Somewhere between the delightful displays of Chinese-themed children’s toys — and the steaming vats of noodles and other Asian dishes in a brightly lit-up Taipei “Night Market” — I began to realize how vigorously Asians and Americans are engaged in a cultural battle over the imagery that shapes our spiritual lives.
For a week now in ReadTheSpirit, we’ve been exploring cross-cultural issues, based on my reporting in Asia in 2006 and again in January 2008. I’ve been arguing that spiritual globalization is an inevitable wave in this new century — and that one of the defining questions of this new age is: Will we face this wave anxiously as competitors, or will we welcome this opportunity to build more vibrant communities?
BUT, there’s a final question here that I think is profoundly spiritual at its core: What popular images will we associate with our deepest values in this new age? How will we define beauty? What should childhood “look like”? Which images are “dangerous” — and which are “wholesome”?
When I first arrived in Taipei, Taiwan, I was stunned by the wall-to-wall American imagery splashed across billboards, banners and advertisements from subway cars and storefronts to newspapers and TV screens. Signs for Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-Eleven and Starbucks light up one Taipei corner after another. Huge ad campaigns for blue jeans, women’s fashions, cosmetics and a host of other consumer products display the same American, and occasionally European, models that we see here in America.
Asian images of beauty and success are few and far between in central Taipei.
“Is there much debate here in Taipei about this overwhelming message that to look healthy, beautiful, successful and sexy — you’ll want to look, well, Euro-American?” I asked a couple of Taiwanese journalists with whom I was sharing supper one evening.
“Really?” asked a woman, which wasn’t the response I expected. “I guess I hadn’t thought much about that. But, you’re right, there are not so many Asian models in our advertising, are there?”
Her male colleague nodded. “American culture is everywhere.” He shrugged, as if this simply was a fact of life.
Perhaps this is simply the way of the world, a part of global commerce that’s beyond anyone’s control. But, I have been struck, over the past 30 years as a journalist, by how often we associate ominous — even downright dangerous — associations with exotic locales and “foreign” cultures.
Have you ever seen the science-fiction movie, “Blade Runner,” which stars a young Harrison Ford as a futuristic detective in a version of Los Angeles that is dominated by an ominous pan-Asian culture? If you’ve seen the film, then you’ll immediately recognize how much the film’s visual imagery is based on Asia’s popular, urban, “night markets” — with an obvious assumption in the movie that these jam-packed markets are full of dangerous people.
Actually, the truth is that these markets are simply the inexpensive, urban malls where many Asian men and women regularly shop and eat. I visited a number of them in January and I often found entire families shopping with their children — who wanted to play coin-operated games or pick out brightly colored handfuls of candy just like American children in a shopping center.
But, at first glance to an American, these night markets are something of a jolt — including fresh food laid out so close to the crowded walkways that we often found ourselves dragging our sleeves through someone else’s supper! Ridley Scott picked up that jolting imagery to build suspense around his heroic Hollywood detective.
TAKE A LOOK at the video clip below to see what I’m talking about. I shot this short video clip in one of Taipei’s largest and most-popular night markets.
In the online version of this story, CLICK on the video screen that
(OR, if you’re reading this story via Email, CLICK HERE, and you’ll jump to YouTube, where you can view the video clip on that page.)
Truth be told, this is a very complicated issue, because Asian movie directors from Akira Kurosawa to contemporary producers of bullets-and-blood action flicks also like to explore this dramatic territory. In his classic film, “Stray Dog,” Kurosawa sent his main character, a hard-boiled cop much like Harrison Ford, through the night markets of Japan to heighten the film’s suspense.
Imagery has moved to and from Asia, across the world’s oceans, for centuries!
In Taiwan’s fabulous National Palace Museum, an expert on Chinese arts pointed out to our East-West Center group of American journalists a priceless row of 16th-Century Ming-dynasty porcelains.
“Look closely,” she said. “What do you see in the faces here, compared with images in the last gallery?”
We bent closer to the porcelain.
“The faces look — funny?” a colleague asked.
Our guide said, “Yes, but why do they look so strange?”
“They’re not Chinese,” someone else said.
“Right! In this period, China was trading widely and these were supposed to be Europeans dancing around the sides of this piece. These pieces probably were intended for export,” she said. “And look at this one over here — Arabic inscriptions on a Chinese flower holder. Other cultures were showing up on our porcelains, because we were trading with the world.”
That’s another indication that cultural imagery is simply good business — and that’s the way things have been for half a millennium now in Asia.
But not everyone sees this as merely a benign part of life as global citizens.
In Singapore, at the Asian Civilizations Museum, I was fascinated by displays of “nostalgic” artifacts and a provocative discussion of the way images in popular culture are related — often destructively — to deeply held community values. If you’d like to learn more about this important issue, click on the cover of “Vintage Singapore,” jump to our review of the book and think about ordering a copy.
This hardback, produced by Singapore’s National Museum, is a visual scrapbook of the many ways that American culture — from movies and rock and roll to television and toys — challenged and eventually broke down traditional cultural values in Singaporean communities. That was especially true in the 1960s, when Singapore was gaining its independence and was trying to figure out what kind of a nation it would become. Often, its cultural imagery reflected a longing to become as middle-American as possible.
The men and women who had the most to say to us about these issues in our January visit to Asia were staff members of a government-sponsored agency in Taipei, called the Taiwan Design Center.
Oliver Lin, one of the directors of the center, was the first person in our Asian trip who I heard use the word “spirit” to describe these issues related to cultural imagery. The Design Center is funded by Taiwan’s government to connect Taiwan manufacturers with top-flight designers — all part of a plan to help corporations move, as Lin put it, “from the old ‘Made in Taiwan’ to the new concept of ‘Designed in Taiwan.’”
There’s far more at stake here than simply making consumer products like clocks, housewares, laptop computers and coffee pots look more contemporary. “We want to bring a new spirit to Taiwan design,” Lin said.
And what is that spirit?
“In our new designs we want to use historical elements from our culture to bring this spirit to life again in many new ways,” he said.
Lin and another staffer, Olive Chen, took journalists on a whirlwind tour of showcases and other exhibits of designs their center has helped to produce — including a shelf of smiling, take-apart dolls for children that are based on imagery from the Sung Dynasty more than 1,000 years ago.
Chen held up color prints of Sung paintings of Chinese children and the echo of these traditional images was obvious. In this case, the Design Center worked with a Taiwan firm called Bright Ideas Design Co., whose brochures say they’re committed to “translating treasures of ancient culture and arts into modern ideas.”
Nearby, Chen showed us a table setting for an Asian home designed by yet another Taiwan firm to remind diners of the traditional art of calligraphy.
“We want to help children and families find a new spirit in our traditional culture,” Lin said. “It is easy to forget our culture if we don’t have it around us every day in the places where we eat and where we play.”
WE HOPE that you have enjoyed this week’s special series on emerging spiritual issues related to Asia. Please, tell a friend about this series, which will remain here on ReadTheSpirit — with easy links at the top so readers can read it chapter-by-chapter. If there’s a particular article in our series that you’d like to reprint or share with friends, you’re welcome to do that, as long as you credit the material to David Crumm and readthespirit.com
NOTE: This series was published in early 2008 and continues to draw readers, years later. ReadTheSpirit online magazine has moved through several redesigns and expansions, in those years. Some of the typography and page design of this series may appear slightly askew, due to changes in online templates. However, the entire text of the series remains as published. Please email us at [email protected] with questions or comments.