Tag Archives: global

China branding

7 Oct

One clear sign of China’s integration into the globalised world is the presence of international brands and companies. The most visible are multinational food and drinks franchises, like Starbucks, KFC, Coke and MacDonald’s.

Chinese streets are lined with them – Binjiang Jie, the big shopping street in Tianjin, must have about three MacDonald’s, two KFCs, and three Starbucks. But these franchises made efforts to adapt. The main step for them was to find a Chinese name, adapting that core element of their brand-image – the name-logo, with its unique font and colour. Starbucks here still has green characters, but presents itself as 星巴克 – read ‘Xing Ba Ke (‘Star’ Ba Ke)’.

Choosing a Chinese brand-name is a tricky exercise. You want to mimick the sounds of the original, and Mandarin phonology does not always allow for it. But mostly, the characters chosen to transcribe the brand name will have a meaning of their own, and carry all sorts of associations. Brands must have found good marketing experts here. Carrefour has become 家乐福 – read ‘Jia Le Fu‘ – family happy and rich. Coca Cola became 可口可乐 – read ‘Ke Kou Ke Le‘ – the possibility of a mouthful is the possibility of happiness.

The menus also adapted to local tastes. McCafés serve green tea cheesecake; KFCs offer a congee option, with Chinese doughnut and soy milk, in their breakfast menu.

Global integration went even further. The principle of franchising itself has spread to China, and local brands emerged, like Vanguard 24h supermarkets, Bengon’s cake shops, and Xiabu Xiabu hot pot restaurants.

These local franchises, along with multinational ones, give Chinese streets their new colours. Who knows, maybe we’ll see them appear on Melbourne streets soon, like Taiwanese EasyWay bubble tea and Malaysian Kopitiams already have.

Museum Space – the Museum

1 Oct

A museum is a built-for-purpose institution that showcases the riches of the country – and tells its story, through the display of objects. It is an artificial space, constructed, curated – a nodal point of State ideology.

In a Museum, ancient objects are displayed in order to justify a current state of affairs. The Museum is a device that uses the past for the purpose of the present, weaving them together in an articulated narrative, through the organisation of its rooms and labelling system. Old writing on bones, in other words, authorises the powers that be.

Navigating a Chinese museum, I have to learn a new museography. Art is not organised by period, but by medium: painting, calligraphy, bronze, jade, porcelain, fabric. Somewhere on the side, there will be Buddhist artifacts. And a separate section, as big if not bigger, will explain history, with objects in glass cabinets, wall frescoes and lifesize reconstructions of crucial events.

Exploring the painting section of a Chinese Museum is an exercise in modesty. You do realise how I little you know. You realise how local your art history knowledge is. The linear development I learnt at school – perspective in the Renaissance, impressionism bringing perception and light into painting, leading to the triumph of abstraction in the 20th Century – is irrelevant here. In the Tianjin Museum, I spent a long time looking at a very long, beautiful landscape by Zhu Da, amazed by the abstraction of his style.

I thought he would be somehow contemporary with Impressionm. I was shocked to realize that he painted in the 17th century. As Niklas explained, he was a brdige from the Ming to the Qing dynasty, painting in that period of great historical turmoil for China. Maybe these abstract landscape were a form of escape; or maybe the conflict of white, and dark, and the various shades of grey, somehow mimetically symbolize a transition from old to new, and the seeping influence of the Ming over the Qing, of the Han over the Manchu?

The evolution of Chinese aesthetics over time is different from ours. Discovering Zhu Da at 33 made me realise how ignorant I had been. I also realised it when looking at a half-disappearing picture of a child from the Song period, dated around 1000.

It was eerily realistic, and signifying one of these happy, prosperous periods of artistic history (often the apex of a culture), where people care about simple scenes – like the late Roman empire, 17th century Holland, or 18th century France. But then, maybe China’s painting, or one branch of it, is particularly looking at reproducing the simplicity of natural life.

The most interesting section in a Chinese Museum, for those analytic intellectual brains like mine, if of course history, where ideology comes closer to the surface. The Capital Museum in Beijing is a good example of how China now positions itself as an equal partner in global history. In the semi-darkness of the ‘culture of old Beijing’ section, I looked at the chronology running along the wall, and had a real experience of displacement when I saw the picture of Confucius alongside Egyptian papyrus. Through the powers of curation, both were, somehow, made to be part of the same mental space. Part of the same narrative.

