Tag Archives: China

Timi the Bao’an

Image

For most countries, the responsibility of street-level law enforcement is relegated to single organization; China however is rife with them. Among these enforcers are the Bao’an, an unarmed branch of Chinese law enforcement. Unlike police, Bao’an have little means by which to enforce anything. By western standards, they are under-trained and generally have a disheveled look about them. As such they often broker little respect from others. Not long ago however, our activities with ALBA caught the interest of one of these individuals, as we have gotten to know him we have consummately impressed by his dynamism and depth of personality.

Wang Yuehou, we often refer to him as “Timi”, was born in Hubei province in the late 80s. He grew up in a broken home, which in China is a very uncommon occurrence. Disappointment and sadness were heavy in his voice as he explained how his home situation isolated him and was the cause for many of the taunts he endured from his classmates during primary school.

The taunts didn’t last long however. At age 11 Timi left school and began working in a restaurant. After a time there he began work with his brothers making furniture. From furniture making, he moved on to painting walls. Always eager to learn more and advance himself, Timi views his previous jobs as failures for their lack of such opportunities. It was after his tenure as a painter in Tianjin that Timi finally came to Beijing and took a position with the Bao’an, a job he has only held for the past 3 months.

When asked about why he took the position, he states that he had hoped he would be able to advance himself and his knowledge by working with the Bao’an. While he states that his expectations in this respect haven’t been met, he is fortunate enough to be charged with monitoring the very busy Nanluo Guxiang shopping street, a street littered with unique boutique stores that sell a wide range of interesting goods. It is also a place we frequently go to draw on the street and spread the word about our brand ALBA. It was there that we first met.

Bao’an have a rough job. Wages are meager, hours are long, days off are almost non-existent. Frustration is further compounded by the lack of respect that many of them have to endure while trying to maintain some semblance of order. The job does have its perks however. While the hours are long, down time is spaced in such a way that motivated individuals can still find time to study other things. Bao’an are also often used to run security for concerts and other events, which means that they occasionally get to take in a free show. As an additional perk, the area that Timi works in has given him opportunity to expose himself to many of the products that are sold in the area, which plays into his other interest: e-commerce.

Over the course of our discussions we have come to find that Timi is fascinated by e-commerce. He is resolved to learn how to use Taobao, China’s top e-commerce platform, and start his own shop. His interests extend well beyond that though. He is keen to learn everything from language, to music, to art, and beyond. His ultimate goal however, is to get the opportunity to travel abroad.

Timi told us that his involvement with ALBA and our fan-club/creative circle has encouraged him to pursue his interests further, especially when it comes to design, e-commerce, and marketing. In turn he has been very kind and helpful by letting us know what to expect each time we go out to his area to spread the word about ALBA.

Timi really is a diamond in the rough. He is a dynamic individual with a voracious appetite for learning and being creative. His drive to learn more and improve himself is inspiring. We are very happy to have him as a member of our group, and hope that he will be able to use the community we are building to reach his goals.

Image

Tagged , , , , ,

Changing Values

Six years as an English teacher in China have provided me with the opportunity to meet people from different generations and industries. I have gained a clear insight into how different generations exhibit different values towards society. I have come to the fascinating realization, that the Millennials of China are radically different from any generations prior to them.

In the west, there are certain differences between generations, but they’re not as pronounced they are between generations in China. There are a few reasons for this. In traditional Chinese thought the Confucian concept of filial piety dictates that the first born son is responsible for the well-being of the older generation. The introduction of the one child policy in China has forced this burden upon the first and only child of a family, and has made parents put “all their eggs into one basket”.

Image

As a result, the parents (and grandparents) focus completely on a single child’s wants and needs, which in turn has led to the creation of “little emperors”- children used to getting everything they want.

Image

Some are not so little.

