The Cross-Dressing, Eye-Rolling Star Sending Up China’s Office Culture
The coolest desktop accessory in Chinese offices this fall isn’t a plushie, a poster, or even a light-up keyboard, but a simple plastic standee of a well-dressed career woman.
At first glance, the woman might seem indistinguishable from any other office drone. A closer look, however, reveals a polite, charming, yet insincere smile. Flick her head and the standee shakes from side to side in apparent disapproval, a feeling reinforced by the word printed along the base: bazi, a Shanghainese term for a lout or boorish individual.
Meet “Sister Cynthia,” breakout star of the viral short-video series “If Shanghainese Told the Truth…” and “office goddess” to a growing number of Chinese workers tired of white-collar tedium and stultifying office cultures.
The appeal of “If Shanghainese Told the Truth…” defies easy categorization. It’s undeniably a comedy, replete with carefully crafted punchlines and buffoonish bosses — the target of Sister Cynthia’s signature bazi catchphrase. But it’s also a workplace drama, one that pays unusual attention to the intricacies of recruitment, job transfers, budgeting, and other aspects of corporate drudgery that define life for so many young Chinese.
The plotlines tend to be straightforward, with the only complications coming from oblivious executives who exist solely to issue pointless assignments and make their employees’ lives more difficult. In one, Sister Cynthia leverages her role as human resources manager to help a new hire outmaneuver his exploitative manager and get a day off after weeks of overtime. In another, she tells a worker who has been denied a promotion to threaten to quit, rolling her eyes at the idea of putting the company’s interests ahead of its staff. It may seem simple, but the dialogue and performances are unusually sharp, thanks in large part to the series’ creator and star: comedian Men Qiang, himself a 36-year-old former office worker. (Men Qiang, whose real surname is Zhang, prefers to go by his stage name in public; menqiang means “tongue” in Shanghai dialect.)
Men Qiang’s road to “office goddess” was far from smooth, and not just because of his gender. Born in 1987 to an ordinary Shanghai family, he tells Sixth Tone he had an unremarkable childhood before pursuing a degree in tourism management. After graduation, he followed a path familiar to millions of Chinese millennials: six years in retail, followed by a stint at a headhunting company and then a few years as a human resources staffer.
He never stopped feeling like something was missing, however. Although he’d received no formal comedic training, Men Qiang says he dreamed of performing on stage. As China’s stand-up comedy scene began to boom in the late 2010s and early 2020s, he finally saw his chance. He started small, releasing various one-off shorts on video streaming platforms like Douyin — the version of TikTok available on the Chinese mainland — Instagram-like Xiaohongshu, and Bilibili. In 2021, he began testing out a stand-up routine, honing his craft at small comedy clubs and bars across Shanghai — often as many as four or five shows in a single day.
By late last year he had become a minor celebrity in the city’s comedy circles, though he was still far from a household name. Deciding it was now or never, in early 2023, Men Qiang filed for a leave of absence from his job and left the corporate world behind for a part-time gig with China’s biggest stand-up group.
In an ironic twist, his timing couldn’t have been worse. Almost immediately, his new employer found itself mired in controversy. The bookings he was banking on dried up, and Men Qiang found himself essentially jobless for the first time in over a decade.
Rather than give up, he decided to use his newfound free time on a project he’d long been interested in: a workplace comedy miniseries.
It was a relatively safe choice, given his background and the popularity of workplace dramas on Chinese streaming platforms, but he still needed a strong central character to make it all work. He landed on a female human resources specialist — who later became Sister Cynthia — because he was tired of workplace-set shows starring women who looked and acted nothing like those he’d worked alongside for so many years: competent, no-nonsense, and every bit as capable, if not more so, than their overwhelmingly male bosses.
“In many contemporary Chinese workplace dramas, the female characters are completely detached from reality,” he says. “They are either excessively emotional, prone to unraveling at minor setbacks, or preoccupied with romantic pursuits at the expense of work. In my years in the corporate world, I encountered numerous astute, capable female colleagues, and I wanted to depict a character like that.”
His choice wasn’t without risk. Although drag has a long tradition in comedy, Men Qiang worried that, done poorly, his costume might turn Cynthia into the butt of the joke. He wanted a natural look, one that would allow the audience to focus on Cynthia’s biting sarcasm and no-nonsense attitude, rather than the fact that she was played by a man.
It fell to his girlfriend, who goes by the screen name “Little Cheng,” to get it right. For a three- to four-minute Sister Cynthia skit, Little Cheng might spend hours working on Men Qiang’s makeup and wardrobe. They split the rest of the production responsibilities evenly: Men Qiang writes the scripts and performs, while she films and takes care of post-production.
The pair’s dedication paid off almost immediately. After its launch in June, the series caught on almost immediately in Shanghai’s white-collar circles. Perhaps more surprisingly, given the show’s heavy use of Shanghai dialect, it has since made waves in other big cities, including Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, allowing the couple to support themselves through brand sponsorships and other advertising opportunities.
The show’s success even helped revive Men Qiang’s stand-up dreams. In the spring, he was barely able to book gigs as an opener; by October he was headlining a series of solo shows in Shanghai, tickets for which sold out in less than a second. Although she doesn’t appear in “If Shanghainese Told the Truth…,” Cheng’s makeup skills have earned her a sizeable following of her own, and she now operates a separate channel where she posts tutorials and behind-the-scenes clips of her work. (Little Cheng declined Sixth Tone’s interview request, citing privacy concerns.)
According to Wen Fangyi, a lecturer in Nanjing University’s School of Movie and Television, the appeal of Men Qiang’s show is straightforward, especially to young female viewers. “It depicts a workplace in which women can use clever means to triumph over their male bazi bosses,” she says.
Huang Yang, a fan of “If Shanghainese Told the Truth…” who works in public relations at a tech company, put it in simpler terms: “She calls to mind the kind of HR professionals you might find in Shanghai’s foreign enterprises a decade ago. (These women) just got it. They didn’t cause you trouble, they understood how the corporate world worked, and they would help you out when they could.”
If that’s a somewhat idealized view of the past, it nevertheless resonates with many young Chinese, many of whom are frustrated with contemporary office culture and its tendency toward red tape, rigid hierarchy, and micromanagement. A set of emojis featuring her most famous catchphrases, such as “Only bazi check their employees’ timesheets” and “Actually, that young woman (employee) would prefer you stay away,” became a fixture of workplace group chats over the summer.
“Sister Cynthia is a breath of fresh air in a world of brown-nosers,” says Wang Rui, himself a human resources professional. “Behind her proud, world-weary exterior lies a sense of justice and care for the people around her.”
Not everyone has fallen in love with the character of course. Men Qiang expected to take flack for performing in drag, and he shrugs off comments calling him “effeminate.” But other criticisms have caught him off guard, such as one comment asserting Cynthia was too competent to be a suitable spouse and that Viola, her subordinate in the show and occasional subject of sexual harassment by the company’s “greasy” bosses, was more appealing.
In response, he has tried incorporating elements of feminism into the show, including references to slogans like “girls helping girls.” It’s tricky ground, however, and he says he’s careful not to let these messages overshadow what he calls his primary goal: bringing laughter and offering respite from the pressures and anxieties of everyday life.
“The most important thing is making people happy,” he says. “If you’re happy, that’s enough.”
Editors: Ding Yining and Qi Ya.
(Header image: Visuals from Men Qiang and IC, reedited by Sixth Tone)
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