Structure of Identification and Distancing in Watching East Asian Television Drama

Chua Beng Huat. East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. Editor: Chua Beng Huat & Koichi Iwabuchi. Hong Kong University Press, 2008.

Flows of television drama series across national, cultural and linguistic boundaries in East Asia are by now a routine affair. The presence of imported TV programmes in every urban location within the region is now so ubiquitous that they are no longer ‘remarkable’ as they have become part of the daily diet of television audiences throughout the region. This ‘East Asian’ media space has been ‘characterized as a self-aware but non-consensual force field articulated by the region’s mixed postcolonial experiences, negotiation with globalization, and interacting media cultures’ (Tsai 2005: 102), with uneven and unequal directions of flows. The predominantly ethnic-Chinese locations of the region—Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China and Singapore, which has a 75% ethnic Chinese population—has its own long history of exchanges of pop cultural products in different Chinese languages, constituting a subset that may be called ‘Pop Culture China’ (Chua 2000). There is scant flow of TV programs from Pop Culture China into Japan and Korea. For example, Hong Kong TV dramas have never been shown in Japan. In the 1980s, the main current was of Japanese trendy dramas flowing into the rest of the region. Since the mid-1990s, with the South Korean government’s conscious economic strategy of transforming pop culture into an export industry (Shim 2002), the Korean current has become more prominent. Given the, albeit, uneven flows of TV dramas I want to address in this chapter the question, ‘How does an audience watch/read an imported cultural drama series?’

It is common place to suggest that meaning of a text of print or other media is not transmitted straightforwardly from the author to the reader/audience. The consumption of a text is not simply the direct apprehending of the author’s intended meaning. This does negate the fact that the author intends and encodes certain meaning in the text; the encoded meaning may be said to be the ‘dominant’ meaning of the text. However, in ‘decoding’ the text to derive meaning from it, a reader/audience brings one’s own context to bear on the text and, in the process, the intended meaning may be appropriated, modified and resisted. Furthermore, it is necessary to note that the text is not consumed exclusively as a coherent whole, but also in a fragmentary manner, i.e. different textual components may be treated differently by the same audience. Analysis should therefore be sensitive to this fragmentary reading.

In the present analysis, an additional dimension needs to be added to the general reception process, namely, the ‘foreignness’ of the TV drama programme to the audience. Significantly, the by now canonical texts on audience reception have paid almost no attention to the ‘foreign’ elements of imported programmes. Considering the global domination of American TV programmes, this is rather surprising, since American programmes would be technically ‘foreign’ in all locations but the US. Yet, this foreignness is seldom problematized in Western audience analysis, perhaps because of the absorption under the generic sign of the ‘West’ or the idea of ‘English’ as the global, universal language. In contrast, the ‘American-ness’ of American pop culture is a constant source of public discourse in Asia, with reference to the effects of ‘Westernization’ and ‘cultural contamination’ of the local (Chua 2000).

Conceptually, the ‘foreignness’ is central to the idea of border-crossing of cultural products. Substantively, ‘foreignness’ is very much foregrounded by the audiences as part of the reason and pleasure for watching imported programmes. The ‘foreignness’ of imported TV drama series for different East Asian audiences thus motivates the research question, ‘How does an audience watch/read an imported cultural drama series?’

Circulation Paths of Imported TV Programmes in Pop Culture China

Before we examine the reception of imported drama series, one significant peculiarity of their circulation in Pop Culture China should be noted. Different Chinese languages dominate in different ethnic-Chinese dominant locations: Mandarin in the mainland China and Singapore, especially in the latter because all Chinese languages other than Mandarin are banned from the mass media; Cantonese in Hong Kong; and Mandarin and Minnan/ Taiwanese, a language of Fujianprovince in southern China; the three main Chinese languages may be mutually incomprehensible to a monolingual ethnic-Chinese. This accounts for the ‘peculiar’ phenomenon of subtitling of Chinese films and TV programmes for Chinese audiences; if a viewer does not understand the particular dialogue on screen, one might be able to read the subtitles, but if one was never schooled in the Chinese script, one would neither understand the dialogue nor the subtitles.

