Bridging China and the World through Travel and Entertainment: A Conversation with Isabel Xiao

In summer of 2014, Isabel Xiao (FACES '10) spoke with Bruce Wong (FACES Stanford) about her professional and personal life in the Chinese entertainment space.

In summer of 2014, Isabel Xiao (FACES '10) spoke with Bruce Wong (FACES Stanford) about her professional and personal life in the Chinese entertainment space.

There is a lot of ways you can promote relations between the two countries, and I think cultural exchange is a great way to do it. In our show, we’ve done over 20 episodes on the USA, and people comment “we are not enemies as we assumed, there’s not that much tension going on in the USA towards China.” I believe our mission is going towards a similar direction with the mission of FACES—it’s to help people become more open-minded about the current world we live in.

- Isabel Xiao, FACES ‘10

 

The IntervieweeIsabel (Xu) Xiao is the creator and scriptwriter of the most-well received talk show in China, Xiaosongpedia 《晓松奇谈》(formerly Morning Call 《晓说》). Aiming to introduce various cultures and historical anecdotes in amusing ways, the talk show has helped its Chinese audience become more open-minded about the world as well as taken Isabel all over the world—including Brazil, Spain, Argentina, the South Pole, New Zealand, UAE and more. During her Master's program at the University of Illinois, she became a FACES delegate in 2010 and has gone onto work in the entertainment industry in both China and the US.

The Interviewer: Bruce Wong is a FACES VP and graduate student in East Asian studies at Stanford University.

PrologueIsabel Xiao’s profile is as impressive as she is well-travelled: she has not only been to numerous countries—having the rare opportunities to ski-doo in Antartica, skydive in New Zealand, relay the Olympic torch in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, visit favelas and paraglide in the Rio De Janeiro, watch the Grammy Awards on-site and walk the sidelines of the Super Bowl, just to name a few—but has also opened up the wider world to her audience of 10 million regular Chinese viewers through the online talk show she created, Xiaosongpedia 《晓松奇谈》. Learning about the amazing experiences she embarked on after her FACES year, we were eager to speak with her and get a more intimate portrait of a FACES alumna shaping the exciting intersection of the Chinese and American entertainment industries. In this interview, she tells us how the impact her talk show has made on its viewers resonates with the mission of FACES, how she began her career in entertainment and the best travel experiences she’s had. Of course, she also recounts the fond memories at her FACES conference as well as her continued dedication towards strengthening US-China relations in both her professional and personal life.


Meet the Creator of China’s Most Popular Talk Show

BruceHi Isabel! It’s nice meeting you for this interview. Could you please tell our listeners what you’re doing right now?  

IsabelMy name is Xu Xiao and I go by Isabel. I am the Co-creator and Chief Editor of the talk show previously named Morning Call 《晓说》, which right now is called Xiaosongpedia 《晓松奇谈》. It is aired on iqiyi  爱奇艺, previously it was on Youku. This show is aired online every Friday and has about 5 million regular viewers. Sometimes the viewership is over 10 million.

BWhy did you decide to have the show on the Internet?

IUnlike in many other countries, the Internet shows are very well received in China. Sometimes people compare the biggest Chinese video sites with YouTube, but they are actually the combination of YouTube, Netflix and beyond. Not only can netizens upload videos onto these video sites, they can also watch movies, TV series, shows, etc. House of Cards is a good example: it’s produced by Netflix and also shown on Netflix. Produced by and shown on iqiyi, our show has been the most popular talk show in China for the past three years. We are actually the trendsetters of this unique type of talk show. The overall tone of the show is educational yet amusing. Being the first to introduce real history and all the different cultures around the world, this talk show is completely different from what you have seen before on American networks. 

B: Did you start your career working with production on these new platforms or do you also have experience with more traditional production?

IBefore this job, I have done internships at TV networks in China. I was also one of the official reporters hired by the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games to cover the Olympics. Frankly speaking, the shows on traditional networks suffer from much stricter censorship and I love my current job so much better because my ideas could be fulfilled without being worried too much. All of our topics are aimed to break the stereotypes that have been deeply rooted by propaganda, and to help Chinese audience become more open-minded about the world. There shouldn’t be just one unified view on everything. For instance, we talked sharply about the Taiwan issue for 14 episodes, providing many shocking historical details. The Japan series are also very popular because people learn that contemporary Japan is not what it used to be during WWII. 

B: What kind of impact do you think your TV show has on your Chinese viewers?

