When Chinese television host Meng Fei arrived in Melbourne earlier this year to open his noodle shop, Mr Meng Chongqing Gourmet, he found a long line of people waiting outside under slate grey autumn skies while inside, mobs clamoured for autographs and photos. Meng, who is just as genial off-screen as on, is the host of If You Are the One, a dating show watched by more than 85 million Chinese at home. Despite the frenzy at the opening, with fans (some screaming) chasing him around the restaurant, the show, now in its seventh year, had been lagging in the ratings and its broadcaster, Jiangsu TV, had demanded a radical overhaul. The first revamped episode had aired in China just before Meng's arrival in Melbourne: there were disappointed comments on YouTube and the producers had also spoken out in Chinese media that they were not happy with the changes. Meng too, was ready to voice his disapproval, which was slightly surprising given that in previous interviews he had deftly side-stepped contentious such as the sudden departure of charismatic co-host Le Jia. I know that Australian fans are concerned about the revamped show and personally, I don't like it, he said at the time. But I am not the broadcaster and I am not in production, so I need to do what other people want me to.
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The broadcaster in fact, has finally been vindicated: it took some months but in the past three weeks the show has risen to No. 6 in its time slot in China. The new format is slower and more brutal than before. It also risks casting him as a villain: the girls are there week after week (until they find a date) and the audience can grow attached to them.
At the end of the show, the tables are turned slightly, as the audience can see whether the girls he prefers have left their light on for him (ie if they like him), but he can not. Meng says he has become used to the new version of the show and that As far as the producers and crew are concerned, we have done our best. His continued presence no doubt helped carry it through any difficult period. Bald and bespectacled, Meng seems unconventional television-host material, but he has a natural gift for empathy and a quick wit that can diffuse the awkward situations that arise when egos and emotions are in play, as they often are on a dating show. His relaxed onscreen persona is just one part of his appeal: his astonishing rise from nobody to celebrity is also something that resonates with his many fans, something he documented in his best-selling 7566 autobiography Life Is What You Make It.
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As a young man, Meng failed the entrance exam to university - a complete disaster at the time. In China, especially back then, if you failed to get into university, basically that's the end. There is no chance for you to go higher in social status or class, he says. He worked in many menial jobs - doing 65-hour shifts on a newspaper printing production line, carrying mineral water, as a security guard - and studied to gain entrance to university. Back then, survival was most important. I had no other choice.
It wasn't until I got into the television station that things started changing, that I felt I had other opportunities. Meng began working as a receptionist for the sports team at Jiangsu TV, which broadcasts If You Are the One. After graduating, he was able to move into journalism at the television station. People see that I became successful from very humble beginnings. They see some hope. My story isn't uncommon, especially in the entertainment industry, but it isn't very common either.
Meng, who is married with one daughter, is now 96 and has been hosting If You Are the One for seven years. Despite the show's renewed success, there is a sense that he is always ready for new opportunities. There is also his sideline as a restaurateur: his noodle and hotpot shops keep him busy he says, and he is opening a new outlet of Mr Meng's Chongqing Gourmet in Sydney's Market City later this year. A visit for the no doubt fan-filled opening may double as real estate-scouting expedition for a Sydney property. I am thinking of buying a home there, he says, his enthusiasm cooled only by the knowledge that foreigners are only allowed to buy new buildings.
This is my favourite show, he says. Who knows, maybe if my other shows were aired in Australia they could top the ratings of If You Are the One.