Things have become more complex in recent years, as the once relatively shared standardized idiographic written script becomes differentiated across the different ‘national’ boundaries with substantial ethnic-Chinese populations. Mainland China simplified the ideograms radically in the 1960s, to make it more accessible to the masses; Singapore has adopted this simplified script. Taiwan, for the obvious political desire to differentiate itself from mainland China, has retained the old, complex script and with the gaining strength of the Taiwan independence movement through the 1980s, also adopted Minnan as a ‘Taiwanese’ language. Hong Kong has also continued to use this older script; furthermore, since 1997, has adopted Cantonese as the language of instruction in schools. Secondly, the Hong Kong Cantonese have always used what might be called ‘Cantonese’ script; an ideogram might be used just for its ‘sound’ to be read in Cantonese and its appearance in a specific location within a line of dialogue might be nonsensical for non-Cantonese speakers / readers. Alternatively, a new ideogram could be constructed that does not exist in the standard Chinese dictionary; these are therefore strictly speaking ‘Cantonese’ words. Consequently, there are many written Cantonese words that are not comprehensible to non-Cantonese speakers/readers. The same is happening in Taiwan, as the Taiwanese begin to use Mandarin ideograms for their sounds in the Minnan language.

As a consequence of language differentiations, it is entirely possible to be watching a drama series that is dubbed in one Chinese language, with subtitles in another. For example, in Singapore, one could watch a programme with dialogue dubbed in Mandarin but the subtitles have to be read in Cantonese. This presents a puzzle of the route that a non-Chinese drama series has travelled within Pop Culture China: It could have first been imported to Taiwan, dubbed in Mandarin and subtitled in complex script. A copy could have then be re-exported to Hong Kong, where the dialogue is re-dubbed in Cantonese but subtitles remain in the complex Chinese script. Another copy could be re-exported to Singapore, where the Mandarin dialogue remains and the subtitles are rendered in simplified script or even erased. Alternatively, the drama series is first dubbed in Cantonese and subtitled in complex script in Hong Kong, or in simplified script in order to capture the increasingly number of Mandarin-speaking PRC citizens on the island. Or, the series could be first imported to Singapore, dubbed in Mandarin and subtitled in simplified script, then re-exported to PRC, where no changes in dialogue or subtitles need to be made or to Taiwan, where the dialogue remains but subtitles change to complex script.

Due to the complexities of language differentiation within Pop Culture China, Korean and Japanese drama series tend to be dubbed and subtitled in different Chinese languages, depending on where they were done; Cantonese dialogue in Hong Kong, Mandarin dialogue and complex Chinese script of subtitles in Taiwan, Mandarin and simplified Chinese scripts in Singapore and the PRC. Two general observations can be made: first, there is no way for an ethnic-Chinese audience to ascertain the route the drama series has travelled and, second, with dubbing and subtitling, the possibility of circulating the film throughout the very large market of Pop Culture China is one of the primary reasons why Korean and Japanese programmes are more likely to be translated for ethnic-Chinese audiences than vice versa. Conversely, it also accounts for the unequal flows of pop cultural products between Japan and Korea and Pop Culture China.

Dubbing as Domestication

Now, let us examine the question of dubbing and its effect on the audience. At the most immediate level dubbing is the translation of on-screen dialogue from its original or ‘source’ language to one that is common among the ‘target’ audience, such as from Korean into Cantonese for Hong Kong audiences. Technically, however, dubbing is not simply the replacement of the words in one language by another. Constrained by the need to synchronize lip-movements (lip-sync), particularly in close-up shots, of the characters on screen, the translator ‘must move away from literal conceptions of translation and build up confidence in his or her abilities to put forward alternatives that move away from the source text to focus on the function of the text and on the viewer’ (Varela 2004: 35). In short, some changes to the original dialogue to suit the cultural context of the target viewer is unavoidable, indeed necessary. In creating the belief that it is a ‘local’ programme, ‘visual synchrony’ between the translated words and the lip-movements is the most important aspect in creating ‘the impression that the actors on screen are pronouncing the translated word’. Where synchronization fails, the programme loses much of its ‘reality effect’.

Beyond the issue of lip and visual synchronies, there are political and cultural concerns in dubbing. In the translation process, often terms, expressions and contextual references of the source language have no equivalent in the target language. Faced with such problems, translation is generally oriented to the cultural context of the target language and expressions are changed accordingly (Agost 2004: 71). At its most extreme, ‘fidelity’ to the original is so relaxed that target ‘oral colloquial language’ is utilized ‘to provide the viewers what they are used to’ (Agost 2004:68-69) rather than sticking to the greater demands of written norms. Elements of the culture of the target consumers are thus introduced into the dubbed text. With lip synchronization, these insertions of the culture of the target audience may remain unnoticed by the latter.

