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CAS350 Chua.doc

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University of Toronto St. George
Andre Schmid

Conceptualizing an East Asian popular culture CHUA Beng Huat ABSTRACT Since the 1980s, popular cultural products have criss-crossed the national borders of East Asian countries, enabling a discursive construction of an ‘East Asian Popular Culture’ as an object of analysis. The present essay is a preliminary attempt to provide some conceptual and analytic shape to this object, delineated by its three constitutive elements of production, distribution and consumption. Each East Asian location participates in different and unequal levels in each of these component processes. Production can either be located entirely in a single geographic location or, alternatively, each of the necessary constituent sub-processes can be executed from different locations; preference for either arrangement tends to reflect the relative dominance of the production location in exporting its finished products. Consumption and thus consumers are geographically located within cultural spaces in which they are embedded. Meanings and viewing pleasures are generated within the local cultures of specific audience. Conceptually, among the several possible consumption positions, the one in which an audience watches an imported programme is most intriguing. In this viewing position, differences between the cultures of the location of consumption and that of the production location become most apparent. The audience member has to bring his or her own cultural context to bear on the content of the imported product and read it accordingly. In this sense, the cultural product may be said to have crossed a ‘cultural’ boundary, beyond the simple fact of its having been exported/imported into a different location as an economic activity. Such an audience position requires the consumer to transcend his or her grounded nationality to forge abstract identification with the foreign characters on screen, a foreignness that is, in turn, potentially reabsorbed into an idea of (East) ‘Asia’; a potential ‘East Asian identity’, emerging from consumption of popular cultural products, is thus imaginable. After the 1997 Asian financial crisis, this Confucian project has been displaced. Against this displacement, I am attempting to delineate an object of analysis, calling it ‘East Asia Popular Culture’, to designate the development, production, exchange, flow and consumption of popular cultural products between the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore Effects of viewing: a pan East Asian identity? Finally, to the most controversial issue that needs to be considered in the conceptualization of East Asian Popular Culture, the question of an East Asian identity as an ideological effect of the production and consumption of the popular culture. First, it should be noted that the border-crossing popular urban television dramas and films have displaced, if not erased, references to East Asia as a space of ‘traditional’ in relation to a sense of the ‘rural’. Second, the focus on the urban, young and single professionals has a tendency to displace the central place of the family; an urban consumer oriented cultur
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