BEIJING — Deep in the Beijing suburbs, in a modern villa transformed into a TV studio, Victoria Zhou is fixing the roof on a gingerbread house.
China’s answer to Martha Stewart, although she rejects the tag, is recording a TV show that preaches a gospel of home decoration and lifestyle improvement in a country where not too long ago, that kind of thing was pure bourgeois decadence.
Fast growth in the Chinese economy is producing a burgeoning middle class with money to spend. And Zhou’s homemaker’s guide, which she presents under the moniker Jo Jo, is a hit with the emerging chattering classes.
In January last year “Jo Jo Good Living” began broadcasting on Beijing’s B-TV 7, and she recently added a nationwide travel TV channel.
“To begin with, our show was watched by very few people,” Zhou says. “Now the market is growing bigger and bigger and viewers are mostly married, well-educated women. The biggest change I’ve seen is the growth of the real estate market creating a middle class. The demand for things like home decoration, lifestyle and cooking all emerged from this.”
Zhou, who was brought up in the U.S. as the daughter of diplomats, has no TV background as such. She worked for the Wall Street Journal’s marketing department before joining the United Nations.
She was comfortably settled in upstate New York with her dentist husband and first baby when a friend encouraged her to look at the growing TV market in China.
“We spent a lot of time watching U.S. shows, then analyzing the Chinese market. TV in China is very difficult because of the politics. We weeded out some areas such as politics and chose the areas we’re familiar with, such as lifestyle,” she says.
“It’s very difficult to set up in China, there are lots of guanxi issues,” she adds, using the Chinese word for connections, adding, “and technical issues.”
China and the U.S. are also very different markets, Zhou says.
“Martha Stewart provides hands-on information about cooking, bringing up baby, handicrafts, entertaining at home, and so do I. But in China most women do not have the luxury to be at home full time. The idea of the housewife is much smaller in China,” she says.
“We’re still far away from the U.S. in dollar terms,” she says. “But in relative terms, it’s getting there.”