An interesting example of how the different on-screen social and cultural elements work together with dubbing to produce a successful transnational drama series in East Asia is the very popular Korean period drama series, Jewel in the Palace, Dae Jang Geum. The period drama series ‘chronicles’ the ascendancy of a royal cook in becoming the first female imperial court medical officer to the Korean Emperor in the 16th century. It was dubbed into Mandarin in Taiwan in 2004 and into Cantonese in Hong Kong the following year. The series was subsequently broadcast to very high rating in the PRC and in Singapore in 2006. In this particular instance, consistent with the actual practice during the 16th century, all written documents on the TV screen, from reports to the imperial court to personal letters, were written in Chinese characters, rather than in contemporary Korean alphabets. This contextual element further enhanced the ‘Chinese-ness’ initiated by the dubbing into Chinese languages. Further domestication is achieved by direct interventions of Hong Kong TVB in providing additional ‘explanations’, in Cantonese voice-over, the Chinese equivalents to the Korean recipes and medicinal items featured on screen. All these efforts were further supported by the relatively similar physiognomy of East Asians as a given factor that facilitates domestication of each other’s films and TV dramas.

The popularity of Dae is something of a breakthrough. Although every East Asian location, with the exception of Singapore, produces a very substantial amount of historical-costumed drama series, very little of these are exported successfully. This is because historical drama series require audiences to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the historical period depicted to comprehend the narrative. In the case of Dae, there is actually very little Korean history content. History merely serves as a frame for a story of court intrigues, a story of personal growth, of greed versus righteousness and finally, of romance, dressed in period costumes, narrated consistently in close-up focus of the main characters. No historical knowledge is demanded of the audience at all.

Dubbing and the contextual Chinese features of the series collaboratively transformed the series into a ‘local’ ‘Chinese’ drama, making Dae easily consumable for ethnic Chinese throughout East Asia. Dubbing is thus not only a ‘translation’ but also a process of ‘transmutation’ (Varela 2004:39); a dubbed drama is equivalent to a locally produced one. Through dubbing audiences are ‘induced’ into consumption of the familiar, which facilitates real-time identification with the characters on screen. This combined with the relatively similar physiognomy undoubtedly contributes greatly to the popularity of East Asian drama series that circulate within the region.

Foreignness Preserved: Clothes and Urban Icons

However, the target audience of a dubbed series is also attracted to the imported drama series by its ‘foreignness’ as a source of viewing pleasure. The ethnic-Chinese audiences in Pop Culture China want to be watching a Korean or a Japanese drama series; they are attracted by this foreignness and the ‘difference’ it implies—the ‘not us’—which are preserved in the various visual elements of the TV drama, particularly costumes and images of the foreign locations; foreignness is visual rather discursive.

‘Ethnic’ costumes are a convenient and efficient vehicle for signalling difference between groups; they are thus common signifiers of culture. Difference is especially inscribed on the female body dressed in ‘traditional’ costumes. This is very apparent, for example, in the case of the above mentioned Dae Jang Geum; as the narrative is centred on the life of female servants in the Korean imperial court, there are scenes upon scenes of groups of traditionally dressed female actresses. It is, therefore, unremarkable to single out ethnic costumes as an element that preserves the foreignness in a TV drama series. However, as mentioned earlier, Dae is an exception, as generally the drama series that are successfully exported and circulate within locations in East Asia are urban, contemporary drama series. In urban stories the characters on screen don international fashion, thereby eliminating the one single most convenient carrier of foreignness. Another vehicle needs to be found and used.

In the urban drama series, if one turns off the sound, the relatively similar physiognomy of East Asians renders it difficult for an audience to distinguish the product of one location from another. This is especially so in indoor closeup shots of the on screen characters, unless the audience is able to identify the specific actors and actresses. ‘Foreignness’ is shifted to ‘iconic’ images that metonymically represent the city in which the scenes on screen are unfolding: the Tokyo Tower, the needle-tower in Shanghai, the Hong Kong ferry; and more generically, as in Korean dramas, street scenes where the neon signs are in local language, because Korean cities, including Seoul, generally lack internationally recognizable icons. The success of locations as markers of foreignness is reflected in the fact they are marketed and visited as tourist’s sites by fans of the TV stars. TV sights have become tourist sites; the exoticism of watching the ‘foreign’ is materially realized in the ‘exotic’ gaze of the tourist. The ‘exoticism’ of the foreign—the ‘not us’—allows the audience to distance themselves from the on-screen events, characters, attitudes and behaviours which dubbing tries to indigenize.

