie Bradshaw look-alike whose real name is Anna Sophie Loewenberg, finding a boyfriend in Beijing isn’t easy.
“If you had kids with a Jewish girl, they’d be Jewish,” she tells Richard. “Would you be okay with that?” Because, well, whether he likes it or not, “they just are.”
Loewenberg, 35, is the producer, writer and star of the online television show “Sexy Beijing,” which chronicles the wanderings of a Jewish American journalist looking for love in China’s capital city. Roaming the streets of Beijing, the Los Angeles native interviews university students, hardhat workers and elderly couples about their love lives — asking very personal questions and usually getting answers. The 10-minute episodes range from a foray in traditional Chinese matchmaking, to a study of Valentine’s Day, to a visit with the local Chabad Lubavitch community. Meanwhile, Loewenberg goes by the more pronounceable Chinese name of “Su Fei,” despite its double meaning as a brand of Chinese maxi-pads. Her shtick — with nearly 3.6 million YouTube hits — has landed her in English-language Chinese papers, on the Today Show and even in a Q&A on The New Yorker’s Web site.
“I think of Su Fei as an alter ego, but I think there’s a kernel of truth in everything — there’s nothing that I would say about a relationship or I’d say about my experiences that doesn’t have some truth in it,” she told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “As we’ve been doing the show over the years, I’ve given myself more and more space to create the character of Su Fei and make it less about my own life.”
After growing up in California hearing stories about her grandparents’ and father’s escape from Nazi Europe to Shanghai, Loewenberg finally decided to move to China herself in 1996 with a teaching program, where she also learned to speak fluent Mandarin and eventually began working as a journalist.
“It was always just part of the story of my family growing up,” Loewenberg said. “There were always these books of photographs there in our living room. But I never got to meet my grandparents, so it didn’t seem real almost.”
She left China in 2001 to attend Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York, but found herself back in Beijing by 2006, working on a documentary film business called Danwei TV with two of her friends, Luke Mines and Jeremy Goldkorn. Only after she resettled in the city, Loewenberg said, did the concept for “Sexy Beijing” materialize.
The show opens very similarly to HBO’s “Sex And The City,” with the camera spinning over tower cranes atop half-built Beijing high-rises, rather than Manhattan’s glamorous Empire State building. Instead of getting splashed by a New York City bus a la Carrie, Su Fei falls victim to a bombardment of bikers, a rolling dumpster and a stray watering hose. Wearing her signature horn-rimmed glasses, Su Fei types stories on her Macbook in between scenes, interjecting voiceover words of wisdom.
The show (sexybeijing.tv) may take place in China, but nearly every episode (there are 27 so far) is replete with references to Su Fei’s “yóu taì rén” (Jewish) identity, including shots of her favorite “gefilte fish” T-shirt, sips of He’brew brand “Chosen Beer” or the idea that she’s going to “go at her next Chinese date with a little chutzpah.” But according to Loewenberg, these Jewish nuances come about without much premeditation.
“They’re not there on purpose or to be some symbol — these things are part of my life, the way my Jewish identity is part of my life,” she said.
Jewish traditions are largely unheard of in this capital city of approximately 17 million, Loewenberg discovers through her interviews. In an episode called “Sexy Christmas,” Su Fei explores the American commercialization of Beijing, finding Santa Clauses and mistletoe in nearly every store window of the Communist country. Meanwhile, she decides to find out if people are familiar with “guang ming jie” (Chanukah) but doesn’t have much comparable success.
“What exactly is Jewish?” Richard asks her during speed dating.
In the “Jew Brew” episode, Su Fei pays a visit to the local Chabad Lubavitch center, where she witnesses the unveiling of a mikveh and gets fervently Orthodox rabbis to discuss Jewish law and the menstrual cycle.
“She reached an audience that had never heard of this mitzvah or had very negative or preconceived notions about mikveh,” said Dini Freundlich, Chabad emissary to Beijing. “I find her a dynamic and talented woman, and we are blessed to have her as a part of our community.”
While Loewenberg doesn’t attend services regularly, she spends some holidays at Reform synagogue Kehillat Beijing and at Chabad, where she also attended the bat mitzvah of Freundlich’s daughter, Mushkie.
“Religious identity is a big part of figuring out love stuff, so I think that’s the way in which it shows up at the show, but I don’t think it’s necessarily always up at the forefront,” Loewenberg told The Jewish Week.
Yet her family’s deep-rooted ties to China and the persecution of Jews that brought them to Shanghai are still perhaps the most personally meaningful elements of the show. Su Fei and her father return to Shanghai together, where they’re able to meet a man who lived in the complex at the time of her family’s arrival.
“There are so many memorable moments, but probably going back to that house where my dad grew up in Shanghai was something I’ll never forget,” Loewenberg said.
Even during that episode, however, Su Fei still delves into a discussion with her psychoanalyst father about her dating life, linking her attraction to Chinese men to her father’s childhood in China. Though she tries to avoid her dad’s questions about her thoughts on Chinese men, Western men and Jewish men, he skillfully interjects, “Do you like Israelis?”
“I really like Israelis — I think they’re so gentile!” she responds, laughing with him.
“Sexy Beijing,” which has become Loewenberg’s full-time job, has an open run, and as of now Loewenberg has no plans to leave Beijing. As far as the husband-hunting arena, both Loewenberg and Su Fei have yet to find Mr. Right.
“I think my ideal guy is Chinese, but totally circumcised,” Su Fei says in the speed-dating episode.
Her alter ego couldn’t agree more.
“A nice man who I love is good enough for me,” said Loewenberg. “But I’d be happy with a Chinese man.”
And what does her Jewish mother think?
“She’s very proud of me, she’s very happy, very supportive. But I’m sure she wishes I was married.”
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