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'Popular Culture in Asia' Affixes a Select, Predictable Focus

It doesn’t seem enough that our conversations about pop culture only take one of two opposing poles: how it corrupts people totally and leads to “moral problems” and solipsism, or how it provides means of “agency” and “empowerment” and new ways of envisioning freedom.

Popular Culture in Asia: Memory, City, Celebrity

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Length: 240 pages
Author: Lorna Fitzsimmons, John A. Lent (editors)
Price: $85.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-05

Popular Culture in Asia: Memory, City, Celebrity is an anthology of nine academic essays that attempts to situate Asian popular culture trends within social, cultural, political, and historical contexts. Edited by Lorna Fitzsimmons, a professor with the Humanities Program at California State University and John A. Lent, publisher and editor of the International Journal of Comic Art, the anthology has directed its focus to East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, particularly Myanmar, Japan, China, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The essays in this book operate largely within a liberal framework, so people expecting analysis that is remotely leftist or radical will be left disappointed and frustrated. On the whole, the essays tend to be cursory analyses of pop culture trends that nervously skate around economic factors, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s the essay format that limits the authors’ scope or if it’s the very nature of contemporary institutionalised cultural studies that is the problem. Saturated in vaguely obfuscating language but curiously bereft of new ideas or particularly innovative research, Popular Culture in Asia tells you very little beyond the fact that the trajectory of popular culture in Asia, or the parts of Asia covered in this book, has been “complex and multifarious”, as Fitzsimmons writes in her introduction.

Divided into three sections: Memory, City, and Celebrity, the three essays under the first category are perhaps the strongest. Fitzsimmons’ essay traces Japan’s “dialogue with modernity” through repositories of collective war memory as represented through three important texts of Japanese popular culture: Ichikawa Kon’s 1956 film, The Burmese Harp; the children’s book on which it was based by Takeyama Michio, Harp of Burma; and through the 1986 anime adaptation, The Harp of Burma, produced by Nippon Animation.

Fitzsimmons is keen to draw out the differences in all three texts in an attempt to make sense of it in relation to Japanese collective memory about The Fifteen Year War. The further the war recedes from memory, Fitzsimmons points out, the greater the emphasis on Japanese nationalism: “The (1986) anime repeatedly labours to elicit sympathy for the retreating (Japanese) soldiers while diminishing the Burma/Japan binary”, while the 1956 film, in contrast, was self-reflexive about the Japanese role in the carnage, and ultimately pacifist in tone and message. The anime, meanwhile, performs an “implicit endorsement of hegemonic capitalist forces”, Fitzsimmons writes, moving further away from the “Nietzchean strains within the novel’s critical engagement with modernity”, and she points out that both the film and anime strove to suppress the elements in the novel that resisted, or were counterintuitive to, nationalist, popular Japanese sentiment.

Talitha Espiritu’s essay, meanwhile, one of the best in the book, takes a look at Filipino critical film culture and the cinematic patrimony of the Marcos regime. Espiritu’s perspective is grounded in history and the essay explores how the Marcos national rhetoric on the national family or The New Society replicated “the cultural policy goals of US colonialism”, ironically giving way to precisely the kind of film culture that the regime tried to suppress. Through an analysis of the bomba pornographic films and class politics, as well as radical youth politics during The First Quarter Storm of 1970 and its legacy in the New Cinema movement, Espiritu shows how the language and rhetoric of popular film at the time was mobilised for a performance of bourgeois identity politics by the university students. Neither denying nor valorising the revolutionary potential of the student protest, Espiritu is clear-eyed about the divisions of class that kept the students and the New Cinema activists estranged from the masses for whom they presumed to speak:

And indeed, both vanguards shared an optimistic belief that creating/performing national allegories was enough to bring about a revolution. Such faith in political spectacles had a corollary assumption: that the mere removal of the dictatorship would bring with it radical change. Sadly, the historical record proved otherwise.

On a similar note, Sueyoung Park-Primiano’s essay on political film satire in contemporary South Korea provides interesting historical contexts for two films, The President’s Barber and The President’s Last Bang, but also analyses the films’ reception and popularity based on how they work as commodities. While direct government control of South Korean film meant that for many years, political satire was difficult to make, the newly-acquired “artistic freedom” by filmmakers in the current democratic system doesn’t necessarily imply that political satire made with more artistic license is therefore more subversive.

Political satire runs the risk of drowning in its own irony, becoming contemptuous of and estranged from its own subject matter, engendering only a sense of cynicism and hopelessness among its viewers. Still, Park-Primiano criticises the political stagnation and repression of contemporary democratic South Korean society while taking it as a given that capitalist democracy-in-practice, contrary to actual lived experience, naturally brings forth a more “open” society. What is considered the benchmark of a functioning democracy? While she doesn’t reference American or European democracy as ideal, what is obscured in this essay—and many others in this book—is the constant reminders of how this or that Asian society can strive or hope to be “more open” or “more developed” or “more tolerant” with nary an interrogation of how colonialism, imperialism, and the workings of capitalism serve to keep peripheral countries forever deemed as “less” open/developed/tolerant than the West (even if some authors are too well-disciplined/polite/timid to actually mention this).

