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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Cultural Shock

A rich Asian identity can be enhanced with more support for the arts


AS MICHELLE YEOH TAKES Hollywood by storm and London literary circles toast Arundhati Roy, Asians can rightly feel regional pride. The successes come at a time when Asian cultures are generally being overwhelmed by Western influences and Rambo has greater name recognition than local heroes. This makes it especially sweet to see the world appreciate at least the tip of a wealth of Asian talent. But why is Rambo better known than nearly all home-grown characters? If the Spice Girls can draw screaming fans everywhere they go in Asia, why can't regional performers do the same?

Asian leaders often criticize Westerners for not knowing enough about Asia, but how well does the region know itself -- culturally speaking? Spurred by expanding business links and falling political barriers, intra-Asian trade and travel have been growing fast. Local newspapers are filled with news from across the region allowing readers to have a generally more complete view of what is going on in Asia than people in the parochial West. But what about regional cultural awareness? How many Filipinos have read an Indian book? Do Indonesians listen to Thai music? Will Hong Kong cinemagoers watch Malaysian movies? Most Asians know about the attack on currencies, but how many have a notion of what consumes their business partners and diplomatic allies after they leave the office?

Perhaps asking Asians to keep up with culture in neighboring countries is too much, given that finding and supporting good local culture is difficult enough. Even in Hong Kong, with its own substantial movie industry, a substantial portion of the films in movie houses are Hollywood blockbusters. Moreover, the infrastructure and budgets to identify, import, dub or subtitle, and promote English-language products are entrenched. Churning out more of the same is easy. It makes little business sense for a Hong Kong cinema owner to gamble precious screen space on an Asian movie for an audience that may not exist. The same holds true for books, plays, dance recitals and concerts. The relatively rare exceptions -- stars like Jackie Chan have obvious commercial appeal -- prove the rule. Satellites transmit a few local music videos across borders. And some printed and digitized culture is spread regionally through cross-border communities such as overseas Chinese, Indians and Filipinos. But by and large, Rambo and friends rule the transnational Asian market.

Sometimes it seems that Western cultural centers such as New York, London and Paris are better places from which to monitor the breadth of contemporary regional culture than Asia itself. They have the infrastructure to find and import arts from abroad, and the audiences to support doing so. Yes, there are Asian festivals that showcase local arts, but it is usually easier to find a French or German film, for example, than one from a neighbor. Perhaps this is inevitable given the variety of languages and cultures in Asia and given the cost of spreading culture across national borders. Certainly, Asia's emphasis on work and economic development leaves little excess energy and capital to spread artistic achievement. But if the West can celebrate Asian arts, surely the region can do a better job of supporting its own talent.


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