Intra-Regional Popular Cultural Flows

Towards an East Asian Identity?

by Xin Chen (Volume editor) Nicholas Tarling (Volume editor)
©2018 Monographs XIV, 268 Pages


This edited volume brings together scholars from eight countries to explore interactions of popular cultural flows, state politics, audiences’ receptions, and public debates in Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, Korea, Vietnam and China, and across the region as a whole. These investigations provide fresh conceptual and empirical insights into the study of the dynamic and complex interface of cultural adaptation, political identification and regional identity formation in the popular cultural consumption process in East Asia. The impact of cross-border popular cultural flows on East Asians’ competing national selves and the potential of translating pleasure from popular cultural consumption into regional integration urges are thus issues carrying political significance and consequence for East Asia, and possibly with serious repercussions on the world.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Acknowledgements
  • 1. Introduction: Pop Culture Cross Currents and East Asian-ness (Xin Chen / Nicholas Tarling)
  • 2. Popular Culture: History and Theory (Nicholas Tarling)
  • 3. Can Popular Culture Tourism Experiences Help Construct an East Asian Identity? (Charles Samuel Johnston)
  • 4. Shanghai Popular Songs and DAMA Chinese Orchestra: Claiming a Malaysian Chinese Cultural Identity (Lee Kam Hing / Danny Wong Tze Ken)
  • 5. Eating the Other? East Asian Cultural Flows and Understandings of Chineseness in Singapore (Nicole Tarulevicz)
  • 6. Dual-Use Aesthetics in Post-Pacifist Japan (Marie Thorsten)
  • 7. Rereading Japanese Popular Culture in the Context of the Japanese Empire in Indonesia (Lilawati Kurnia)
  • 8. Korean Waves as Strategic Responses to the Search for an Imagined Common Identity (Changho Jo)
  • 9. “Weapons of Mass Attraction”: Waves of Northeast Asian Movies and Cultural Influence in Contemporary Vietnam (Lê thùy Linh / Hoàng Anh Tuấn)
  • 10. From Foreign Folk Songs to the “Korean Wave”: Chinese Cultural Exposures and Self-reflections (Xin Chen / Fengxin Ding)

← vi | vii →



Figure 3.1:Identity life cycle
Figure 3.2:East Asia
Figure 3.3:Positioning pop culture in relation to its temporal development
Figure 7.1:Arashi in Javanese traditional costumes
Figure 7.2:Members of Komutoku in cosplay
Figure 7.3:Komutoku in action
Figure 7.4:Komutoku Senshi legion

← vii | viii →

← viii | ix →



Table 3.1:Components of identity
Table 3.2:Major types and sources of East Asian pop culture
Table 3.3:Identity features conceptualised in relation to East Asian pop culture and tourism experiences at East Asian pop culture sites
Table 3.4:Types and sources of pop culture expanded to tourism
Table 3.5:Characteristics of East Asian pop culture identity holders compared with cultural tourist sub-types

← ix | x →

← x | xi →


Notes on Contributors

Xin Chen is Research Fellow and Program Officer at the New Zealand Asia Institute of the University of Auckland. Her research interests focus on East Asian regional integration, China–Asia relations, and Chinese politics.

Fengxin Ding is currently a PhD candidate at the School of Education Economics and Administration in the University of Science & Technology Beijing. Her dissertation examines how globalisation impacts China’s higher education and society.

Hoàng Anh Tuấn is Professor of History at Vietnam National University- Hanoi, and currently also serves as the Vice Rector of Social Sciences and Humanities. His publications cover a wide range of themes of Vietnam’s history, Vietnam in East Asia and Dutch East Indies. His current research interests include early-modern Asian-European interactions, early-modern globalisation and the integration of Vietnam, history of Vietnamese culture and international relations.

Changho Jo is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department of the New School for Social Research in New York and a junior research fellow at Seoul National University Asia Centre. Drawing on theories of psychoanalysis and cultural sociology, he researches the relationship between South Korea’s modernisation and the growth of its cultural industry.

