March 31, 2014 00:00 By Kavi Chongkittavorn
"Have you seen Zhao Jian's work?" asked a Chinese friend. "She's great and very popular here." For the past three and half months at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Yayoi's work has been a big hit on Shanghai's art scene. The outside world knows h
Yesterday, I had to wait over an hour to be part of the Dots Obsession – walking inside a big plastic ball painted red with white dots. Ahead of me were two young girls with multi-coloured dot stickers in their hair.
“I love her work, [with all its] small dots — just like bringing small worlds together,” an anonymous commentator wrote on the visitor’s book. Oblivious to diplomats and security officials, Yahoi’s dots and her weird art have already generated a feel-good reaction towards Japanese creativity among the young and those interested in art. I notice the people here are comfortable to call her, Cao Jian, the kanji version of her name.
Just a few kilometres away in the new theatre area in Hongkou, I shared two hours of loud music on Saturday with 16 doll-liked young Chinese dancers. The SNH48 is a franchised business called “idols you can meet,” imitating the famous Japanese idol AKH48 singing group. Outwardly these girls look like Japanese singers, including their dancing routines, but the singing Chinese version offers all the AKH48 songs and follows the format.
The audience comprised young Chinese male teens, crowding the standing-only area in front of the stage to cheer their favourite singers. They can greet beloved singers yelling names or sing-along with the lyrics. After four songs, these 16 girls hold short talks with the audience telling them what they did the day before. Each 2-hour performance comprised music performances and three chit-chat slots.
The male audience went wild and shouted back. “Did you see my tweet to you?” asked a young man, sitting beside me. Of course, the singer could not hear. SNC48 has a blog in Weibo. After the show, the audience votes for their best singer of the day. The singer who gets the most popular vote is rewarded and those who vote for her have their photo taken with their favorite singers.
Soft power is still alive
The idol SHN48 singing group in Shanghai, and Yayoi’s influence in the contemporary art here, is under the radar of those who are living in Zhongnanhai. At the street level, young Chinese people still flock into the Uniqlo store on Huai Hai Middle Road to look cool. At least in this metropolis, Japan’s soft power is still alive and well amid the growing tension over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
Of course, the news reports relating to Japan-China relations these days on their respective countries are pretty negative. The Chinese media often portrays Japan as a warmonger while the freer Japanese media reinforces the view of rising China as a threat to the broader region of Asia. However, the feelings of the common people are much different. Those waiting for hours to see Yayoi’s work or singing along with the Chinese-version of Japanese pop music offer tangible testimonies.
At the People’s Park yesterday, I even asked three anxious mothers, who were looking for prospective boyfriends for their young daughters, whether they would accept it if I introduced Japanese boyfriends to them. One said “Yes!” right away while the other two said they would need to talk it over before they could make a decision. At the weekend, hundreds of parents gather at this park along with A-4 sheets, listing short biographies of their grown-up children, who are still single. They hope to find potential partners by dealing directly with prospective parents without money-sucking middlemen or women. I also spotted some foreigners talking to these parents in pu-tong-hua.
Watching TV on the tube and the Chinese-operated Internet over here for several hours, one can see lots of Korean dramas and those imported from the US and UK. Recently, the Chinese media highlighted a senior party member’s comment asking why China could not produce popular dramas like the Koreans to attract audiences.
So far, war dramas about Chinese soldiers bravely fighting the Japanese remain the dominant production works churned out by state-run TV stations. A journalist friend of mine said it’s easy for these kinds of dramas to get approval from the authorities.