Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas to all my readers! Here are some Christmas thoughts from Beijing, on behalf of my new company, Honest Films.

Friday, December 07, 2007

It's all about Angola

Poster for the China-Africa Summit, Beijing, 2006

Last year I was around in Beijing when the China-Africa summit was on. The summit was deliberately orchestrated to prove China's commitment to the African nations. China is dealing with regimes the West boycotts on political and humanitarian grounds. As these regimes have few other rich nations to trade with left, China has stepped in to buy their natural resources at bargain rates. Angola is one of those countries and is now China's main supplier of oil, having overtaken Saudi Arabia. But China is also involved in the political and economic life of these countries, training future African government ministers in Beijing alongside future Communist Party cadres and Chinese companies building new 5 star leisure complexes for the elite across the continent.
China's involvement is realigning world politics but we hear very little about it in the West. This Radio 4 programme highlights some of the political, social as well as economic ramifications of China's relationship with Africa.
You can listen to the programme here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

hugs in China

Free hugs in China

Free hugs in Amsterdam

I think it's clear what exactly this campaign is about but in case you want to know more check out the Free Hugs website here.

Today's lesson:

1) everyone is suspicious of wierdos on busy streets
2) there's soft hearted exceptions to everything
3) web 2.0 includes China

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

it was once sunny

Qingdao, Northern China

To remind myself that at one point this summer it was sunny I'm posting some pictures of the beach at Qingdao from May. Some classic Chinese seaside sights here;
  • no sunbathing instead there's umbrellas and full clothing
    (women prefer pale skin to tanned)
  • only men in the sea
  • and no one's actually swimming, mostly there's only degrees of paddling

And you are never far from a bike, even at sea. Above, bike-pedaloes.

But don't despair if you're planning a global ad campaign about beaches - some things at the seaside are the same all over the world, like kitschy shell-based ornaments:

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

the internet gets Chinese girls pregnant

The QQ logo, a popular internet chat brand in China.

According to the operators of a pregnancy helpline in Shanghai nearly half of the teenage girls who call them met their partners on the internet. Full story here, from the China Daily. An indication of the net's popularity as a place to find dates for Chinese youth and more evidence of the generation gap - youth sexual activity is out pacing the government's and parents' ability or willingness to deal with the previously taboo subject of sex.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

shared joys

Child's ride, Qingdao, China

Child's ride, Great Yarmouth, UK

A small thing but one shared by many - the joy of a badly spray-painted, slightly sinister, mechanical ride.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Japan and Korea as centres of influence

Levels of mobile phone strap use. From the always interesting Jan Chipchase. His presentation 'where's the phone?' can be found in full here.

Mobile phone straps can range from the utilitarian, plain cord to hang the phone from wrist or neck, to the decorative ( see below, souvenir mobile phone decorative straps from Nikko, Japan)

Why are mobile straps so popular in Pacific Asia? (Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore aren't included in the study here but you'll also see plenty of phone straps in those countries as well). It's probably reflecting a relatively low crime rate, the extent phones are used as a status/fashion symbol and the Asian love of the minature or cute. But this chart is also an indication of centres of cool - phone straps appeared first in Japan and Korea, and have spread (as with other fashions, music and TV shows) to other Sino-Pacific Asian countries. Phone straps as a tracer for cultural influence, eh?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

China not as ancient or kung-fuish as you may expect from films

The comrades at Danwei have translated an article in a local film magazine interviewing westerners about their attiutudes to Chinese films. It's quite amusing, though I'm not sure how statistically robust it is.
My favourite bit:

"After coming to China, what do you think the greatest difference is between China in the movies and China in reality?
1. There are modern buildings all over and cars cover the streets - the real China is modern: 23%
2. It's not a bunch of fighting all the time - you never see people who know kung-fu or who can fly: 18%
3. Beijing's nightlife is really colorful: 16%
4. Practically everything in Chinese movies isn't the real China: 13%
5. Ideas about sex have opened up; there are lots of fashionably-dressed women on the streets: 11%
6. No feeling of being constrained by lots of rules: 9%
7. Gangsters are over-romanticized in the movies: 7%
8. There is too much environmental pollution, completely different from in the movies: 4%
9. The environment is beautiful and people live well-off lives, completely different from in the movies: 2%
10. Nothing much is different: 2%"

summed up by one respondent:

"One person said that life in modern China is not as interesting as life in ancient China. Nor is it as polite, as well-off, as romantic, or as thoughtful. And no one knows kung-fu."

Learning: not everything in the movies is real. And no one can fly. Not even in China.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

suits you

Mao jacket sculpture, from a Beijing art Gallery, 2006

A great article here about the symbolism of Chinese Communist dress forms, illustrating the early Communist party's grasp on the importance of a clear brand experience. (Thank you ilike and Owen for this).

