Long before “Friends” made its official debut in China, the show was a word-of-mouth phenomenon in the country. In the wake of Matthew Perry’s death at 54, fans in China are mourning the loss of the star who felt less like a distant celebrity and more like an old friend.
A Wednesday evening memorial at a cafe in Shenzhen, a busy city across the border of Hong Kong, was one of several held throughout the country for the actor who played Chandler Bing and died Saturday in Los Angeles. The coffee shop — an homage to the 10-season sitcom, from its name (Smelly Cat) to the Central Perk sign on its glass wall — was packed with people and floral arrangements as the TV mounted in the corner played an episode of “Friends.”
“There are more people who showed up than we expected,” said cafe manager Nie Yanxia. “People shared their own memories about Chandler and ‘Friends’ and many teared up.”
A large poster displayed on the bar featured pictures of Perry over the years. “We love you, friend,” read the message at the bottom.
While “Friends” didn’t debut in China until 2012 — through Sohu, a streaming platform — the show had become popular more than a decade earlier thanks to bootleg DVD and hard drive copies. Once Chinese fans added Mandarin subtitles to the show, which ran in the U.S. from 1994 to 2004, it quickly gained a following.
“China was experiencing this drastic historical change marked by the rise of consumerism and also individualism and urbanization back then,” said Xian Wang, a professor on modern Chinese literature and popular culture at the University of Notre Dame. “This TV show actually offered a way to imagine this kind of so-called metropolitan utopian imagination.”
Many Chinese fans learned English through watching the show and got a peek into American life and culture. The uncensored underground version of “Friends” also opened a window into topics that weren’t commonly broached on Chinese television, like LGBTQ+ themes and sexual content. (While “Friends” wasn’t initially censored on Sohu, the platform — and others that later began officially distributing the show in China — would increasingly cut out scenes.)
Wang said many young people in China identified with Perry’s character and his fictional friends as they navigated living independently and developing their own identity in a big city.
“It’s kind of like the loss of one of their own friends,” Wang said. “So that’s emotional because there was a sense of the childhood or youth memory, a sense of nostalgia.”
In the bustling neon city of Shanghai on Wednesday night, more than 30 people packed a petite rendition of the Central Perk cafe. There was barely room to stand, and just space for three to sit on a replica of the iconic orange sofa. Those who couldn’t fit inside the cafe spilled out the door, peering in, while others sat on chairs outside. Inside, fans took turns reading articles about Perry. Some choked up.
Nilufar Arkin, who lives in Tianjin, says she and her boyfriend have been described by their friends as the real-life Monica and Chandler. The couple even got matching tattoos two years ago with the lyrics from the theme song “I’ll Be There For You,” performed by The Rembrandts. The artwork on their arms also depict the classic Thanksgiving scene where Monica dances in front of Chandler wearing a turkey on her head. It was the first time Chandler told Monica that he loved her.
“I think Chandler and Monica is the model as a couple,” Arkin, 27, said. “This is what I admire for a couple, I love both of them. He’s my type as a husband.”
Arkin heard about Perry’s death when she woke up at her friend’s home in Xinjiang and broke down in tears.
“I couldn’t believe it and had to verify it again and again until I found it was true, then I just cried,” Arkin said. “He’s my top one character in the show.”
Fu Xueying has watched the series repeatedly; each time, it grows on her more. The 20-year-old student has visited three Central Perk-themed cafes, in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, where she felt like she was part of the show.
“’Friends’ has been a haven for my life,” Fu said. “Every time I have too much pressure from school or being unhappy, I watch it and forget the things that happened to me.”
For mechanical engineer Zhang Fengguang and his fiancee Sun Tiantian, both 30, Perry and the show will always be a part of their lives. In September, Zhang recreated Chandler and Monica’s proposal scene; Sun said yes.
“I used his scene and his line,” Zhang said. “It feels like I just got to know this long-lost friend, but he’s just gone.”
Fu Ting reported from Washington. Associated Press journalist Han Guan Ng in Shanghai contributed to this report.