In the City section, for example, Ian Morley’s opening essay on “Architecture and the Internationalized Face of Asia” makes the requisite reference to another scholar’s work on the “hegemony of West-centered global processes upon the (Asian) continent”, but concludes that “the developments that have taken place in Asian cities in recent years have come about due to dialogues between local, national, Western, and global forces”. It’s almost as if these scholars are determined not to use the word “capitalism”—with good reason, perhaps, because once you talk about how capitalism has transformed cities not only in Asia but around the world, it will be impossible to talk about “dialogues between local, national, Western, and global forces” as though it were a polite tea-party at which these “forces” were equal players and could comfortably chat about which line of “progress” to take. This allows Morley to throw in nuggets like “wealth has long been an ideal in the cultures of many parts of Asia”, or “to build a modern city in Asia, it is first imperative to destroy the old one and displace people”, as if this is a particularly Asian cultural trait of urban engineering.

Presumably there is a 21st-century city in not-Asia that exists in its present state—not a single old thing destroyed, not one person displaced—because a certain non-Asian culture doesn’t take wealth to be an ideal? If so, I hope Morley will lead us to it.

A sort of defanged cultural and political analysis also permeates Romit Dasgupta’s essay in this section, “Romancing Urban Modernity in Tokyo, Taipei, and Shanghai”, although he does make a brief reference to the “deliberate decisions and strategies of production and distribution on the part of cultural industry stakeholders” in terms of how East Asian cultural traffic should be understood, as well as reminding readers that there are specific economic reasons behind the “Korean wave” or “Japanese wave”—much of these cultural products, like American or British cultural products, are made to export and are less about granting viewers and listeners “agency” than shrewd marketing maneuvers in terms of economic policies and political machinations.

Azizah Hamzah and Mohd. Azalanshah’s paper on non-Western soap opera and urban Malay women also focuses solely on symbolic representations and audience reception that, based on a small survey, concludes that Malay-Muslim women know how to engage with soap operas that goes against their traditional or religious values. However, the authors don’t trouble the notions of traditional or religious values espoused by these women, which is puzzling, considering that the concept of the good Muslim, and good Muslim woman, in particular, is highly contentious in Malaysia.

This is something the authors touch upon in the middle of the essay when talking about the formation of the “Melayu baru” or new Malay as part of the nation’s ruling coalition’s attempt to “modernize” the economy and the Malay citizenry. In other words, neoliberal tactics were adopted and political Islam gainfully manipulated by the ruling party that continues to govern some 50 years after inheriting the mantle from British colonisers. “The movement of Islamic resurgence appeared to be part of the salvation mission to end the breakdown of Malay women’s morality. In fact, this movement was instigated by the new middle-class group which included cabinet ministers, academics, and corporate figures”, the authors explain.

When urban Malay women differentiate their Muslim values against the Japanese or Korean soap operas they consume, then, whose Muslim values are they defending? This is a controversial yet necessary point that the authors could have developed, perhaps if they had more scope beyond that of an essay that was primarily about pop culture. The categories of modernized Malay vs. traditional Malay, by way of constant political reconceptualisations of “true” Islamic thought and practice by the state, is something the authors don’t question or problematise within Malaysia’s colonial history, but as Nicholas Dirks reminds us in “History as a Sign of the Modern”, “The modern not only invented tradition, it depends upon it.” What kinds of tradition were configured into being through colonialism when modernity was imposed upon the lazy natives of Malaya?

In the final section, Celebrity, Shzr Ee Tan’s essay looks at “Gay Icons in Overseas Chinese Communities”, and points out that “the framing of the gay debate within broader understandings of gay activism (as opposed to queer practice at large in different Chinese societies) still remains often understood as a form of modernization by way of catching up with human rights records in the West.” Interviewees talk about how they connect to a deeper “Asian self” through stars like Faye Wong or Anita Mui who “have had to play hardball—as hard as any man—to get where they are… but you don’t hear it directly in their music—sometimes they still pretend to do the pathetic-19th-century woman act in their MVs! But it’s ironically kind of sweet, because it’s more subtle. It’s an Asian thing.”

Later, the same person talks about the importance of Madonna in terms of shaping his gay identity: “The Chinese singers sang about my hidden struggles and my unrequited desires. But it was a white woman who taught me it was okay to be gay.” This is a telling example of how pop culture reifies difference without demystifying it in any way. As the author points out, however, another (older) gay man doesn’t see the point of “coming out”, because he grew up in a time where “there wasn’t any concept of being gay”. So when a younger Asian man talks about a white woman teaching him it’s “okay to be gay”, that sense of okay-ness is also a historical and cultural value.

Hong Zhang’s essay, “Gender Reconstruction in Post-Mao Urban China”, meanwhile, looks at figurations of “internet celebrities”, particularly one woman known as Sister Furong. While nothing that Sister Furong’s “self-representation corresponded closely to a consumerist market that promoted feminine sexuality”, the author also concludes that “The very existence of female Internet celebrities signifies a more culturally diverse and tolerant society; such candid expressions were unthinkable only a few decades ago.”

