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DECEMBER 10, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 49

Making Internet History
A new website tries to sell Chinese culture
By ALLEN T. CHENG




Sex sells. Culture doesn't. No one ought to be more aware of this than Dennis Chan, who for more than 20 years has worked as a Hong Kong-based film producer, director and distributor. But Chan also happens to be a history buff - a sinophile who is so convinced of the marketability of Chinese culture that he has established an Internet site to sell it to the world.

"It's such a good idea that I keep asking why nobody else is doing it," says Chan of China10k.com, a recently launched Web venture that is backed by Hong Kong film distribution company Mei Ah. There's little doubt that Chan is at least half right - nobody else is doing the Internet quite like this. While Web-based e-commerce teems with look-alike shopping sites and recycled business plans, China10k.com represents an unusual combination of the scholastic and the commercial. Chan is striving to produce an educational forum, an online encyclopedia of Chinese culture (the name of the site is shorthand for "10,000 years of Chinese history") as well as a department store of culturally related products, including Chinese-language films, popular modern music, paintings, antiques, and history lessons.

That's right. History lessons. The site went live in November with a webcast of China's 50th anniversary National Day parade, setting the tone for bilingual (English and Chinese) content that is geared for students of Chinese history. Chan has retained an impressive group of more than 100 Chinese history professors from top universities in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Xiamen and Taipei, each of the scholars committed to create pop quizzes and answering students' questions online or through e-mail. Though initially free, access to the online encyclopedia will eventually cost $1.30 a month.

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Aware of the limited popular appeal of fee-based history tutoring, Chan hopes early next year to introduce more profitable offerings. China10k.com has employed 40 web producers to develop, among other services, an online auction of Chinese artifacts, mostly reproductions but also a few antiques. Sourcing won't be a problem, says Chan. Mei Ah Entertainment Group invested 45% of the site's $12.9 million in start-up capital. The film distributor is well connected in China, having been for years the lead international distributor of programming for China Central Television and various provincial TV stations. In addition, Chan says, Mei Ah can utilize its clout with the mainland's Ministry of Culture, a joint-venture partner in the distribution of foreign films on the mainland.

The site currently is a work in progress. Many buttons and links are inoperable, so it is difficult to get a sense of the depth of content on offer. Traffic is sparse. But at least one analyst says he believes China10k.com's business plan has potential. "It's novel in the sense of being a concentration of Chinese history content, and in its focus on the global English-speaking audience," says Lane Leskela, Gartner Group's principal analyst for e-business in the Asia Pacific region. "I actually wish I had this when I was taking Chinese history 10 years ago," he says. Whether the site makes any money, however, will depend on whether it can build a large enough community to make it attractive to advertisers. E-commerce sales will also be crucial, says Leskela.

China10k.com's prime asset may turn out to be its access to Mei Ah's library of films and television programs. The distributor has rights to content produced by Hong Kong's Television Broadcasts Ltd. and Asia Television Ltd., as well as programs produced by several mainland stations. Too, Mei Ah has rights to some 300 Chinese language films, and in the past three years the film company has produced and co-produced 40 movies and feature films, among them the Hong Kong hit Moonlight Express.

No e-commerce effort would be complete these days without CD sales, and in this department China10k.com runs with the pack. Mei Ah has branched into music production and distribution, giving the website a source of Cantopop and Mandarin music that it intends to sell online. "If Disney, News Corp. and Time Warner can grow into such huge conglomerates, then so can we," says Li Kuo Hsing, Mei Ah's 39-year-old founder and chairman. "They are based on Western culture. We are based on Chinese culture." If history is any guide, Li may be correct. Unfortunately when it comes to the Internet business, there are few historical signposts to go by.

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