I: Gao Xiaosong, the host of the show has over 36 million followers on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter. People retweet and leave thousands of comments every week. When reading through the comments I always feel so moved. I will also remember one comment that reads: “Thanks for drilling so many holes on the wall so that the light can shine through. Now I can see the outside world with my own eyes.” Indeed, this show can never bring down the wall by itself, but at least we could suggest some different angles on history and the world.

 

Life after FACES: The Super Bowl, Favelas and Ski-dooing

Isabel ski-dooing in Antartica, one of her best travel highlights.

Isabel ski-dooing in Antartica, one of her best travel highlights.

B: On the personal side, what have been your most interesting travel experiences while working on your show? 

IOur crew travels really extensively. We have all kinds of sponsors, embassies, tourism bureaus, major corporations, and they invite the crew to shoot in different countries. The highlights of our journey around the world include: skydiving from 15,000 feet in Queenstown, New Zealand; visiting favelas and paragliding in Rio De Janeiro; watching The Nutcracker in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg; watching the Grammy Awards on-site; walking on the sidelines right before the Super Bowl started; watching soccer games during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. If I were to pick only one, it would definitely be driving a ski-doo in Antarctica, which was truly a breathtaking experience. But there was no Internet or cellular connection out there, so it was quite difficult to do research for the show. It was both amazing and challenging because of the climate, the food, and being disconnected from the rest of the world. 

 

Isabel Recounts her FACES Days and Beyond

B: I would like to talk more about your involvement in FACES. Can you tell us about how you first got started with FACES?

I: I first heard of FACES through email. I was in the Class of 2010, and the year before, two of my classmates from my high school were selected as delegates from China, so they shared the opportunity with their friends. When I got the email, I was doing my Master’s at the University of Illinois. I still remember writing a very lengthy and complicated application, and luckily I got selected. Then I went to Stanford in April 2010 and had a great time with all the delegates. Many of us still remain very good friends.

BHow was the conference like at Stanford?

IIt was awesome. The events were very well organized, and it was very different from what I had first imagined. In China, conferences and forums tend to be very formal: people suit up and talk with serious faces, and the meetings are usually long and boring. I really liked the interactive nature of the FACES conference. Everyone got to know each other more as real people rather than some poker-face delegates sitting across the meeting room. 

BDo you still keep up with any FACES delegates?

IDefinitely. When I am back in Beijing I would try to organize small get-togethers with the delegates of my year or a larger party to get to know more delegates from the earlier and later years. The FACES network is very well organized. I still get very useful emails from the FACES feed and I send them out to friends and former students. Actually, I know some people who found their jobs through the FACES network. I am very dedicated to the US-China connection, and it’s good to know so many more people are working towards the same goal.

BAfter your experience at FACES how did you kick off your career?

IWhen I put FACES on my resume, people ask about this experience at Stanford and it is definitely considered to be a highlight. FACES and its goals have always inspired me, and in September 2010 I organized an event called Chinese American Unity Night at the University of Illinois. There was an NCAA volleyball game and I invited the Chinese Consulate General to Chicago along with other consulates. Over 4,000 students on campus attended the event. In between the volleyball sets, we invited people to do martial arts performances and dragon and lion dances, and we also had a virtual Olympic torch relay. Previously through a show on CCTV, I was selected as one of the “grassroots torchbearers” and relayed the Olympic torch in 2008. I actually had the torch with me when I was in Illinois, so many students and professors relayed the torch together during the Chinese American Unity Night. Overall, we had very positive feedback from both the American and Chinese students. More than ten media outlets, including Xinhua News Agency, Sina, Sohu and etc., covered the event.

BIt sounds like you have continued to engage in improving American-Chinese relations after the FACES conference.  

IYes. There is a lot of ways you can promote relations between the two countries, and I think cultural exchange is a great way to do it. In our show, we’ve done over 20 episodes on the USA, and people comment “we are not enemies as we assumed, there’s not that much tension going on in the USA towards China.” I believe our mission is going towards a similar direction with the mission of FACES—it’s to help people become more open-minded about the current world we live in.

BIt’s really good to hear how your show is expanding the worldview of Chinese people. We’ve reached the end our interview. Thank you for talking to FACES, Isabel. 


Alumni Interview Program: In February 2014, we started the Alumni Interview Program. Our Alumni Affairs staff have since conducted over ten interviews with alumni in Beijing and the Bay Area. We hope that these interviews will inspire younger generations of FACES community and Chinese and American college students at large to pursue their dreams and make their unique impact on U.S.-China relations.