Taking the translation/dubbing practices and the visual-foreignness together, it is apparent that consumption of imported TV dramas and other visual media products is a process of identification and distancing, simultaneously or as a series of intermittent moments of one or the other. This identification-distancing is replicated in the different modes that audiences of different locations within East Asia watch/read TV drama series imported from elsewhere in the region.

Capitalist Modernity: Distance and Desire

As in every communicative instance, TV drama narratives construct a reception space and position—a subject position—for their audience; this is the space of identification with the on screen character that is preferred by the producer. However, as audience reception studies have repeatedly shown, audience actively interpret what is going on in the screen and develop preferred meanings of their own. In so doing, acceptance of the assigned audience space is but one of the many possibilities that an active audience can take up. Rejecting the messages and/or behaviours on screen is also a possibility. Conceptually, where the audience accedes, consciously or otherwise, to the subject position offered by the drama script, he/she would be identifying with the character and action on screen; conversely, where one resists the subject position offered, one would be distancing oneself from the character and the action on screen. Obviously, the watching/reading of a TV drama involves both processes. Alternating moments of identification and distancing, where and when the on screen characters are ‘like me/us’ or ‘unlike me/us’, are generated during real-time watching. When identification/distancing takes place is thus entirely contingent on who is watching and what is being watched. Again, in the case of watching/reading an imported programme this identification/distancing process is complicated by the audience’s awareness of the foreignness of the programme which raises hurdles to identification and facilitates distancing.

Pioneering work on trans-Asian consumption of pop culture by Iwabuchi shows that there is a ‘national’ level of the ‘like us/unlike us’ at work. Two broad responses have been identified through analysis of the way other parts of Asia are presented in Japanese media and interviews with Japanese audiences of pop culture from those parts. Since the nineteenth century, Japan has consistently seen itself as ‘being in Asia but not part of Asia’. It has a tendency to place the rest of Asia at a culturally-historically ‘backward’ position vis-àvis itself, a cultural-historical temporality defined by the level of development in capitalist modernity. This attitude appears to underpin contemporary Japanese audience responses to imported pop cultural products from elsewhere in Asia. Iwabuchi found that Japanese audiences have a tendency to appreciate media-mediated cultural representations—’visualization of society’ (Hartley 1996: 210)—of other parts of Asia with a sense of ‘nostalgia’, as a sense of ‘loss’ of its own past, especially in the post-bubble economy period when the Japanese economy was stuck in the doldrums.

For example, referring to the representation of Vietnam in the popular 1996 Japanese TV drama series, Doku, Iwabuchi argues that, ‘Because they are still not quite modern, Vietnamese are energetic and can afford dreams of a bright future; hence, they are expected to unilaterally afford Japanese people spiritual nourishment’ (2004: 156). In these and other instances, Japan’s past is inscribed by the Japanese on other Asians’ present. To the extent that nostalgia is always simultaneously a critique of the present—dissatisfaction with the present creates the longing for a mythical golden past—identification with the less developed capitalist-consumerist development in the rest of Asia might motivate Japanese pop culture consumers to attempt to recover their lost vigour, energy and drive.

Since the arrival of the Korean wave, particularly the TV drama series Winter Sonata, to Japan in 2004, Iwabuchi has had the opportunity to further specify the sense of nostalgia among Japanese audience. According to him, it is the drama series’ depiction of ‘pure, simple-minded love, affection and caring interpersonal relationships’ that attracted the audience of largely middle aged housewives, who are nostalgic and try to recuperate their own lost sentiments of love and interpersonal relations. Taken together, nostalgia is evoked in the Japanese audience of ‘media texts’ imported from elsewhere in East Asia at either or both the personal and the societal levels.

