[13 April 2005]
What do anthropologists do when they get together for a weekend in Hong Kong? Sounds like the makings of an off-color joke. Especially if the punch line is something like: “observe a little red market capitalism at work”. But in this case, the answer is less about economy than culture, and more about Japan than China. So maybe the tag should be: “they contemplate ReDotcult in context”. Which isn’t very funny, but more or less captures anthropologists in a nutshell.
This past weekend in Hong Kong was the 16th meeting of the Japanese Anthropology Workshop; JAWS being the affectionate acronym among attendees. And that is about as much popular culture (or humor) as many starchy academics will allow to infest their stuffy proceedings. To be fair, though, not all anthropologists are total stiffs; we did hear the random paper on Kyushu’s tribe of surfers, as well as a piece on how to reconstruct the “ideational structure” (you know, like tradition, religion, modernity) of Japan from “outsider accounts” (that is, foreign visitors) based on data collected from the inside (here, material posted in blogs and photoblogs). There was also an offering on “foreign elements” (as in icons, monuments, movies, language, products) in Japanese TV commercials; which translates into images like the Sphinx, the Eiffel Tower, Greek myths, the movie Roman Holiday (recreated with Japanese actors), and samurai warriors strolling out of saloons and facing down gunslingers on main street at high noon.
In short, advertising caught in the act of serving its major cultural function: selective historical repository and surrogate educator. There was also a report on how Japan’s national high school baseball tournament reproduces cultural mythology. In this case, the hallowed values were refracted through the prism of a half-Iranian, half-Japanese fireballer, Darvish Yu (Taipei Times, 15 August, 2003), who led his Tohoku team to farthest reaches of tourney glory—and then summarily spat on the baseball Gods above. (Have you ever troubled to wonder what happens when someone is temerarious enough to spit UP? Well, in a tabloid-infested milieu, it isn’t always pretty.)
The point is that there were a few things to prick up pop-attuned ears and yank my pop-starved attention away from Peking Duck in Kowloon and ‘5 flavor sizzling surprise’ served at the trendy trattoria wedged between Haagen Daz and DKNY in Macau. The conference theme was “East Meets West”, with the bulk of attention on how Japan and things Japanese have and do influence popular and material culture in Asia. And along those lines one of the more interesting papers was by Benjamin Ng, of Chinese University of Hong Kong, who offered an overview of “Japanese Elements in Cantonese Pop Music in Hong Kong.” Because academics can’t make presentations at professional confabs unless their titles exceed 10 words (yes, it’s written in the by-laws), Dr. Ng tacked on the pithy qualifier: “A Study of Transnational Cultural Interactions and Globalization”—which was the erudite way of saying: “. . . and the Kitchen Sink”.
Title aside, what worked in Dr. Ng’s talk was the way he walked listeners through the multiple influences Japanese popular music (“J-pop” to those living in hyper-paced, transcended space, compressed-time times) has exerted over its Hong Kong cousin since the 1980s. That, in itself was eye-opening, insofar as the term “J-pop” tends to conjure images of bowling balls being dropped on tabby’s tails. In other words, tonal, J-pop always isn’t. As for ingenuity, well, suffice it to say that there was once a time and not so very long ago when ReDot grooves might best be characterized as: “inspired by, borrowed from, hinted at, retrieved in the process of, suggested from other sources, misappropriated for the purpose of, and most evidently (and regrettably) purloined and/or otherwise pilfered.”
Or, if you wish a picture to carry with you as you venture forth, imagine the guide from the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark (or, am I dating myself?). You know; the sleazebag who blew on his fingers in imitation of Indy at the gem-laden altar, as if that would teach him all he needed to know about the hidden secrets of the sacred temple, then promptly stepped on every spring-loaded stone on his mad dash out; leading to excruciatingly redundant death, thanks to a fusillade of perfectly-positioned poison darts. Well, so, too, has it too often been for J-pop wannabes. Blowing on their fingertips in imitation of overseas naturals they scrutinized from the eaves, and assuming that this would garner them artistic reward, only to reap slings of critical scorn.