Charles Samuel Johnston lectures in the School of Hospitality and Tourism at Auckland University of Technology. His main research themes in recent years focus on tourism in Asia and in cities, and on the relationship between tourism and socio-economic development.

Lee Kam Hing is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Malaya. He was previously Professor of History and later Research Editor at Star Publications. ← xi | xii → He has published widely on topics concerning histories and societies of Malaysia, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries.

Lilawati Kurnia teaches in the Graduate Program of Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Humanities in the University of Indonesia. Her research interests touch upon a variety of themes of cultural studies, including narratives of multiculturalism in Indonesia, world literature and globalisation, and social impacts of Indonesian lyrical poems.

Lê Thùy Linh is a researcher at the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences. Her research focuses on contemporary Vietnamese history, especially socio-cultural trends since the second half of the 20th century.

Nicholas Tarling was Emeritus Professor of History and Fellow of the New Zealand Asia Institute at the University of Auckland. He was Editor of The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia and has authored and edited over 50 other books, the majority of which are in Southeast Asian history, but some cover other topics, such as theatre and opera, the history of universities, and internationalisation of higher education. In 2012, Routledge published The Works of Nicholas Tarling on Southeast Asia, which comprises some 72 of his academic journal articles. The seven-volume collection was edited and introduced by Professor Ooi Keat Gin at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Nicole Tarulevicz is a historian in the School of Asian Languages and Studies of the University of Tasmania. Her broad research interests include nationalism and the nation state, national histories, food, and food history in Asia in general, and Singapore in particular.

Marie Thorsten is a Research Fellow in the Social Science Research Institute of International Christian University in Japan. She specialises in international relations theory, US–Japan relations, and media/cultural studies. She is a former Professor of Doshisha University, and previously taught at the University of Tokyo and Macalester College (USA). She is the author of Superhuman Japan: Knowledge, Nation and Culture in US-Japan Relations (Routledge, 2012, 2017).

Danny Wong Tze Ken is Professor of History at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in the University of Malaya, where he teaches the history of Indochina and Southeast Asia. He is also the Director of the Global Planning and Strategy Centre. His research interests include histories of Champa, Sabah, and the Chinese in Malaysia.

← xii | xiii →



The editors of this book would like to express their gratitude and appreciation to the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation in Taiwan and the New Zealand Asia Institute at the University of Auckland, whose financial and institutional support made the project possible. They would also like to thank Professor Fu-kuo Liu at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, Professor Koichi Iwabuchi at Monash University, and Professor Fang-chih Irene Yang at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan for their scholarly assistance and encouragement. The editors would especially like to thank all the contributors to this book for their hard work, fresh ideas, in-depth analysis, and patience during the project. ← xiii | xiv →

← xiv | 1 →


1.  Introduction: Pop Culture Cross Currents and East Asian-ness

University of Auckland

Amidst the region-wide discussions on the East Asian integration since the 1997–1998 financial crisis, there has been an explosive growth of cross-border popular cultural flows among its members, that is, the ASEAN-Plus-Three countries (China, Japan, and Korea). This ever denser intra-Asian traffic of films, TV dramas, pop music, movie tourism, fashion trends, and internet games is primarily market-driven and has carved out a significant segment of the regional GDP and trade.1 The flourishing commercial exchanges of popular cultural products point towards the conscious efforts made by the increasingly knowledge-based economies in East Asia to develop “creative industries”. These exchanges have enhanced the iconography of the cultural dimensions of globalisation.

To date, many worthy studies have been conducted on the economies of production, distribution, and consumption of popular cultural products that shape the intra-regional “flows”.2 Brought into focus are also textual, ← 1 | 2 → contextual, and broader socio-economic factors that are believed to have contributed to the popularity surges of entertainment commodities across East Asia.3 A commonly accepted argument, for example, takes as given that the export-led growth and export-upgrading strategies pursued by the region cannot but lead its members to pop culture as another variety of consumer goods for overseas markets, regional as well as international.4 A complementary account further explains that the improvement of the average East Asian’s living standard from survival to consumer has also fuelled the demand for and hence the supply of this cultural form and enabled it to flow across borders.5 The region-wide expansion of consumer purchasing power has, moreover, reportedly created a shared public perception of having attained a comparable level of development and thus of “living in the same temporality”.6 The prevalent feeling of being on relatively equal footing in economic well-being and financial capability is thought to have boosted the average viewer’s sense of comfort through appreciation of “familiarly different” experiences of peoples ← 2 | 3 → in neighbouring countries who are being commercially exploited as source materials for pop cultural expressions and displays.7

