Popular Asian Culture
University of Western Australia
Marcia Helene Hewitt 10436125
May 18, 2010
Using specific examples from popular and visual culture, discuss the concept of the ‘discursive common [East] Asian popular culture’ as set out by Chua Beng Huat in his paper. What are some of the socio-cultural, economic, and political forces underlying the shaping of such a shared popular culture, and what are some of its limitations?
“well, they’re not Japanese. They’re Korean…pretty boys sell to little girls. Put 5 of them together in a band they’re likely to take over the place”
Shanaynaygirl9, age 15, youtube.com. 2008.
IN this paper I will describe how different forms of media construct Pan Asian identity in cultures that are multiethnic with predominately Confucian underpinnings. I will also locate this politically by discussing how TV and films are crossing old political boundaries with a contemporary popular ‘East Asian Culture’ motif. Using Michel Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish’ and Homi Bhabba’s ‘Third Space’ notion I will use some movies, TV series and photos to describe the phenomena of ‘Pan Asian
Firstly, it is very clear from the beginning of Beng Huat’s paper that the term ‘Asian’
is not a homogeneous term or space, but is an amalgam of multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious and multilingual postcolonial identities. As capital rises in East Asian countries so is a type of identity being constructed from TV dramas and pop music. (Beng Huat, 2004). Beng Huat defines an ‘East Asia Popular Culture’ to describe the flow of cultural products between the People’s Republic of China, South Korea, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and also as a departure point for discursive research.
Confucian thought in East Asia is, to some degree, a state religion. However it is not officially a religion, and in fact is categorised as a system of social and ethical philosophy rather than a religion. Sociologist Robert Bellah called it a ‘civil religion.’ (Bellah, 1985). Even more than that it is a way of thinking, being and acting, an entire value system. And so one can say it is a culture also. It is a kind of culture/politik. It is, as Geertz would say, a system of social and ethical philosophies, that act to establish powerful, ‘pervasive and long lasting moods.’ (Gertz, C. 1963) Confucianism formed the basis of Chinese culture when Emperor Wu ruled China in 140 to 87 BC. (Berling, 1982). Also strongly influenced by Confucianism are Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam as well as various territories such as Singapore and Japan. (http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Confucianism). There is presently a resurrection of neo Confucianism which would unite the larger area of East Asia. (MacFarquar, R. 1980).
Confucianism, then, is a shared socio/political element in much of East Asian cultural discourse. Confucian values often underpin dialogue within scripts such as Meteor Gardens.
Construction of a Pan Asian Identity by filmmakers.
It would seem impossible to construct a pan Asian identity out of dozens of countries
and provinces, and hundreds of linguistic groups. However this elusive task is happening
via film and pop culture. Even in Communist China, where the politik is to keep Western culture out and all its ‘evil’ forms, it has become impossible to keep certain pop figures out. For example the case of Chang Huei Mei, a popular singer in Taiwan. Ah Mei (as she is also called) was banned from all appearances in the People’s Republic of China and all her screen ads selling a drink were removed from the public eye. But after she sang at the inauguration ceremony for the President of Taiwan her popularity continued and she was eventually allowed to perform in the PRC after singing for a trade union May Day celebration in Singapore and Hong Kong. She is an example of a cultural product that crosses the ethnic Chinese domain and has escaped the clutches of state control (Jenning, R. 2007). Despite the Communist Party and neo-Confucian trends, Chang Huei Mei’s popularity in Taiwan and Hong Kong eventually overruled political objections to her singing in PRC. Her Taiwanese indigeneity gave her a very widespread
Another example of a cultural product that is crossing geographic locations and linguistic
boundaries is the increasingly popular TV series called ‘Meteor Gardens’. I watched Episode One Part One about three times in total fascination. Especially interesting was the dialogue between two women regarding the fashion accessories they have recently procured in a mock competition, ending with one lady saying to the other “I got a Julia Roberts nose job, and only Julia Roberts and I can have this particular nose job” (Meteor Gardens TV series). While appearing to champion a nouveau riche system of competition for money and goods, this particular episode exposes the questionable value system of women competing for their self worth and identity by buying certain brand names. This value system is contrasted by another character, the simple and pretty and not wealthy Shan Cai, who rides a motor bike instead of being chauffeured like the other students. Shan Cai also stands up to the F4, who are a group of ‘ trendy rich kid bullies’ who run the university, sometimes by terrorizing others. This series has gone to the top of the charts in the Philippines and is subtitled in Tagalog. Even though Philippines has a strong Spanish influence, Asian cultural products abound. This type of cultural importation is described by Bhabha in ‘The Third Space’. Meteor Gardens is also viewed in Korea, Singapore…and China has made its own ‘politically acceptable’ version which has very high viewing. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/meteor-Shower-TV-series).