Significantly, the Japanese view of the ‘belatedness’ of other locations in Asia in terms of capitalist-consumerist modernity appears to dovetail with the self-projection of the youths from the latter locations, where the representation of present day Japan in Japan TV dramas ‘signifies prosperity and sophistication and engenders longing, a longing for a richer consumer world, for technical expertise and creativity, and for societies that foster these elements’ (Thomas 2004: 186). Although Thomas was referring to Vietnamese youth, findings from young Taiwanese Japanese TV drama fans suggest similar desires. According to Ko, these fans latch on to the well crafted representation of the contemporary urban landscape as the index of ‘realism’ of Japanese TV dramas:

Japanese idol dramas provide a real imaginary, and the imagery is manifested beautifully into a spectacle of modernity. Therefore, the metropolitan Tokyo is re-presented as the locus where the individuals pursue freedom, love, and careers; the imagery of ‘Tokyo’ is a visual place that mediates between reality and dreams. These dreams have not yet been realized in Taipei, but are already presented on screen … not the Tokyo in Japan, but the “Tokyo” on screen. (2004: 123, original italics)

The dovetailing of Japan’s assumption of its placement ahead of the rest of Asia and the Vietnamese and Taiwanese youths’ imagination of Japan as their ‘future’ suggests that Asians from different locations may share a similar orientation towards capitalist-consumerist modernity. This is further attested to by the brutally direct Singaporean Japanese pop culture fan:

Interviewer: Could you elaborate on why you would not want to be like the mainland Chinese?

Respondent (a 24 year old, Singaporean ethnic-Chinese male): Okay, I am not trying to be nasty here but I do not really think well of the mainland Chinese. The images that they portray are not as good as the Japanese and even if the mainland Chinese try to be fashionable, the results can be quite disastrous. In school, I see the Mainland Chinese with long and dyed hair and although they do not look good, they are still okay but once they open their months, that’s it, because everything is ruined. They talk loudly in Mandarin with a weird accent. My impression of the mainland Chinese is that they are rough, loud and crude people and I am glad that neither the Japanese nor I (in some sense) look and behave like them. (Chua 2002/3: 38)

This Singaporean ethnic-Chinese self-conscious discriminatory exclusion of the mainland Chinese, in spite of potential ethnic affinity, and his identification of ‘sameness’, with Japanese pop-TV idols is obviously articulated along the single dimension of capitalist consumerism. Along this dimension, mainland China, having only opened up to capitalist consumerism since late 1970s, remains ‘backward’ and thus, a distant and denied ‘Asian’ to the self-perception of the media consumers in developed economies in East Asia.

However, as parts of East Asia become economically develops and consumerism expands, Japanese ‘advanced’ status becomes more untenable and cracks in the Japanese assumption of ahead of the rest begin to appear. This appears to be the case with Japanese fans of Hong Kong pop culture who consider themselves to be ‘a community of taste’, in an environment where Hong Kong pop culture is not part of the mainstream and thus not readily available in Japan. Such fans appear less Japanese-centred or Japanese-chauvinistic and see Hong Kong’s capitalist modernity as one that is ‘different’, even ‘preferred’, to that of Japan’s own path to its own modernity. Quoting a Japanese fan: ‘Hong Kong has also achieved a high economic development, but retains the vitality that Japan has lost’ (Iwabuchi 2004: 165). Contemporaneity—different but equal—along capitalist modern temporality is granted to Hong Kong.

The research that problematizes the ‘foreignness’ of media products to audiences in different parts of East Asia foregrounds an emerging consciousness among audiences: A self-characterization as ‘Asians’ who are differentiated by different placements on the single dimension of capitalist, consumerism-driven modernity. Along this dimension, Japan remains at the front, while less economically developed countries, such as Vietnam and mainland China, take up the rear. The general structure of respective audiences’ gazes is as follows: The nostalgic gaze of the Japanese audience: the present of the rest of Asia is the past of Japan, thus enabling the Japanese fans to retain their self-centredness. Singaporean and Taiwanese audiences’ future-oriented gaze in watching/reading of Japanese TV dramas: the present of Japan is the future of the rest of Asia where capitalist consumerism is less developed, thus enabling audiences from the rest to desire, identify and embrace Japan as a representation of their future. Finally, this linear temporality of capitalist-consumerist modernity has also enabled pop culture fans in developed capitalist economies—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore—to distance themselves from their counterparts and media products from less developed economies as the ‘backward’ Others who are nevertheless also ‘Asians’.