Uncontroversial credit has also been given to regional producers and distributors for the improved availability and accessibility of popular cultural exports in East Asia.8 Indeed, in seeking to claim a region-wide popularity and generate good box office returns, many of those involved in regional trade in creative industries appear to have come to the understanding that their extended audiences are participants in as well as consumers of the cultural “flows”.9 Their regionally distributed cultural products need, therefore, to be simultaneously meaningful and relevant in the various and specific cultural contexts of their viewers. Not surprisingly, the production–consumption interactions for one-size-fits-many cultural commodities have sparked innumerable pan-East Asian thematic interests and cultivated a growing number of pan-regional pop idols and stars.

The expanding fan base built by the successive surges of popular cultural waves across the region seems to suggest that there is some truth in the often-cited notion of “cultural proximity” and projection of an evolving drama-mediated sense of “Asian-ness” in the region. In theorising the complex perception of “cultural proximity”, researchers involved do not hesitate to acknowledge the homogenising influence of modernisation and globalisation on the evolving patterns of popular cultural consumption in East Asia. Many researchers, however, argue more emphatically for the empirical validity of the assumption that countries sharing similar cultural traits, historical backgrounds, and geographical ties would intuitively and naturally gravitate towards a greater appreciation of each other’s cultural exports than they would towards culturally distant nations.10 Articulated within such a regionalist imagination, “cultural proximity” is also commonly characterised as a ← 3 | 4 → dynamic and continuous process of “becoming”.11 As mentioned earlier, the “comfortable” sense of cultural “familiarity” among consumers of the currently surging intra-East Asian trade of media products is believed to have been evoked by the continuance of time-honoured ties of various kinds among them, and, more importantly, by their recent comparable socio-economic transformations, development experiences, aspirations for modernity, and pressures to reconcile traditional values and globalisation imperatives.12

If the so-called shared validation of mutual cultural “relevance” has facilitated and sustained the multidirectional popular cultural flows in East Asia, have the flows, in return, helped advance the shared feeling of cultural closeness and temporal similarity to the level of a collective sense of regional belonging among the public of the member states? Given that individuals and communities in today’s “information society” increasingly resort to signs, symbols and images for references in their interactions with the real world and with one another, and given that values, perceptions, attitudes, and lifestyles are supposedly reconstructable through commodities, it would only be natural for the growing regionalisation of popular culture in East Asia to evolve to expanded regionalism and a stronger popular sense of regional belonging. Yet while acclaimed for creating a discursive and visual space for a regional identity to emerge in East Asia, the production and consumption of regionally scaled popular culture has thus far not been acknowledged as suppressing nationalist identification on the part of millions upon millions of viewers across the region, who have for years, in their respective geographical and cultural corners, felt connected with the same personae on the screen or the stage, longed for the same lifestyles portrayed by those characters, agreed to the same moral messages conveyed through the storylines, and toured the same movie settings. ← 4 | 5 →

Obviously, the formation of a regional market for popular culture and the creation of a sense of regional cohesion and community belonging follow different logics and processes. The former appears to evolve largely in the business world and be promoted and facilitated primarily by those involved in the creative industry supply chain, whose sectors include creation, production, distribution, and retail. While not totally apolitical, inputs from each of these links are mostly profit-oriented and hence ready to adapt to changing demands. Their private-enterprise approach, market-return motivation, and transaction-cost focus suggest a great measure of operational flexibility and partnership spontaneity. All this conduces not only to the dispersion of individual cultural commodities across state boundaries, but also to the confluence of various economic forces behind and market dynamics of the trans-national circulation of popular culture in East Asia.13

