Entertainment Television

The Amazing Race Canada’: Beijing leg leaves racers wanting more

By Jim Slotek, Special to Postmedia Network

Contestants Andrea, left and Ebonie are pictured in China this handout photo from "The Amazing Race Canada." (Bell Media)

Contestants Andrea, left and Ebonie are pictured in China this handout photo from "The Amazing Race Canada." (Bell Media)

BEIJING – It’s just past 5 p.m., closing time at the hilly Juyong Pass access point of The Great Wall of China. A world tourist attraction is eerily deserted – save for a handful of concerned producers from The Amazing Race Canada.

I’ve been a media passenger on this show for the past three seasons, from India to Vietnam, and now to China. And this is the first time I’ve seen this much stress behind the scenes.

The VPN message system that connects the production staff is working spottily. But teammates Korey Sam and Ivana Krunic have apparently bailed on their cab on the way from the airport, “in the middle of the highway, which is slightly illegal,” executive producer John Brunton says. Hailing another cab is problematic for them.

As if that weren’t enough, word comes through that Montrealers Andrea Croxen and Ebonie Roberge may have paid waaaay too much for their cab – to the extent that they’d have nothing left to continue the race once they arrived at the place where the Mongols were repelled 800 years earlier.

Apparently, there are no specific rules in The Amazing Race rulebook governing running out of money. There’s some debate about whether pennilessness is grounds to end the race for a team, or whether they should be given more money and take a penalty. At one point, Brunton and his staff begin rifling through their wallets to see if they have enough yuan.

Better times are ahead on this leg of the race, but it’s hard to see them in air this opaque. The normal smog of Beijing has been thickened by a dust storm blowing down from Mongolia. This remarkable confluence of atmospheric horribleness has made the international news.

All this, and as we speak, Brunton still isn’t sure if he’s ever going to get back the $250,000 “trust bond” the Chinese government made him post to get his crew’s equipment into the country.

When he envisioned a Communist future, Karl Marx made one of the most spectacularly wrongheaded predictions in the history of predicting.

Under a dictatorship of the proletariat, he argued, the machinery of state would wither and fall away. He never lived to see it, but the exact opposite occurred in the Soviet Union and China, where crushing state bureaucracies developed.

And it continues to this day. Despite its embrace of its own form of capitalism, Beijing is a place where there is literally paperwork to fill out before you buy gum (in triplicate carbon no less).

All of which makes The Amazing Race Canada’s Week Four side-trip to China a clash of concepts. The show is predicated on the illusion that teams can race from country to country, just showing up, flashing their passports and – language barriers be damned – grabbing a cab to the next Detour.

I mean, it’s a race, right?

But there are countries where you can’t just show up with a passport. Missing from the equation are applications and interviews for visitor visas and such.

And perhaps no country has tested the resilience of that conceit like China. The week before this season’s race began in St. John’s, N.L., word came that the team of Debra and Aaron Baker, the suit-wearing mother-son funeral directors from Grand Forks, B.C., had their Chinese visas refused.

Was it possible they could foment dissent among Chinese funeral directors while in-country?

Happily for (almost) all involved, the Bakers were the first team eliminated in episode one this season. Problem solved (although Brunton assures they had a plan in place with the Canadian Embassy to get the undertakers accepted, if need be).

In fact, viewers will get to see the Canadian Embassy staff at play with their families, in a friendly game of ball hockey – a stop-off for a clue as the racers hit the city running.

The racers themselves didn’t generally sound as if Beijing was on their list for a return trip. “We were flying in and I was looking out the window and saw what looked like a grey concrete wall,” said Sam Lambert, who is teamed up with his life-partner Paul Mitskopoulos. “It was the sky over Beijing.”

“We were actually really excited to go see China, because we’d never been,” said Croxen. “But once we landed and had an overview of the surroundings, it was like, ‘Whoa, okay this is not what we expected.’

“We knew there’d be pollution and whatnot, but this was like a whole new world.”

“It just wasn’t our vibe nor our city,” Roberge adds. “We were really affected by the environment and it affected our racing.”

Kenneth McAlpine and Ryan LaChapelle – a.k.a. the “Team Give’r” dudes – were similarly weirded-out. “It didn’t feel like what I’d pictured Beijing to be,” McAlpine says. “It felt like the city was sleeping. You’d see all these buildings with no lights on.”

Adds LaChapelle: “You hear it’s a city with a population of 21 million and you feel like there’s nobody there.”

And whatever it is they were breathing, they huffed it hard. The Beijing leg of the race has some tryingly physical moments, including a synchronized-diving challenge from the five-metre board at the National Olympic Sports Centre (prepare to witness some spectacular and clearly painful belly-flops).

There’s also synchronized choreography, in the form of Chinese line dancing at the same venue (Edmonton hip-hopper Bert Richards and his social-worker wife Karen have a Eureka moment when they realize the moves are straight out of a certain iconic music video).

“We just thought that going from Canada to the Great Wall of China would be such a dramatic, dramatic thing,” Brunton said, after his pulse-rate fell. “And we loved the idea of the words ‘Go to the Great Wall of China.’

“In terms of the odyssey, chances are none of the contestants have been there before. And we just thought it would be a great opening to an episode – the language barrier, the taxi cabs, all those things we knew that they would be forced to deal with.

“And as you know, it paid off… maybe too well.”

The Amazing Race Canada airs Tuesdays on CTV.

jimslotek@bell.net