 

As China’s economic situation has rapidly improved over the past 40 years, so has the standard of living. Parents now have a wider range of options of things to provide their children with that they themselves never had a chance for. This has instilled in this generation a level of confidence and self worth that is impossible for the previous generations to match. Furthermore, with China’s rapid technological advancement the Millennials have reaped a bulk of the benefits as China finally catches up to the Western world. This includes unprecedented global connectivity which has given them opportunities to connect with people around the world, and to have immediate access to information through micro blogging. With all these competencies, the Millennials are in for something different.

Image

i.e.- Not this.

Perhaps the last generation to enjoy the benefits of the “iron rice bowl”, China’s Generation X and generations prior developed their self worth through hard work and loyalty to their employer. They took pride in working for a famous employer. Their personal values are often a reflection of the employer’s values. In comparison, pampered and doted upon since they were born, the Millennials grew up assured of their own self worth, which has made them feel confident if not entitled. Their search for values began within themselves. For them the focus of self-worth has shifted from outside (e.g. companies, society) to inside (i.e. self). They don’t share the dreams of their employers, they are more inclined to pursue their own dreams. Even if they don’t know what they want, when they start their first jobs, they usually have an insatiable, voracious thirst for knowledge and experience which will help them to realize their potential and show others that they can make a difference.

Everything said, when these children get a foot in the door of their first employer, and are faced with a traditional system which solely reflects the values of the older generations, these young people are often able to confidently reply with a “ No thank you, I am individual, not a drone. I deserve to be treated as such. ”

Image

Kids these days.

 

Realizing this trend, It is now very clear to me that China is slowly breaking away from the tradition, and it is exactly this generation that will make a difference in the future.

Tagged , , ,

Last summer we were still debating how to increase the number of our online followers. Our initial approach was to use our friends as Chinese humour consultants and entice followers through our borrowed witticisms. We realized that in doing this, we were no better than Aesop’s jackdaw, borrowing the plumes of others in order to succeed. By trying to be what we weren’t, all we were doing was complicating our own lives. Each time when we tried to work with our “Chinese humor consultants” to develop new social media posts, or a story for our comic that our Chinese audience would like, we realized we weren’t happy with it, that it just wasn’t us. Trying to follow the mentality of the Chinese people, and be like them only made us look silly in their eyes; not to mention the frustration we were enduring as we nervously followed our number of followers like ticker tape. Somehow it fluctuated, but always seemed to remain around one hundred. One day, in a fit of exasperation we concluded that this approach wasn’t taking us anywhere. We decided we had to take the risk, be western, and ergo, true to ourselves. In essence, we would never be Chinese no matter how hard we tried to tape our eyes to look so.

Image

Our makeup didn’t go over well either.

Vali, when put under extreme pressure by yours truly, is a font of lucrative ideas. And so it was that under ultimatum, he came up with the brilliant idea to go out to heavily trafficked areas with an easel and hold drawing sessions. Chinese social media certainly wasn’t our strength, so it held that a drawing session would be the perfect opportunity for our target audience to meet us, talk to us, get to know more about what we are doing…and then follow our official WeChat and Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter). With a big easel in tow, a large pad of paper, and a large attractive sign, we set off for the nearest tourist trap. We looked so professional. We also made the effort to create flyers with both our codes to give to those pansies that wanted to “think about it first”.

This method has worked wonders for us. We go out to the 798 Art District and to the famed tourist street, Nanluoguxiang every Saturday. It has been at those times that we have met our fans to listen to their feedback and suggestions about how we can improve and get people to like us.

Image

Please Like Us.

We have also garnered a lot of business opportunities from this activity, aroused the media interest, educated and established a strong interest with our fans, and met our first potential employees. Having to stand outside for 2-3 hours in the freezing weather was grueling, but it was so much fun meeting and talk to our new fans. Many times it felt like we were in an episode of “The Apprentice”, facing big challenges and combining different creative methods to complete our goals before our sales started in the spring.

Image

Minus Donald’s sentient hairpiece.