The cultivation of a shared Asian consciousness, or a collective sense of regional “we-ness”, on the other hand, has proved a much more complicated and subjective process. In the East Asian popular cultural flows, for example, the viewer and the “viewed” interact and react with each other. Such interplays have enabled a region-wide public attitude shift from adoring only Western fashion, music, TV, film, and movie tourism, to accepting Asian counterpart products as being equally “cool”.14 Asian viewers’ lending greater legitimacy to indigenous popular media representations of their own and neighbour countries’ affluent modernity, worldly gains, and related issues has widened the horizon for the region to be conceptualised as a “changing same” for collective responses to regional and global challenges.15 Yet the subjective nature of inclinations and preferences in social groupings, be it mutual inclusion or exclusion, has also seen Asian viewers frequently invoke their individual and communal economic aspirations, social circumstances, political concerns, and historical memories to underpin their reception of cultural imports. To date, the references they resort to seem to have fed their continued allegiances to their competing national selves rather than helped translate their viewing pleasures into regional integration urges. ← 5 | 6 →

To further complicate the situation, there is virtually no “local” culture space in East Asia which is homogeneous. Viewers in the same locality do not often perceive an imported cultural commodity through the same lens. While some find a media import entertaining, or even informative for real-life circumstances, others take it as an ignorant, stereotyped, or even politically motivated misrepresentation. There are also times when imported cultural images are invoked to illustrate arguments in public debates of a specific locale and end up being perceived as adding to the cleavage of local public opinions and thus attracting negative readings of the countries where the cultural imports originated.16

Worse still, cross-border cultural consumption in East Asia, even if mundane and apolitical in purpose, can still arouse nationalistic sensitivity and reaction. A key explanation for this potential lies in the fact that, despite the supposedly common perceptions and feelings of “proximity” and “similarity” in the region, daily practices of trans-Asian cultural consumption encompass a significant element of asymmetrical relationship among the member states, involving imbalanced exchanges of pop cultural products.17 As may be expected, cultural commodities originating from more developed economies in the region generally find it easier to break into the emotional structures of less prosperous nations than the other way round. Given that inter-national historical bitterness, political suspicion, and economic rivalries continue to linger in East Asia, “unequal” cultural dialogues may be interpreted as cultural penetration by countries with economic and political muscle into their economically weaker neighbours.

Uneven distribution of cultural market shares also exists among key players in the region. This may raise the level of anxiety over trade-surplus countries exerting greater influence on the formation of social and political perceptions and trends and thus gaining more ground in regional competition for “soft power”.18 Along this line of thinking, the issue of cultural market deficits19 ← 6 | 7 → may easily touch the sensitive issue of national sovereignty over airwaves, resulting in “heat waves” of cultural imports being viewed as “cold fronts” of not only foreign competition for domestic box office shares but also foreign encroachments into local public opinion processes. If brought into domestic politics, asymmetrical cultural encounters may push state governments to respond with nationalistic policies to ward off legitimacy crises.

At the individual level, regionally circulated popular culture has undoubtedly become an indispensable part of the average Asians’ daily lives. The magnitude, dynamics, and massive geographic coverage of the flows of this cultural form in East Asia surely signify its potential to become a powerful vehicle for bringing to life the 1998 ASEAN-Plus-Three Summit’s vision statement on an integrated East Asian community. As discussed earlier, however, the identity-formation effect of the production and consumption of popular culture will take a long time and follow a tortuous route to occur, if it ever does. Yet the industry-produced popular culture flows and the immense intra-regional contacts they have facilitated at the people-to-people level may trigger instantaneous and massive nationalist responses in any locale to any imported cultural programme over even such matters as its content’s “truthfulness”, “accuracy”, “allusions”, “interpretation of history”, “claims of heritage”, to name but just a few.20

Clearly, the identity reconstruction of East Asians through popular cultural consumption is an issue of political significance and consequence for the region, and possibly with critical repercussions on the world. It is, however, almost beyond individual researchers to even keep pace with the growth of creative industries and resultant trans-cultural flows in the region, let alone closely examine the prevalent, dynamic, and complex interface of cultural adaptation and political identification in the consumption process at both the individual and societal levels across the region. Intended to contribute towards a comprehensive understanding of the junction between an East Asian popular cultural regionality in the making and an East Asian identity, this edited volume brings together eleven scholars from eight countries to explore interactions of popular cultural flows, state politics, average audiences’ receptions, and public debates in Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, Korea, Vietnam, and China.