Of course, this was with respect to American and British music. Places with home-grown tonal scales and indigenous rhythmic patterns and natively-forged, historically-logical, culturally contiguous forms of soul, hip-hop, blues and rock ‘n roll . . . so who can blame a latecomer for merely miming moves until the observed was absorbed; until the chord changes and syncopated slaps had become an unreflecting part of consciousness, a reflex-like dimension of the communication repertoire? Impressed, one ought to be, that the mimes could but follow all that, let alone have something original to contribute.
But there we must have all arrived, since, in the cosmic order of popular culture (and part and parcel of relentless international diffusion), the shoe has been transferred to an entirely different foot. Suddenly cultural transmission (or “flow” as anthropologists refer to it technically) has been occurring in an entirely different quarter, on a wholly different tier a lower rung on the global-evolutionary hierarchy, to be sure but transference (or, F-L-O-W), nonetheless. At least, that is the message to be gleaned from Professor Ng.
In many ways and here this is just me riffing on a theme this is no different (in a strange, inverted sort of way) than what happened in baseball. For about 40 years now, those American players who couldn’t perform any longer at home have often sought a spot in Japan; and for about 20 years now, those Japanese players who couldn’t perform any longer at home have often searched for a slot in South Korea; and, for the past few years, those South Korean players who couldn’t cut it at home any longer have found that the venue of last resort is Taiwan. Just like this, in the matter of music the cascading of cultural objects has meant a hierarchy of merit has been installed; a flow of ability has been imported on down the food-chain of culturally-impoverished and talent-starved nations. Brought in contact with cultural imports, mimicry has been practiced and installed for everyday consumption in venues far removed from the locales of origin.
Thus, in Hong Kong in the 1980s, cover versions of J-hits were appearing in Cantonese. Soon thereafter came appropriation by local writers of musical phrasing, patterns, and ideas. In at least one case, this emulation begat plagiarism—or at least a “cease and desist” from J-pop icon, Hamasaki Ayumi. (Which, itself, is a hoot, since Ayumi has been caught freely appropriating visual stagings of can you believe? Christina Aguilera). Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong . . . after song emulation came a must-match style phase: where Cantonese performers adopted the on-stage moves, fashion, and demeanor of Japanese stars. Most recently, as Dr. Ng, showed, the ReDotFlow has been expressed through greater (as in more equal, mutual) interactions and collaborations between countries; record and entertainment companies, producers, singers and musicians on both ends of the Asian region have begun to contribute to the cultural products being engineered at home.
Which got me to thinking (admittedly, an oft-dangerous development): “what is it in this ReDotRealm,” I wondered, “that might actually make it over in, say, the Red, White, and Blue world of music?” Not such a brilliant question to ponder over, mind you, since Beat Takeshi has already proven his attractiveness to Hollywood; so, too, has an academy award nomination for a Japanese actor and an actual statuette for a Japanese director been conferred in the past couple years; and, if you’ve checked box office receipts in the last 18 months, you’ll know that remade Japanese horror flicks are now the rage. As for sports, well, for about half a decade now, Ichiro and a slew of ReDot imports have hefted lumber with authority and spanked serious leather over in American fields of dreams.
Film and baseball seem to have weathered the cultural flow process. But not yet any musical stars. Thus is a parlor game spawned. What J-Pop singer could make it overseas? Granted, no two markets are the same. What would hit in America would differ, say, from what would play in France. Well, France sure. But even a kissing cousin like England would not be a tap-in birdie putt. I mean, Ichiro might have a hell of a time succeeding at Cricket (Well, okay . maybe not Ichiro, but, how about Barry Bonds?). So, there’s that. Tastes are fickle; standards differ; rules are formulated and interpreted alternatively; cultures are untranslatable. Singers might have trouble building up any head of steam - not to mention sustainability - song after song after song. (Although, as I write this, Puffy or, as they are known in the States: “Ami and Yumi” are busy traversing “from sea to shining sea” (or at least from Portland to Tempe) based on the strength of their break-through animated TV series. So, in some ways, maybe these two ReDot transplants have already nixed the parlor game before it can even begin.
Well, for the sake of my few column inches of fame (did I really write that?), do you think you might-could humor me?
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/holden050413/