This is an interesting statement that assumes that frank sexual confessions are necessarily “candid”, that it could not also be indicative of a staging or performance of authenticity geared to elicit a certain response. Has the market empowered women in China—and if so, how is internet celebrity a sign of an improvement in women’s material lives? Or does the market merely dictate another mode of feminine representation, in this case, the confessional, “candid”, and sexually-frank New Woman? This brings me to Sarah Gram’s essay on the young girl and the selfie , which can also be help us think about a carefully-curated online “feminine” presence or brand more broadly:

In this light, the selfie isn’t about empowerment. But it also isn’t not about empowerment. Empowerment, or lack thereof, is not part of the picture. Neither is narcissism, as either a personal or a cultural moral failure. And the selfie isn’t about the male gaze. The selfie, in the end is about the gendered labour of young girls under capitalism. Do we honestly think that by ceasing to take and post selfies, the bodies of young women would cease to be spectacles? Teenage girls are Young-Girls, are spectacles, are narcissists, are consumers because those are the very criterion which must be met to be a young woman and also a part of society.

It makes no sense, then, as Hong Zhang does, to talk about how “opportunities for personal betterment coexist uneasily with new forms of oppressive practices” if the author doesn’t talk about how capitalism operates in precisely this way. “Personal betterment”, too, is subject to debate. Who enjoys or can, at the very least, exploit or manipulate those opportunities? If the existence of Internet female celebrities signifies a more culturally diverse and tolerant society, what about the increasing number of underpaid/unpaid women workers under China’s turn toward capitalism?

The final essay in this book, Wei-Hsin Lin’s “Jay Chou’s Music and the Shaping of Popular Culture in China”, is a brief study of Chou’s emerging popularity in China over the last decade or so. Like Espiritu’s essay, it hones in on particular aspects of Chou’s media persona, performance and music and zooms back out to situate it within a particular cultural, social, economic, and political context, rightfully analysing how Chou shrewdly avoids taking a political stand while mobilising a broad base of “fans” by relying on stock tropes of Chinese values of nationalist, patriotism, filial piety, and paternalism, taming some of the more rebellious ideas or sentiments of his earlier image into one of the law-abiding, civilised “modern” Chinese citizen. As such, the author concludes, “radical resistance as been replaced by a more restrained ethics and aesthetics in which the national imagination of the Chinese is enunciated amid burgeoning patriotism.”

Focusing only on Asia while employing Western systems of thought in terms of periodization and history—“modernity”, “development”, etc.—while rendering the rest of the world curiously silent or absent deprives most of these essays of theoretical weight and heft. Sure, popular culture Asia should be studied on its own terms, except that’s not how the capitalist world works. Asian pop culture is in absolute negotiation with Western pop culture. For example, how do we understand Asian pop culture in relation to American cultural imperialism—which, as Jonathan Beller reminds us in his essay “Wagers Within the Image”, “is actually real imperialism by other or additional means”?

Recently, I read a news item in a local Malaysian daily on the sufferings of Filipino survivors of Typhoon Hainan that had an interviewee describe survivors as “zombies” surging through the streets for food and water. Where would that image come from, what made it possible that middle-class people in urban centres in the Philippines think it normal to view fellow humans in extreme duress—fighting for basic survival after a traumatic event—as zombies? On which cinema/television screen have you seen that image before, now taken wholesale and applied to actual people to paint them as dangerous, raving hordes, practically inhuman “others”? What are the ramifications if Asian people literally use the Western superhero or zombie-apocalypse film trope as a means of thinking about their own society?

None of these concerns regarding pop culture are addressed in depth in this anthology. Effects of consumption of “Asian” pop culture are only investigated in terms of modernity vs. tradition (and modernity as a term itself is rarely sketched out by the authors of these essays, whether as a term of periodisation or conceptualisation, and how it might, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has written in “The Muddle of Modernity”, be an effect of “both ideology and imagination”), with most essays opting to make uninspired, conservative declarations that feel mostly tried-and-tested standard academic fare.

While there are brief footnotes on entertainment agencies that produce Japanese or Korean stars, there is virtually no comment on the labour behind these pop culture products, like the pop factories of Japan and Korea that churn out marketable idols by the hundreds; idols who not only have to live up to an image but become the image, tied to contracts that grant them little agency in their free time (like no-dating rules, for example). It doesn’t seem enough that our conversations about pop culture only take one of two opposing poles: how it corrupts people totally and leads to “moral problems” and solipsism, or how it provides means of “agency” and “empowerment” and new ways of envisioning freedom. Asian pop culture or urban development only signifies repressive cultural and political control, or it indicates a movement towards a “more open” or “tolerant” society. Neither one of these stories tell the whole story. Unfortunately, we’ve been going over the same issues as before, indicating that a new perspective outside of Eurocentric capitalist liberalism is desperately needed in critical cultural studies.


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