I was recently at Hennessy Artistry‘s 2008 Semi-Private concert in Beijing. The theme of the show was “The Art of Mixing”, and therefore Hennessy invited a whole group of artists who had a ”mixed’ musical influence, attracted listeners cross-borders, and could musically mix fluently with other artists from other cultures. This private concert had Asian King Taiwanese-born Jay Chou, Grammy Award winner American Wyclef Jean, Singer, Dancer, Rapper, Taiwanese-American Will Pan, Korean-American R&B sensation Lena Park, and winner of China’s SuperGirl (Asia’s American Idol) English-song-singing Pop princess Jane Zhang all performing on the same stage in a 3 hour show.
While the concert itself was entertaining, the specific purpose of bringing together such ‘mixed’ artists kept me thinking about the state of the Asian entertainment industry.
The concert helped me remember the very first time I saw a major entertainment production that consolidated multiple Asian heritages/cultures/ethnicities together. That production was the movie “Young & Dangerous 6: Born to be King” (2000). In the sixth edition of this movie series, we found the original characters, a group of Hong Kong buddies had emerged as the leaders of the leading Triads in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The movie showed how they orchestrated an alliance with the leading triad in Japan to form an inter-Asian triad alliance. The movie was filmed in all three locations, and had three primary languages: Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese.
The first time I saw this movie I felt a little disconcerted having to rely on subtitles for two-thirds of the movie. However it marks a milestone in my cultural history as the first time I realized the potential for an integrated Asian entertainment industry.
On a side note, for those that haven’t watched the entire series of Young & Dangerous MUST immediately go out and buy the set. This series of movies single-handedly altered the dreams and fantasies of all young Chinese adolesents from the Gen X & Y era. All Chinese boys wanted to be like Chan Ho Nam, the main character, and the hair styles, fashion styles and car choices from these movies had immense influences on pop Chinese culture through the 90s.
One interesting observation that I’ve come across in the past couple years is that the Young & Dangerous series was equally as popular and influencial not only in the Overseas Chinese communities (American-Born-Chinese, Canadian-Born-Chinese, HK Chinese, etc.) but also the equivalent generation in Mainland China. This leads me to conclude that the future of Asian Entertainment is indeed an integrated one. If you want to find one thing in common or a great ice-breaker between 20 or 30-something ethnic Chinese regardless of where they’re from, just start off with Young & Dangerous.
Which comes to another realization: since 2000, all Asians have been slowly acclimating to cross-cultural, continually-subtitled entertainment products. This brings me back to present day, where you will notice a growing proportion of popular Asian entertainment products whether music, film etc. is produced from concept with cross-border appeal as the main focus. There are several reasons for this: 1) It just makes more economic sense if you can tap into more fans in another market, you sell more products and make more money 2) There is growing demand for these products. It may be a bit paradoxical, as it is because of these cross-border entertainment products that spur on cultural integration in Asia, and thus feeds the speed at which the market is integrating and demanding more integrated entertainment products 3) Cost reduction on the production end. If you can develop one property that appeals to multiple markets, it is cheaper to develop with perspective to overhead, production & promotion to popularize one large entertainment product vs. several small localized products.
A few examples: Wang Lee Hom the other Pop king of Asia, is a Taiwanese-American singer-songwriter now also actor. He moved to Asia knowing little Chinese, but has worked hard in developing his language skills which has now paid off. The original, original music artist that pioneered this path was Coco Lee, who born in HK with heritage from North China, grew up in America and had her debut album in 1993. Rain is now one of the top Korean music artists and has gained regional & international following. His recent concerts in China were completely sold out in record time, with over half of his 2005 album sales coming from China. Rain releases full-Korean language album and songs. Edison Chen is one of a multitude of film stars that enjoy a cross-cultural background. Born and raised in Canada, his first language is English but also speaks Canto, Mando, and Japanese. With the exception of his recent scandal, where to leave the media frenzy he escaped from Hong Kong back to Canada for a hiatus, he is representative of many Overseas Chinese stars. Then there is Takeshi Kaneshiro. This mixed Taiwanese-Japanese actor-singer is the Brad Pitt of Asia. Speaking fluent Taiwanese, Mandarin, Japanese and English, he is the prized choice of all top-level directors and producers. There are many other similar stars that claim mixed heritages, including Thai-Chinese, Malaysian-Chinese, Singaporean, etc.
So what does all this mean, for the present and the future? First, subtitles are here to stay. A growing middle class in Asia, a class with higher disposable income with the propensity to spend on luxury and entertainment goods will mature in an atmosphere of growing cross-asia integration. As the ASEAN +3 or other regional trading blocks grow stronger, it will reinforce the desire for more integrated works.
The other reason why ‘mixed’ entertainment (actors, musicians, stars) are rising in prominence is just because oftentimes they are seen as ‘cooler’. Coming from the mainland Chinese perspective, perception that the West is ‘the ultimate’ state of social & cultural evolution is fast waning. Instead, what new permutations arise from synthesizing the best from the West and the East is what now fascinates China and Asia in general. In addition, different = cool, and what is different enough but still relate-able than stars of mixed ethnicity or stars with an international upbringing?
Watch how the Asian entertainment industry quickly evolves and consolidates, finding its own identity rooted in these international players that are the abassadors for Asian cultural fusion. Pretty soon, we may witness a community or industry strong enough to compete with Hollywood as the epicenter of international entertainment.
And that will be the day that we can say Asia has finally come out as the leading player in international affairs.