Beijing is famous for pollution, it might be the city’s number one export, but thankfully, somehow every Saturday there would be a strong wind that would blow the pollution away at least for that day. When the fireworks and firecrackers of Spring festival brought with them a blanket of pollution that smothered the city, we switched back to an online mode of operations. This time though, we had followers to help us.

We’ve finally accepted, we’ll never be Chinese.

Tagged , , ,

A Difference in What Drives Us

As we’ve touched upon before, the thought processes of a business professional and an artist are radically different. 

 Image

This man obviously cared a great deal about his investment portfolio.

Typically speaking the business person aims to explore and research market and consumer demand, these are the marks by which they navigate their path to success.  Great business people can anticipate market demand and offer products to the consumer before they even realize they want it.  They are shepherds to the masses, earning their living by cultivating the flock to desire the goods and services that they are offering.

Artists are motivated by a different force entirely.  The artist explores the self and the mind.  There is no compass to guide, only aimless wandering in a quest for greater expression.  Unlike the business person the artist produces for the sake of creation.  There is often little concern for the market, because the artist generally presumes that no matter what, there will always be someone out there somewhere that is willing to buy.

There are many industries where these two mindsets meet and clash.  Ours is certainly one of them.  This difference was probably no better pronounced than in one particular situation we experienced at our company…

 

Image

There’s a reason our business cards look like this.

 

At one point we decided it might be in our best interest to draw upon some Chinese influences for our designs.  In order to research this and draw inspiration Vali read through a collection of Chinese horror stories by Pu Songlin entitled Tales from a Chinese Studio.  Many of the stories in the book focused on Fox Spirits.  These cunning creatures were known for taking the form of a woman, seducing a man, and then slowly draining the life force out of him.

 Image

Vali: “In other words, a woman.”

Given this was a common theme and had potential, our cartoonist quickly jumped on the concept and produced this design:

 Image

As a westerner closely involved in the project I’m very fond of this design, but as a business person I felt that it was time to poll the audience.  I kindly asked him to get some feedback from some of our contacts.  Some of you recall however that saying the word “feedback” to an artist is often like saying “bath” to a dog.  Though I’ve come to find it’s not really that, it’s that artists have a different feedback system.  They want artists’ feedback, not consumers’ feedback.  I digress, after few days he came back and told me he had asked some 6 people, and they all told him that they liked it a lot, and that they couldn’t hide the expression on their faces just how much they liked it! The seventh person however, who happened to be a very good friend of ours disagreed, she told him that Chinese typically don’t envision fox spirits in this way.

He rode off the comment, citing this particular friend’s frequent negativity.

So we disregarded the one negative review out of seven, and almost went on to place the first sample order.  The night before, I got a gut feeling that maybe I should run the design by some of my other Chinese friends.  I showed it to two people, both of which said the same thing, “This is not something that Chinese people will understand.  It’s a cultural difference in perception, to us the fox is a bit scary, the colors are wrong.”  In other words, they won’t wear it. My artist was trying so hard to explain to me that this is art: some will see and not understand, while some will see and love it.  The most important thing is that is okay with the design.  As a business person I was struggling to explain that this is not art, this is business.  If we were to make any money from anything, our designs need to be appealing to our customers, and the best way to find that out is to poll the audience.

It doesn’t help that Vali is a life-long skate punk, or that he may well be an eccentric genius.  He’s an iconoclast by nature, show him something done a certain way only for the sake of tradition and he’s prone to fly at it like an Angry Bird gunning for a green pig. 

 Image

You could say he flies in the face of tradition

 

Naturally he also questioned the relevancy of my people’s comments. Frustrated I suggested that we put the design on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) and see what the people out there thought about it. These were random people, so if their comments tipped in my favor he said he would consider changing the fox spirit design.  Naturally I won, and naturally he has yet to revisit the concept.

 

Image

It’s a Pyrrhic victory.

