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Beijing Buckaroo

March 1, 2005

USC anthropologist wins in popular Chinese televised talent show

By Kaitlin Solimine
March 2005

At USC, Eugene Cooper is merely an anthropology professor. In China, he’s a national celebrity. A sinologist who specializes in Chinese folk customs, Cooper recently took second place in Beijing Television’s popular “Arts of Our Land” competition – a week-long talent show that features non-Chinese people performing Chinese arts. More than 100 million viewers (well over the average “American Idol” viewership) tuned in for the finals, broadcast live on the Lunar New Year.

In what his USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences students attest is characteristic Cooper gear (well-worn cowboy hat, flannel shirt, leather vest and dark denim jeans), the professor had plucked his guitar and crooned two Chinese songs for the competition’s first round of auditions in Los Angeles. One was a straightforward folk tune, “The Lovers of Kang Ding.” The second was his show-stopper. Doing his best imitation of Willie Nelson, Cooper warbled “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman” – a classic from the cultural revolution extolling Mao Zedong. The judges liked what they saw, and Cooper was whisked to Beijing for the nationally televised final competition in February.

But there was a hitch.

“As I had somewhat expected, when I arrived in Beijing I was told that the cultural revolution song was unfit for the competition,” says Cooper in a rusty New York accent. Turns out the song’s lyrics are attributed to a defense minister who later was disgraced for allegedly plotting against the chairman. Cooper’s irony, he realized, could be construed as mean-spirited.

After some brainstorming, he decided upon the tamer but still edgy “Lift Up Your Veil” – a folk song about a husband’s first encounter with his bride. Cooper had only a few days to learn the four verses and fine-tune his country-western rendition.

After botching the song in rehearsals, he nailed it at the finals. “The rhythm of the song was consistent throughout, and the audience started clapping in time with me, which really gave me the freedom to relax,” he recalls.

That helped propel him to a second-place finish; he also took the “audience favorite” award.

Even some Western media took notice. Cooper’s exploits were written up in the Wall Street Journal and he was interviewed on “Marketplace” and Boston public radio. As for future engagements, Cooper says he’s “entertaining any and all endorsement offers.”