Soap Operas, Frozen Food And Convertibles

Models in black leather miniskirts drape themselves across red Ferraris. Nearby, a sleek Mercedes convertible spins on a rotating stage. It's the annual Beijing auto show, and thousands of Chinese are crowding around a shiny Saab to check out its a ntilock brakes and airbags. They know their cars. They study them in popular magazines like Auto Fan and The Newest Famous Cars, and watch Grand Prix racing on satellite TV. Never mind that the vast majority can barely afford the show's $5 admission fee, let alone a basic econo-box, which goes for about $12,000. With per capita income averaging $530, most will never get to road trip on the smooth new freeways Beijing is building. But they can always dream.

Two years ago, when the government shrank the work-week to five days, Chinese discovered the joys of weekend trips. It didn't take long for entrepreneurs to learn the value of the tacky tourist trap. A petting zoo outside Beijing sells chicks for k ids to feed to crocodiles. Hangzhou anglers troll overstocked fishponds the size of swimming pools. Near Harbin, in northeast China, tourists comb the ruins of a Japanese germ-warfare facility that conducted human experiments during World War II. In Xian , tourists flock to the Bampo Matriarchal Village, an archeological theme park where they can disco by firelight, dine in air-conditioned grass huts and watch female wrestling. But the country's most famous tourist destination remains Tiananmen Square, w here visitors gather to watch the daily flag-raising ceremony. Those in attendance last Thursday morning saw soldiers hoist the red flag, then slide it down to half mast. Few knew that it was in honor of Deng's death. "So that's why the flag came down," said a man from Henan province when he found out. "Come on, kids! Let me take your picture."

Chairman Mao once said that art must serve socialism. But in China's increasingly competitive television market, it's got to make money. Programmers have quickly figured out that sleaze means ratings. So their nighttime soap operas typically abound in lying cheating and sleeping around. But as a sop to the censors, they still contain a moral--usually in the form of a victim who wins out or a villian who is made to pay. In the recent mini-series "Awaken From a Dream in Five Willow Village," for in stance, the protagonist is a beautiful peasant girl named Xiakui. She weds a rich man from another town, unaware that he has another lover--her childhood best friend. By the time she discovers this double betrayal, her rival is pregnant. But Xiakui dumps her husband, moves back home and begins raising geese. There she meets and marries a fellow villager who has secretly adored her for years. Meanwhile, her ex-husband goes bankrupt. Subtle it's not.

It may not be the greatest revolution in the lives of Chinese women since foot-binding went out of fashion: frozen dumplings. Traditionally, Chinese women have not only held up half the sky but also done all the housework--and cooking. Shopping sta ll to stall in the market, washing and chopping vegetables, shredding meats and steaming rice, all add up to more than most working women can handle. But since the early 1990s, prepared foods have become widely available. A bag of frozen dumplings costs about 5 yuan (70 cents). They come in dozens of varieties: pork and celery, shrimp, vegetarian; Taiwanese imports or the favorite in Beijing, Ruida, which means "lucky." Television shows explain to new consumers how to use the product: don't leave it too long in the freezer; be sure to pick dumplings with the thickest skins. "I never used to make dumplings," says Xu Yang, 42, a Beijing editor. "They're too much trouble. But my mother and I eat frozen ones all the time." That's something a dainty-footed great-grandmother could never have imagined.

At a primary school in Helan County in the far northeast, it's time for music class. Some 67 kids are stuffed elbow to elbow behind narrow wooden desks. There are no instruments or sheet music. A teacher stands at the front of the room, conducting. The children mimic her arm movements as they belt out a deafening do-re-mi song of nonsense syllables. Meanwhile, at the Jinghua primary school in Beijing, the music class is eerily silent. That's because each of the 20 or so kids wears earphones that a re plugged into individual Yamaha electric pianos. "They sing songs together sometimes," the school's director explains. "But they also have this musical option." No wonder parents are desperate to send their children to schools like Jinghua, one of a ha ndful of new private institutions for the offspring of China's entrepreneurial class. Few can afford it, however; in the countryside, where most Chinese live, dropout rates are soaring.