Real-Time Identification and Difference

Beneath the ‘national’ level, audience identification with the characters and activities on screen are more immediate and direct, especially within actual viewing time. This enables further specification of identification and distancing processes among East Asian audiences. At the most immediate level, identification is disclosed in audience comments such as ‘I can understand the character and why she acts the way she does. I would do the same if I were in her position because we are all humans.’ However, identification is often rendered indirectly. Drama fans’ reworking of on screen events, activities and characters into their own everyday lives is a commonly observed phenomenon among researchers. For example, this Hong Kong audience member:

Many times in life I encountered obstacles, or often I feel frustrated at nor being able to utilize my capabilities, hence I do identify with the male lead in Long Vacation [Japanese drama series]. But I find one thing quire reassuring in the drama. When Kimura Takuya summoned the determination to win the piano contest and eventually won it, it seemed that his ‘vacation’ had ended. I hope my ‘vacation’ will end like his. (Leung 2004: 94)

Another instance is a Singaporean audience member:

Such things can happen anywhere in this world. It’s just that it is filmed in Japan and the characters are Japanese. But when you are talking about love, sex, and marriage, it happens anywhere in the world where someone, out of a situation, has sex with someone else on a fateful night and then thinks about it and, your know, wonders, “Why did I do it?” (MacLachlan and Chua 2004: 147)

A less inclusive mode of identification than ‘humans as such’ takes the form of ‘I identify with the character and his/her actions because we are Asians’. Behind the ‘we are Asian’ response is the ideological consciousness that ‘we are not like non-Asians’, thus generating and affirming a sense of ‘Asian-ness’, despite the fact that the culture of the production location is different from that in which the audience is located. This idea of ‘being Asians’ has been conceptualized by Iwabuchi in terms of ‘cultural proximity’.

Significantly, in both ‘we are human’ and ‘we are Asians’ identifications, the factual foreignness/difference of the imported TV drama is never erased but merely displaced and substituted with and by more abstract identities. This is a conceptually and substantively crucial point. Foreignness and difference is always just beneath the surface of such abstract identifications. As soon as on screen characters and actions are contrary to an audience’s sentiment, the foreignness/difference surfaces immediately to enact a distancing from what is on screen. For example, a Singaporean audience of married women apparently have a tendency to resist Japanese dramas’ representations of sexual relations:

[The Japanese] want to be first in everything. Their technology is first and this may affect them. They want to be advanced in everything … And unconsciously, it may influence their thinking, their attitude towards sex, their values. (MacLachlan and Chua: 2004:164)

‘Difference’ between ‘the Japanese they’ and ‘Singaporean us’ is emphasized repeatedly and unmistakably. Another Singaporean example:

I have a wish. I wish these Japanese dramas would not encourage our youths to accept those one-night love relationships so easily, sleep with each other and that’s it. This is very unacceptable. (MacLachlan and Chua: 2004:165)

Here, in contrast to generalized, abstract categories of ‘human’ and ‘Asian’, the specificities of the ‘culture’ of production location, represented by the TV dramas, are evoked to create ‘difference’ and the basis of distancing. Obviously, if foreignness is a source of visual pleasure, as mentioned earlier, it is also a source of disdain for an audience, who moves between the two at will. That identification/distancing is an intermittent process rather than consistently sustained throughout the duration of the watching/reading of an imported TV drama series and has a consequential implication on the formation of a stable identity of the audience vis-à-vis the TV programmes.

Consumption and Community

A common concern for academic analysts of popular culture is the possible emergence of a ‘collective identity’ among the consumers. In East Asia, this is not only of academic interest but also, perhaps more ominously, of nationalist and regional interests. Given US dominance in global media entertainment, almost every location in Asia has its version of ‘anti-Americanism’ in local media-and-ideology debates. The possible exception is Japan which sees itself, simultaneously, as being able to absorb all things Western and make them its own (Iwabuchi 2002:265). In addition to anti-Americanism, the popularity of Japanese pop cultures in Korea and Taiwan are often seen as cultural ‘neo-imperialism’ by Korean and Taiwan nationalists who remember their colonization by Japan. Such xenophobia is obviously intentionally simplistic.