This multi-case study begins with a detailed historical examination of narratives about “popular culture” by Nicholas Tarling. His extensive review of ← 7 | 8 → cultural studies reveals that much of the work in this field does not theorise about popular culture. Also, the literature that deals with theory is almost entirely concerned with Europe and the United States. His study of history thus aims at helping develop a more theory-based approach that may support and deepen the study of popular culture in Asian societies that are penetrated by the commercial and industrial approaches adopted in the West.

Charles Samuel Johnston continues the discussion by looking into the role of popular culture, particularly pop-cultural tourism, in the construction of a collective East Asian identity across the region. His elaborate analysis of definitions and components of identity, time, and space factors in the identity life cycle, features and “Asianising” potential of popular culture, and immediate/delayed impacts of touristic experiences of pop culture, suggests the possibility for a shared sense of East Asian-ness to emerge within the cultural geography of the region. Yet drawing on tourism theories, he also cautions against overlooking the commercial focus of tourist attractions and activities, the co-presence of diverse types of tourists at pop culture sites, and co-evolution of visitors and destinations. All this, he concludes, adds to the complexity and delimitation of the role of pop culture tourism in aiding the internalisation of a new identity in East Asia.

Of the context-specific investigations included in this volume, the first two centre on Chinese music in Malaysia and Chinese food in Singapore, both as popular culture genres in which “Chineseness” is conveyed, reinforced, and challenged. Lee Kam Hing and Danny Wong Tze Ken examine the lasting popularity in Malaysia of Chinese songs collectively known as shidai qu, which are inspired by melodies of pre-World War II Shanghai. Their research indicates that the marginalisation of diasporic Chinese cultural expressions by the state has spurred private efforts to sustain this music genre in Malaysia both for entertainment and as a marker of cultural identity. In addition, they also show that the inter-ethnic and cross-cultural dynamics of Malay society have also enabled shidai qu to stay at the forefront of the Malaysian cultural scene, rather than becoming passé, or alienating the general public altogether. Finally, the authors show that by continuing the international character of the pre-war Shanghai music, shidai qu has managed to “flow” to other parts of Asia and attract audiences beyond ethnic Chinese.

In her chapter on food in Singapore, Nicole Tarulevicz explains how understanding East Asian cultural flows in the island-state hinges on a nuanced appreciation of race and ethnicity, most critically, local distinctions of Chineseness. She particularly looks at how the eating of food has emerged as an expression of popular culture in which identity categories are interpreted, tested, and repurposed. Her examples of how some foods bring into question ← 8 | 9 → the category of “Chinese” attest to the fluidity of Chineseness in Singapore, an identity not encompassed by any universal definition, but rooted in contexts of power-in-meaning and meaning-in-power. By unveiling the complexity of the category of Chineseness, her study also explicates how in Singapore’s pop cultural whirlpool minestrone can be Asian, curry be nationalistic, congee be Muslim-friendly, and Japanese Doraemon lucky charms cause a storm in a hamburger wrapper.


XIV, 268
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XIV, 268 pp., 2 b/w ill., 5 color ill., 5 tables

Biographical notes

Xin Chen (Volume editor) Nicholas Tarling (Volume editor)

Xin Chen joined the New Zealand Asia Institute at the University of Auckland in 1997. Before that, she was with the East West Centre in Honolulu, first as a degree fellow, then as a research assistant and finally as a research fellow. During that time she also received her PhD in political science from the University of Hawaii. Nicholas Tarling received his LittD from the University of Cambridge. He was Emeritus Professor of History and Fellow of the New Zealand Asia Institute at the University of Auckland. To recognize his outstanding achievement and contribution, he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.


Title: Intra-Regional Popular Cultural Flows
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284 pages