 

I was hoping that he would learn a lesson from what happened. If we want to become a brand, then we have to stop being only product focused and listen to what our target customers like.  People are very willing to give us their opinion, we just have to listen carefully.  My artist however is still an obnoxious little nuisance, but at least I learned a lesson.  I realized that I didn’t need to search for some mysterious arcane business knowledge, or ask seasoned business gurus what to do to succeed.  I realized that I only needed to listen to my customers and do what they told me.  Very soon, we saw the benefits from it.

 

Tagged , , , ,

Learning to Laugh in another Language

Humour is funny.  While this seems like a given, I am actually referring to the nature of humor itself.  What is and isn’t funny often seems inherent.  It is not until we expose ourselves to another culture that the idea of humour is challenged.

For most of the English speaking world this first comes when we are exposed to the gap between English humour and American humor.  Two countries separated by one language but also by their humor.  Comedy films make for great examples: English tend to mix the mundane with the absurd, whilst American comedy seems to crux upon petulant man-boys finally coming to terms with adulthood.

Image

Don’t even try to argue with me on this.

  While the humour in these countries is undeniably different, it is quite similar, and mutually intelligible.  When the language changes however humor begins to change as well.  In fact the more distant your second language is from your first language, the greater the difference in humour.  As a student of a foreign language its very easy to tell yourself that jokes are different, but it’s not until you actually immerse yourself in that culture that you finally begin to understand how radically different humour is across cultures.   Take this for instance:

Image

This is one of my old cartoons called Breakfast of Champions.  In China, it’s not funny for two reasons, one: no one here knows what pancakes are, and 2: humour based on randomness and absurdity just doesn’t go over well in Chinese culture.

Now look at this:

Image

This series of pictures recently went viral over Chinese social media.  They find it hilarious. Most Westerners however do not.  When I and many of my friends saw it, our first response was a hard eye roll and a beleaguered sigh that briefly permitted the soft sound of  “idiot” to escape our lips.  To us, it’s apparent that it is in anyone’s best interest to keep the business end of an alligator snapping turtle pointed safely away from one’s body. Furthermore, most of us have been taught not to handle any animal with such disrespect.  Still the fat lip resulting from this incident is hilarious to most of China.

As a creative cartoon design studio run by westerners but based in China, we at ALBA have had to find a way to reconcile the humours of our radically different cultures.

At first we didn’t understand a thing.  We even went as far as to treat our friends and contacts as “humour consultants”.  This yielded mediocre results at best.  We still felt completely lost in the quagmire of puns and number references that seemed to compose the bulk of Chinese language-based humour.  Then it got even more complex.  We came to understand that Chinese humour has distinct geographic divisions.  Travel 15 minutes out of town and no one will understand your jokes.  The same might be said of England, but this stems from the fact that accents radically change over the same time traveled.

Image

“Ligature, yeff gutter fierce lake appearer tets.”

  Our agony compounded further when we found that there is also a wide humour gap between generations.  To our dismay, we concluded that there is no single variety of humour that would be widely accepted in China.

Between this realization and our aspirin budget wearing thin from trying to understand all this, we ‘gave up’ on trying to learn and develop a Chinese sense of humour.  We were trying to be what we weren’t , and it was really hurting us.  We were also frustrated as we had to depend on other people to “grind” and polish our jokes.  Also, they stopped being funny to us, which as an artist can really take the wind out of your sails, begin to hurt production quality and stymie motivation.

We have begun to strike a balance though.  We have begun a comic book of our mascot Mort, which starts in the US and will eventually see the character move to China.  As he adjusts to China, so will his sense of humour.  This be using this as an opportunity to collaborate with a community of fans that we hope to foster into an entire creative community.  We have also had some success in combining our two humours by taking things that are funny to them and adding a western twist.  Remember that idiot with the turtle?  Now look at this:

Image

Learning how to humourously address a different culture can be taxing, but it can be done.  We’re steadily working toward more successes.

Tagged , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: