The “Peking Express” TV show was originally produced in the Netherlands and aired for the first time in 2004. The show’s formula was subsequently purchased by producers from various countries, including Norway, Germany, Morocco, France, Spain, Italy, and Poland. The idea of the program is that a number of teams, each consisting of two participants (often couples), take part in a race toward a distant location (originally Beijing), being forced to rely on strictly limited resources and facing various tasks on their way. The participants are often celebrities and their adventures are followed by cameramen. 2016 witnessed the arrival of the show’s Polish avatar, called Azja Express (“Asia Express”) and this version aired on one of Poland’s most popular private commercial TV networks.
Unlike the original Dutch show, the Polish show did not use Beijing as the final destination of the race and nor did China, as such, serve as a background. Just like in the Colombian version of the show, we were instead taken to Southeast Asia as the route cut across Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, with the finish line in Bangkok. Each of the eight pairs had only $1 to spend a day and thus, just like in the other versions of the show, had to continuously ask chanced-upon people for a lift or for a place to stay. The race against time was not the only challenge, as the participants had to fulfill various tasks at certain stages and this also often involved asking local people for assistance.
From a financial, and hence also from a moral, standpoint, the whole idea of the show is a bit dubious. One of the participants burst into tears during one of the dinners in Laos, when the local host said that his family was sharing everything it had and that he was sorry for not being able to share anything more. “We are being taken care of by the people who will share their last… with us [for free] and then we will proceed to make a lot of money [from this show],” said the contestant, through tears.
A rightful observation and a one that could, in my view, serve as a summary of the entire show. The participants had hardly any resources to share during the race but as at least half of them are celebrities, we can assume that in the private life they are rather well-off, and not only in comparison to the people they met in Asia but presumably also by Polish standards. If $1 was the daily allowance, the final price of the winners has to be counted in thousands of dollars. The contrast was made even more stark by the fact that most of the show depicted rural areas of Southeast Asia and on certain occasions some of the teams were granted the luxury of a temporary stay in a hotel of their choice (product placement included). Thus they sometimes shifted from poor households — the owners of which were depicted as not making any profit from their guests — to luxurious hotels, which had presumably earned at least their regular amounts by hosting the show’s participants.
This free-riding on people’s hospitality is but a part of a deeper issue. The inhabitants of these four Southeast Asian countries were depicted as only providing assistance – if they were depicted at all. The participation of these people that did have a pre-planned role at various stages was nearly always of very instrumental character. They served as silent bystanders who were often there only to hand out certain items such as envelopes with a letter describing the next task. At best, they served as judges on whether the participants have performed a mission, such as preparing Laotian alcohol or pronouncing Thai or Khmer words in a correct way. Even in those moments the Asian people did not speak: they communicated their opinions by nodding or gestures (while this is understandable in rural areas, in places such as Bangkok English-speaking people could be easily found).
The question of language has another aspect to it. Although one may assume that off-the-screen communication happened mostly in English and the participants were undoubtedly prepared for the linguistic challenge, we were served a series of scenes when the contestants exclaimed vulgar Polish words between each other while talking, usually very politely, to the local people. “How do we prepare this s*t?” asked one of the men in presence of a Laotian woman that was to assist him in preparing lao-lao. The man, let’s add, went on to become one of the winners of the show and the entire program also served as a chronicle of his sexist remarks. “As it is known, chicks are to be shot,” he once said in Bangkok, as his method of traveling included not asking women for directions. This rather unsettling method of cursing aloud in one’s own unintelligible language while smiling and talking politely to the local people reinforces one of the malpractices of tourism.
It is not only the people that are made instrumental in the show but also their culture, religion, and history. These cultural elements that often serve as magnets for tourism are reduced to being decoration or inspiration for physical tasks. The Angkor Wat (of which we got only a visual smattering) was the venue for a game of putting together three-dimensional puzzles, the elements of which were based in their design on local architecture. Similarly, the dragon dance in Thailand served as one more physical task: each pair was made to dress up in the dragon suit and go through an obstacle course.
On the other hand, the notion of “exotic” informs the style of the show. One of the tasks was to make a Laotian man laugh. Another one was to find a few specific Khmer children in a school. Yet another was to consume a balut. One gets an impression from the show that it must be hard to make a Laotian man laugh (well, at least while communicating with him in Polish it may be), that Khmer people are difficult to distinguish from each other and, obviously, that balut is disgusting. One can sense an endeavor to present the others as really “Other,” the reverse of “normal”: their language is difficult to pronounce and their food is strange. One scene inside a family’s house focuses in particular on a small child eating a snake as something clearly extraordinary. Let me remind here that the shows claims that the family invited the contestants and the cameraman inside their house for free out of hospitality and “in return” the scene of their baby being fed with snake meat was recorded and shown to scores of Polish viewers as a curiosity.
This growingly Saidian picture is also achieved by setting the show in rural areas. Apart from Bangkok we rarely get a glimpse of large cities, modern infrastructure, middle class life, and the like. A European spectator can sit comfortably in front of his TV screen to be reassured of what he had been already thinking prior to watching the show: somewhere out there, at the fringe of the world, there live poor people with strange ways, and thus we, the rich people with normal ways, should be happy to be born where we were born. One could wish for the show to have a version in which Asian participants tour Europe and record the strange and exotic ways of the Old Continent’s people.
Of course, a reality show is not a place to look for lengthy and informative descriptions of a country but my overall impression was that the show did not really focus on Asia but on eight contestants that needed a colorful and exotic background as the canvas of their game. Or, in other words, the show’s name – Asia Express – is actually very frank. While it does not express the thoughts of the local people it takes us through their world in a manner of an express train.