More historical costuming here, details from Xiao Hui Wang's My last Hundred Years , a photographic and multimedia work at last year's Shanghai Biennale. Changing Chinese female roles including students, army officers, barefoot doctors moving to teeny boppers and general modernity:

Monday, April 30, 2007

the pro-piracy case

A cover of a Chinese pirate copy of The Piano, hinting at a flirty, contemporary plot strand I must have missed in the original.

Danwei covers an interesting story; the US TV show 'Prison Break' is only available on pirated DVDs in China but it's been such a hit a Chinese company has paid Fox US $1.2 million for the rights to make an online Chinese language film version. (Xinhua's note on this here .).

The thing to remember here is that 'Prison Break' isn't going any where near mainstream Chinese media in its original form. A little-guy-against-the-big-corrupt-system story does not sit well with the Chinese censors (as discussed in the Danwei report) and this new Chinese version has to reinterpret the story into a corporate setting to make it acceptable. This sort of censorship is a big barrier to foreign cultural imports, even if the material is innocuous the clearance process can be painstakingly slow, and god help anything with more 'difficult' themes. This means even mainstream shows like Prison Break only have a future in pirated channels (off and online) for the foreseeable future. In these circumstances piracy in China, or at least 'cultural' piracy of films, TV, music and literature provide a valuable channel for ideas and creativity that otherwise wouldn't be allowed. Plus, as this illustrates, it needn't mean that money can't come back to the producers, just that it will take a more inventive and flexible approach to revenue. This cultural piracy can also create demand for mechadise and equities that are out on the market legally; how many of the Chinese mainlanders visiting Hong Kong's Disneyland were inspired to go after years of watching pirated Disney discs?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Not China, but Chinas

Taxi, Inner Mongolia, with dual Chinese/Mongolian language signage

Playing on local loyalties is a highly successful tactic for local Chinese brands, but are they the only ones who can do this? These's so much strategic and creative opportunity in moving away from the big, uniform notion of China with its often East-coast defined values. Why not embrace the multiplicity of this market and do something more complicated but far more interesting that engages with the differences in values and lifestyles across the country? There's been a lot of mutterings in the planning/creative world about the problems of the 'Big Idea' and how 'small' or 'rich ideas' are now more relevant. Perhaps it's time for more international brands to view China not as a Big Idea but as a Rich Idea?

Monday, April 16, 2007

like mother, like daughter?

Fashion brand Comptoir des Cotonniers has run a 'mothers and daughters' theme ad campaign for ten years:

Casting real shoppers from their stores, the campaign illustrates how small the generation gap is in these days of 'kidults', extended adolescence and parents-as-peers. In China the situation is markedly different. The generations are separated by enormous differences in values, experiences and priorities. Below are a couple of photos from a Chinese artist's study of teenagers and their parents, although extreme they aren't unrepresentative:

You certainly don't get the impression these parent/child teams would be fighting over who gets to wear the ironically distressed boho blouse.

And it's not just about the key generations not being able to relate. The generation gap is also defined on far more incremental levels in China with 30 year olds despairing of 25 year olds, 24 year olds thinking 19 year olds have a completely different mindset, 19 year olds who just don't get 16 year olds etc - it's a case of often big gaps between small age differences, versus the west's small differences despite big gaps in years. These micro-cohorts are an symptom of the speed of change in the country since the '80s.

And when your older cousin doesn't understand you what hope is there for Mum and Dad?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

compare and contrast

Williamsburg, NY

ChaoYang, Beijing

One bought as an economic compromise, one as a hipster statement...?


Nearly four months ago I was tagged by Rob Campbell, scourge of the mundane. I am now beholden to reveal 5 things about myself that you, gentle reader didn't know about me. I've been so tardy I'm now doing this as penance really, to publicially acknowledge I fail in two key blogging areas; prompt posting and community spirit. Sorry Rob, I'm a crap blogger, but with all apologies, this is the reply that has been sitting in my drafts section since last year:

My fascination with Asia started with trips to London's China Town, and in particular the Chinese Opera masks sold there as souvenirs. I think I was the only 7 year old in my town with a decent collection of major Chinese Opera characters' masks. Sadly this didn't win me the social aclaim I might have hoped for.

I ran a club night in San Francisco, years and years ago. I've just found one of our old flyers.

I can't ride a bike or drive a car. I'm fairly good at walking and hailing cabs though.

I have a bit of a fixation with the Japanese miniature food sets. They are sold in toy and department stores and I always buy a couple when I'm in Japan. This is a picture of a tonkasu meal, just the size of a box of matches. I am fascinated by this. Endlessly.

And finally, I've recently left my job to start my own company up. I will be droning on about this more.

I'm now sure you would have preferred this to have remained in the drafts folders, but there you go...

Monday, April 09, 2007

Sounds familiar? Change as loss

"As the manufacturing districts vanished, shrines full of exotic mechandise were erected at their heart: the shopping centres ... were consolations offered for our obliterated function and ruined our sense of purpose. At the same time, the streets where we lived were no longer full of neighbours, relatives, workmates, friends but thugs, vandals, ... The people we had called Auntie or Uncle were transformed, little by little, into strangers... The lesson that people cannot be trusted, but that money and what it will buy will never fail you, tends to prise apart the most precious and tender of human bondings and associations, undermines ancient consolations of kindred and friendship. Is it by accident that we discover our aloneness in the healing presence of the inexhaustible plenitude of a buy-in culture?"