There it was, world history read from a Chinese perspective. It is part of the rise of China as a new global power, to appropriate Ancient History – all of it. Who knows, maybe the Italian and Greek economic crises could be solved by selling off some Antiquities to the Chinese government – and let them claim our Mediterranean past as part of their own history? Which, after all, in a globalising world, is no longer separate from ours.

Pu Dong

16 Sep

Shanghai airport, like Amsterdam, Houston, Dubai or Singapore, is becoming a major international hub. The government allows passengers transiting through Shanghai airport to stay in the city for up to 48 hours without a visa (those from Western countries at least, and South Korea). A step towards Shanghai recovering the status it had in the early 20th century, as a place where laws and regulations where looser, and a more multicultural lifestyle could evolve – a step, also, towards its ambition of becoming ‘the new Hong Kong’.

I had more than four hours of transit, and was planning to go on a short trip outside. But then my flight was delayed, and I ended up staying inside Pu Dong airport. I sat down at one of the side cafes, and had a bowl of wonton soup – surprisingly cheaper than anything else on the menu, and relatively edible. A couple of Australian women started bargaining to get the one gin and tonic their last RMBs could pay for poured into two different glasses. I was getting back into my usual world. It was global transit trash.

Yet there’s one thing in PuDong airport which I think is uniquely Chinese: a little health video, starring a cartoon pig and his pink-dress wearing girlfriend, warning about the dangers of Avian Flu.

The video runs for about three to four minutes, and details the measures to take if you show the symptoms. Some of them seem like basic wisdom: stay at home, air the room, eat vegetables and fruit, sleep for eight hours at least.

Others have a slightly more sinister air of social control: stay away from others, don’t kiss, don’t go out.

The images are accompanied by little poem-like messages: two lines of seven syllables, stating the core information – ‘open the windows, decrease the possibility of catching the cold’ – followed by two syllables giving a moral judgement – ‘very good’, ‘comfortable’, ‘social morality’.

I saw the video on the way in – it was on a loop, and its distinctive rhythm could be heard all through the waiting area. On the way back – had there been complaints? – it only played in between sections of news. Still, it was very loud, and you couldn’t escape it. But I guess health messages have to be delivered somehow.

SanLiTun

19 Aug

The word will be familiar to any foreigner who’s been to Beijing – and probably to many Chinese people too. SanLiTun is an area of Beijing located around the ’embassy area’, three kilometres north east from the centre of the city – literally, the name ‘SanLiTun means ‘three milestones’.

When you’ve been in China for a while, SanLiTun is a happy respite. You can find everything there, like:

a trendy cafe that serves a decent soy latte.

a silver porsche

posh apartment buildings with matching vertical and horizontal white lines.

It is a backpackers’ paradise (it started as ‘a bar street’), as well as a playground for the children of brand-conscious aspirational Chinese people – and their parents.

Incidentally, many diplomats and journalists hang out there a lot. Some say the Village Starbucks is full of spies, or mikes. No doubt Many discussions that will end up having a profound impact on the world take place around these ‘puccinos.

Yet – surprisingly? – the place is also quite boring, and seriously daggy, like a cheap holiday resort in a sunny place.

 

World Music

16 Aug

I’ve been exposed to a lot of Chinese music these days – most of it in taxis, but also cafes and restaurants. Interestingly, I discovered that the concept of ‘world music’ as cool has come to Tianjin.

There is a little underground cafe, in the XiaoBaiLou gallery. I sat there one morning for about an hour, sipping on my cup of ‘charcoal cofeee’ (which was a sort of slightly sour latte – 10 kuai).

I was reading a book, and not paying much attention to the music, but then I heard it was no longer Chinese. A woman’s voice was repeating ‘aligato, aligato’. I started listening: international selection. Japanese, Chinese, then Italian, and even a French song. All in the ‘So Frenchy so chic’ international lounge style, in line with the minimal-cute East Asian aesthetics of the place.

A few days later, I heard a man’s mobile phone ringing – a brazilian tune: ‘voce voce… cançao, cançao’. Judging on the man, there was even something slightly daggy about it…