An individual’s cultural identity formation may be conceptualized as an unending process of interactions of a constant stream of cultural knowledge acquisitions, each time adding a new layer to one’s personality and identity. It is fashionable to say that the ‘identity’ of an individual is always multiple and complex and open to changes with each new knowledge input. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the culture(s) acquired in the early formative years of life might be dominant and deeper and serves as a reservoir of cultural repertoires that absorbs, and is changed by, each new knowledge input. One of the identities acquired early in life is, of course, a ‘national’ identity. Although national identity is essentially one of political convenience necessitated by the administrative logic of a world organized in terms of nation-states, it unavoidably slides into a never specified concept of ‘national culture’. This ‘national’ identity-culture is constantly reinforced by social institutions that regulate a very large part of the necessary services in the everyday life of citizens, under the auspices of the nation. Individual citizen’s dependency on the state for their daily need for public goods and services constitute the material basis for the inscription and internalization of the national identity-culture as technologies of the self. Thus, in the context of East Asian pop culture consumption, we see the tendency of audiences to assume a ‘national identity-culture’ as a main frame from which to identify/distance themselves from on screen characters and actions. In each individual citizen, however, the national identity-culture is complicated by the other culturally salient inputs to identity formation, namely, gender, ethnicity, profession and age, the standard sociological package of ‘social economic status’.

In the constellations of inputs to identity formation, leisure activities are largely residual and volunteered, engaged in only after the necessary routines are done, with no social institutions that enforce compliance and payoffs. This, of course, does not preclude the possibility of ‘obsessive’ consumption of a particular form of leisure; however, it remains residual unless one turns ‘professional’ and makes it part of one’s occupational identity. As a leisure activity, the consumption of TV dramas has some additional features that are likely to dilute its effects on stable identity formation. Like all pop culture products, TV dramas are short-lived. The affection of consumers, even fans, is ephemeral, changing rapidly with the latest trends and icons, both in terms of objects and artistes. Any suggestion of ‘lasting’ effects on identity formation based on pop culture consumption is therefore difficult to establish, farfetched; although, ex-consumers and ex-fans can readily recall, often fondly, the period of life when such consumption was an important part of their everyday life.

An artiste or a drama series is ‘popular’ because there are large numbers of consumers of the artiste’s work or the drama series. The question is through what processes can this statistical presence constitute itself into a ‘community’, however ephemeral. The most conventional manifestation is the ‘fan club’ as a community of consumers who share affections for a particular artiste or pop culture programme. Indeed, they are often established by the artiste or the production companies as means of sustaining consumer interests so as to extend the longevity of an ephemeral phenomenon. However, the audience for a popular TV drama series far exceeds fan club members, making it necessary to conceptualize the idea of ‘community of consumers’ beyond the restrictive boundaries of fan clubs. As consumption is largely a private affair, consumers need not be aware nor consciously seek to be members of any imaginable community, although the act of consumption potentially disposes them to one. A ‘community of consumers’, if constituted, would be even more of ‘imagined’ than a nation state as it would be transnational and transcultural because the consumers are as widely dispersed across a geographic space as distribution and market radius of the TV drama or artiste.

In the contemporary world, the Internet is a medium and instrument for the organizing of geographically dispersed consumers, especially for avid consumers who are looking for ways to intensify the pleasure of consumption through active engagements with others similarly disposed. This is the case, for example, for Japanese TV drama fans. Japanese TV drama producers are often disinterested in marketing their products in the rest of East Asia primarily because the domestic market is sufficiently profitable but also because of the weakness of intellectual property rights protection in the region. This frustrates the regional fans impatient in their desire for the latest episode of a popular series broadcasted, leading them to find alternative means to the programme.

Take the example of the popular drama series, Pride. According to Hu, ‘In January 2004, a Hong Kong fan, R, who is a skilled Japanese speaker, did the Chinese subtitling for Pride, a few days after the original broadcast in Japan’ (2005: 177-178), with an immediacy that even defied the piracy business and a circulation that threatened the latter’s business. Hu further elaborates,

Attention should be paid to the stylistic injection of R’s personal enthusiasm in her Chinese translation. Her subtitling is an individual display of her mastery of language in articulation of her love for the drama … She thanks T and A for their supplies of the raw material, and online fans for their support and suggestions by constructing herself a fan persona, which interacts with those of other fans. Even when she made a mistake in the subtitling, she took care to insert a correction by thanking another fan for pointing out the mistake.

R and N’s initiative in subtitling Pride in Chinese has been a great success among Chinese fans. Many thanks to them from fans are posted online. The inner passions for drama, fan friendship and performance/self-expression are displayed in the context of this Chinese translation/subtitling; being ‘acknowledged by a community of like-minded is a characteristically romantic structure of feeling’.