This is an except from Jeremy Seabrook's essay 'An English Exile'. He's talking about his home town Northampton and its transformation in the 1970s when the local factories were shut down and the old housing demolished and replaced by new high-density housing blocks. Although this is about a very different time and place it still feels close to the experience of many in China today as state-run factories close and old communities are moved on to make space for the new urban reality. As a China blogger puts it, "We filled our lives, but we lost our souls" (chinese version here) and this is also a theme for Haolun Shu's 'Nostalgia' ( as mentioned before)

Picture: Shanghai

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Competition overload

KFC and McDonalds in Guangdong are under fire for paying part-time employees below minimum wage rates (about 50 US cents an hour, minimum wage being 1 US dollar an hour and no, a dollar doesn't go that far in urban China). As commentators point out here, this is hardly unusual in China;

"the deepest reason [for low pay] is china has much population.if you complain that the pay is very low,the boss will tell you that you can go to other places ,there are a lot of people waiting want to do the job. today finding a job is not very easy,you do not have many chioces,you have to face the reality"

From rural migrants to university graduates, it's the sheer volume of job-hunters which is causing the most problems. With all the opportunities China is now offering there still aren't enough to go round. This is not lost on the government. There's a lot of talk about building a 'harmonious society' and it's not a quaint turn of phrase, its a genuine realisation that the government are facing a huge social crisis if disparity in opportunity, competition for jobs and lack of security continue to grow.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy Golden Pig year to you! Above, London's Oxford Street embraces Chinese New Year, another sign of the pull of China today, if you needed one. More on the capital getting all excited about CNY here .

Saturday, February 03, 2007

nostalgia across continents

'Nostalgia' by Shanghaiese documentary maker Haolun Shu will be showing this coming week in Shanghai and London. It's a portrait of Shu's family home in one of Shanghai's old lanes just before its demolition. He returned to record life in the lane and to recall how it used to be. As he tries to capture what is being lost he also questions whether people are really enamoured with progress and what these changes are actually offering. It's a great film and a very touching insight into the changing nature of Shanghai, Chinese family life and community. If I remember correctly the Chinese name for documentary actually translates as 'Home Sickness' which I think is rather poignant - just what do you feel about your home town when your past there is obliterated?

Shanghai: MoCA Shanghai, 7PM, February 7th (Wed), English subtitles, it's free but you will need to book in advance: education@mocashanghai.org or call 63279900-124. Haolun Shu will be there for a discussion session after the screening.

London: Monday (5th), Odeon Panton Street at 6.30pm.

Friday, January 26, 2007

30% wrong, 70% right

This is one of Shanghai's few surviving neighbourhood Mao murals, probably from the 60s, found, with the irony China seems to specialise in, on a wall just behind one of the city's upmarket shopping areas.

The official line on Mao is that he was 30% wrong and 70% right. For an expanded overview of his career, including how a young Mao was inspired by a dream of individualism and more surprisingly female emanicipation, have a look at this Wilson Quarterly article .

Thursday, January 11, 2007

fierce gods for fierce matters

A ceremonial mask in a Lamastry, Hohot, Inner mongolia.

Quite unnerving, but nothing in comparision to a couple of the gods, or the 'wrathful deities' as they are known;

I think this is Death but he could also be another version of the Protector of the Dharma, Mahakala:

I'm not really up on my buddhist gods but apparantly these wrathful deities are often just aspects of the compassionate dieties, there to represent their righteous anger at wrong-doing or a threat to the teachings. Hindism also has wrathful deities, such as Kali who is, on her milder days, the Divine Mother:

Makes me wonder if we need to channel the wrathful side of brands more? Maybe we could do with some more righteous anger from brands? There's plenty to be incensed about. And if so how would the angry and empowered brand, venturing out on behalf of all sentient beings, act and manifest itself?
Skulls hanging off the logo could be optional.

boozy climbing?

what's better than rock climbing? rock climbing with a beer!

Monday, January 08, 2007

changing landscapes

Back in the 1980s father and son team Xu XiXian and Xu JianRong would travel around Shanghai on the weekends taking photographs of the landscape. They have been recently revisiting those places and taking photographs to create a 'before and after' portrait of the city, collected together in their book 'Changing Shanghai'. It's a fascinating exercise as the 'economic miracle' of China is largely illustrated with skyscrapers and malls but these photographs illustrate a more subtle spectrum of change, from the radical:

to less orchestrated, more individual and piecemeal changes:

and changes that somehow preserve the past, and yet lose its spirit:

and that sometimes change is degeneration:

It's good to remember that there is this spectrum of change because there is a corresponding spectrum of experiences, one that encompasses loss and exclusion as well gain and inclusion.