The cultural framing of a Confucian value system is explicit in one scene of Meteor Garden where the Professor teaches his students that ‘courage’ is one of the most important virtues that a person can have. The virtues that Confucius taught are the only armour against the pure materialism that is dominating the thinking of the New Rich. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-atao).
Moving onto Raise the Red Lantern , one can look at Pan Asian identity in film also in the political context. This film has been interpreted by some critics as a criticism of contemporary China (even though the director, Zhang Yimou, denies this interpretation). It is set in pre-Communist Revolutionary China where Songlian, the fourth and only educated wife of a Chinese patriarch is victimized by the other wives and then by her husband for disobedience. The customs of the house represent the laws of the country. Lanterns are lit in the house of the chosen concubine for the evening. The dynamic is a system that rewards those who play within the rules and destroys those who violate them. (Berardinelli, J. 1990). This film can also be understood by social theorist Michel Foucault in his chapter on the Panoptic. (Foucault, 1991). Patriarchal structures that enslave women in systems of competitive hierarchy on punishment of death or isolation if they violate rules is a similar dynamic to Foucault’s description in his chapter on Panopticism. Taking that gender enslavement one step further, whenever females are oppressed or enslaved there is a further enslavement/repression of anything feminine, or the feminine spirit itself. (Strachan, 1985).
Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is a discontinuous in its action. (Pg. 201
Looking at Bishonen or Asian ‘soft masculinity’ Homi Bhabha’s notions are useful.
Bhabha describes the phenomena of ‘shared popular culture’ in his book The Location of Culture. (1994). His notion of cultural hybridity creating what he calls ‘The Third Space’ aptly describes the phenomena of which Beng Huat writes.
"The non-synchronous temporality of global and national cultures opens up a cultural space — a third space–where the negotiation of incommensurable differences creates a tension peculiar to borderline existences. . . Hybrid hyphenisations emphasize the incommensurable elements as the basis of cultural identities" Bhabha, (218) .
In regards to the ‘new feminine’ it is interesting to look at Korean and Japanese ‘soft masculinity’ or Bishonen and in South Korean kkon-mi-nam. Even in the search this comes up as ‘cute Korean boys’. Comparing this image to Chinese boys, one finds this:
Or, cute Taiwanese boys:
This ‘soft masculinity’ described by Sun Jun (2009) has economic power; an appeal to young girls, the teenage market. Therefore there is a Marxist notion of ‘market value’ which partly drives the Bishonen image.
In conclusion, the producing and selling of ‘East Asian’ culture is generated and driven by TV and recording companies, and filmmakers. It is profitable and desirable to sell an ‘Asian self’ , notwithstanding that most Asian people do not see themselves in terms of the ‘Pan Asian’ construct. However, as far as pure entertainment goes, TV shows like Meteor Gardens are rocketing sales for even Hunan TV broadcasting due to popularity, and are cross cultural products in the Philippines and other Asian countries. (http.//news.hunantv.com/English).
Whether or not these ‘Bollywood Asians’ are imitated from American TV or whether they are, at this point, uniquely ‘Asian’, is discussed by Bhabha in his book ‘The Third Space.’
It can be argued that film, TV and music play a useful function in crossing over political boundaries and left over hostilities from World War II eg Japanese occupation of Korea and China. Younger people do not really want to carry the political hostilities of their grandparents.
Theatre also is useful in creating liberated spaces for intellectual discourse such as the work Mortal Sin, (Chiung, Lee, 1996). a play produced and viewed in Singapore. Mortal Sins illuminates governmental corruption in Singapore, but in a metaphorical manner, so that the playwrights do not get into trouble with authorities. (Hale, Aaron. 2010). Mortal Sins and Red Lantern both push political and social boundaries of state control, using story and metaphor to stay safe from political reprisal. The East Asian cultural identity, as Chua Ben Huat describes it, has far reaching political, social and economic impact and could be used for either constructive or destructive purposes. Many argue that this Asian self is being imported from American culture, and many argue that the Asian culture itself is generating these pan Asian archetypes for financial gain and entertainment pleasure.
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[Accessed 9th April 2010]
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