The highly anticipated reunion special of the American sitcom "Friends" has taken its massive Chinese fanbase by storm with a nostalgic and tear-jerking tribute to the all-time hit series.
The unscripted, one-off reunion episode, "Friends: The Reunion," brings together the sitcom's six stars on screen for the first time since the series went off the air in 2004. It premiered on several Chinese streaming platforms on Thursday afternoon.
The reunion special skyrocketed to one of the top 10 trending topics on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo on Thursday night, with a bevy of netizens saying the reunion has allowed them to "relive their youth" or simply expressing their longtime affection for the series.
As of 3 p.m. Friday, the "Friends" reunion has a score of 9.5 out of 10 on China's leading film rating platform Douban.
The charm of "Friends" drew more than 40 diehard fans to a Central Perk-inspired coffee shop in downtown Shanghai on Thursday afternoon to watch the get-together as soon as it was released.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world," said Zhou Yunsheng, who attended the screening party. "I even asked for leave from my company to watch the reunion."
The 31-year-old said he has been a devout "Friends" fan since high school and claimed he could recite famous lines from the show by heart.
Yang Yi, the manager of the coffee shop, said he had received many phone calls in the past week about arranging a screening event at the shop.
"This is nothing short of a festival for "Friends" lovers," said Yang.
Stroll down memory lane
From Phoebe's hit song "Smelly Cat" and table reads of the sitcom's iconic scenes to the unresolved conundrum of whether or not Ross and Rachel were "on a break," the "Friends" reunion has taken a legion of Chinese fans on an emotional stroll down memory lane.
Fang Xue, a 26-year-old English teacher based in Beijing, said she could hardly hold back tears when the theme song "I'll be there for you" started to play when the episode began.
"Though the actors have apparently aged and they weren't playing their characters, they had good old chemistry just by sitting on the sofa and reminiscing about the past," said Fang. "It feels like they have always been there for me."
Fang said she started watching "Friends" in her freshman year as an English major at a Beijing university, on the recommendation of a classmate. Like many Chinese students, she first watched the series to learn colloquial English but quickly found its charm beyond the academic realm.
"It opened my eyes to a different lifestyle and a new culture and, before long, I saw the six characters as my own friends," Fang said.
Ji Yi, a Shanghai-based IT engineer, said she watched the entire "Friends" series over ten times.
"The series' 10th and final season already gave a proper ending to the characters when everyone was in the prime of their lives, and I don't want that to unravel," said the 27-year-old. "I'm just happy that the actors helped me relive some of my most cherished memories from the show."
"Friends" craze in China
Although producers and actors suggested a minimal chance of a reboot or a second reunion in Thursday's reunion special, the episode does not mean "the end of an era," to quote Rachel Green's famous line. The sitcom's massive influence as a global cultural phenomenon is bound to stay.
In China, "Friends" was much more than a TV comedy from the outset.
It first gained popularity in the late 1990s as a tool for learning the English language. Then the country's post-1980s and post-1990s generations, like Fang, discovered its unique appeal as a window to learn about the American culture.
The rise of Chinese streaming platforms and their import of American sitcoms since the early 2010s have helped "Friends" amass an even greater following in China, some of whom are "Generation Zers" born after the series wrapped up.
Fang, who teaches at a private education institution in Beijing, said she plays clips from "Friends" in her classes to teach her teenage students new words and expressions.
"They love all the jokes and farces. Some have even become binge-watchers of the show," she said.
Many Chinese "Friends" fans relate to characters in the show and draw solace and life inspiration from it.
Sheng Yang is a lecturer at the School of International Journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Sheng said the "Friends" story of twenty-somethings making a living and finding love in a metropolis easily resonates with the growing number of Chinese young people who have left their hometowns to study or work in big cities amid the country's urbanization drive.
"Despite the differences in cultural backgrounds and social environments, Chinese young people do share some similar pressures and insecurities with the "Friends" characters," Sheng said. "Career choices, the loneliness of living by oneself, and the craving for meaningful friendships, to name a few."
Ji said she relates most to Rachel, who evolved in the series from a spoiled princess to an independent career woman who makes her own decisions.
"The path Rachel has taken motivated me to become a more independent person and take charge of my life," said Ji, who studied alone in Germany for two years before returning to China to work in the male-dominated IT industry.
"For that, I'll always be indebted to the "Friends" series," she added.