Top portal Sohu had broadcast reruns of Monica, Rachel, Chandler and the gang since 2014, but abruptly stopped in April, citing only unspecified "copyright issues"
Stuck in second gear: Chinese fans ponder life without 'Friends'
Millions of Chinese Friends fans are heartbroken after a video site pulled the US sitcom, beloved by millennials in China for its endearing young characters and as an English conversation resource.
Top portal Sohu had broadcast reruns of Monica, Rachel, Chandler and the gang since 2014, but abruptly stopped in April, citing only unspecified "copyright issues".
The move has touched off anguish on Chinese social media sites such as the Twitter-like Weibo, where a "Friends offline" hashtag has generated millions of posts.
Many have called for Sohu to re-up on its Friends rights, with others offering advice on where to download pirated episodes of the Emmy-winning show, which originally aired in the United States from 1994-2004.
The sitcom, centred on a group of young New Yorkers, became a global hit through syndication, but perhaps nowhere more than in China where it first gained a following from pirated DVDs or illegal downloads before streaming rights were secured.
Some English training courses in China assign the show as teaching material. Guo Yujin, a customer-service executive and longtime Friends fan, called the programme "a window through which Chinese can learn American culture. I learned so much conversational English, things that you can't learn from books. Books only have the most boring grammar, but this is very lifelike," she said.
Ms Guo spoke while having lunch in Shanghai's Friends cafe, a spot-on facsimile of the "Central Perk" hangout frequented by the cast.
The proprietor is Du Xin, 39, a Friends fanatic who calls the show his "faith". He opened his first cafe in Beijing in 2009 and also has one in Guangzhou.
They feature "Central Perk's" signature window logo, big orange couch and a TV that loops episodes all day.
Coffees come with messages like "I (heart) Rachel" and "I'll be there for you" traced into the foam, and customers frequently queue up outside on weekends.
Tammy Cai, a friend of Ms Guo’s visiting from Hong Kong, said the cafe was the most important stop on her itinerary. "I only need to come here. The rest I can just glance through," Ms Cai said.
Mr Du got hooked after Friends was there for him during a romantic break-up in college. "The show gave so many things that we long for, such as the love between Chandler and Monica, Rachel and Ross. That is from an ideal world and that is what ideal love and ideal marriage look like," he said.
Mr Du, who took "Gunther" as his Western name after the fictional cafe's barista, said the stores are losing money, however, due to rising competition from proliferating coffee houses in China as the beverage gains popularity.
Another potential threat: Warner Bros, the show's producer, recently acquired the "Central Perk" copyright, causing speculation it may build its own cafes.
But Mr Du is ploughing ahead.
His latest project is a single-room hotel called "Monica’s bedroom" designed after the character's room in the show, right down to her floral-pattern linens, and he is also selling other Friends memorabilia, from mobile phone cases to T-shirts.