Obviously, there is nothing accidental about this East Asian online community. The consumers/participants/members are initiated by the passionate involvement of a few multilingual and technologically savvy individuals, taking the lead in constantly doing the painstaking work of initiating and amending translation/subtitling of their favourite drama series. These are done for the benefit of the other members of the fan community, beyond the clutches of profit-oriented market players and the copyrights and censorship constraints of the nation-state. All these are done in cyberspace, without face-to-face interactions that are essential to the life of a conventional community. That there is a community is indubitable. However, membership will always remain unstable and ever changing, voluntary through consumption of pop culture products, with no other qualifications required. As one fan grows out of it, a new one will induct him/herself, in quick succession, often following the rise and fall of a particular artiste as personal ‘idol’. For many, the duration of fandom is often too short and culturally ephemeral for it to contribute significantly to the long process of self-identity formation.

In contrast to the almost ‘hyperactive’ Internet community, most consumers of TV dramas are passive. They either wait for the weekly instalments to be screened on television as part of their free time at home or impatiently sit in front of the TV set in marathon sessions of DVD watching, getting the entire series over with quickly. Yet, even these consumers are not without the possibility of realising that they are part of a community. A sense of ‘community’ is often engendered by other component members of the media-culture industry, such as the print media of newspapers and lifestyle magazines. Take the entertainment section of any newspaper in an urban centre in East Asia as an illustration. The entertainment pages can be conceptualized as a ‘community’ space for the entire East Asian pop culture industry. Geographically, ‘East Asia’ is defined by the places that appear regularly in the daily entertainment pages; namely, the production centres of East Asian pop culture, Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei and very occasionally, Singapore. The page-space is peopled daily with images and information of artistes from these urban areas: Bae Yung Joon in Seoul, Faye Wong in Shanghai, Wong Kar Wai in Hong Kong, Jay Chou in Taipei. East Asian artistes inhabit these page-spaces at unpredictable intervals, more frequently in the rising phases of their careers and their presence diminishing when they are on the way out. These pages are read by an unknown number of readers, unknown to each other. A ‘community of consumers’ is instantiated should two or more readers happen to be co-present at an occasion/event, during which they participate, as part of free flowing conversation, in exchanges concerning one of the artistes or a TV programme reported in the pages. Such instances materialize the ‘community of consumers’ of East Asian pop culture as ‘occasioned’ and ‘occasional’ community, befitting the practices of the overwhelming majority of consumers, where consumption is leisure and entertainment, rather than as a primary focus of everyday life.


The presence of an East Asian pop culture is empirically indubitable. Regional marketing of pop cultures is now configured into their production cost. The consumption of these cultural products has become part of the daily diet of media consumers throughout the region. The result is the emergence of transnational communities of consumers, variously constituted through their collaborative practices and modes of consumption, through a body of shared knowledge about the East Asian pop culture scene and at a less involved level, through the less attentive consumption of East Asian pop culture as leisure and entertainment.

An overwhelming number of potential consumers in the region are ethnic-Chinese. The predominantly ethnic-Chinese locations constitute a subset within East Asia and can be conceptually designated as Pop Culture China, with histories of established networks of production and consumption of Chinese language based genres of pop culture. The size of this potential market of consumers has resulted in an uneven flow within the larger region. Korean and Japanese media cultural products, especially TV dramas, are regularly translated and dubbed into different Chinese languages, and the translated products routed through different paths but eventually reaching all the major locations of Pop Culture China. The reverse flow of Pop Culture China cultural products into Korea and Japan are very much less frequent, largely because of lower production qualities, in addition to the smaller market sizes in these two countries.

It is now common place to point out that the ‘meanings’ of media cultural products to its consumers are dependent on the latter’s contextual situation; the analytic task is to detail out these ‘contextual’ elements. One significant element that frames the context of consumption of pop cultures within East Asia is the placement of the consumer’s location on what may be called the linear trajectory of capitalist consumerist modernity. The East Asian locations can be placed, relative to each other, along the line of development of capitalist consumer culture, with Japan in the lead and mainland China at the rear, and Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore in the middle with relatively equal levels of development. Location on this trajectory has very significant effects on the attitude of the consumers: Japanese consumers have a tendency to read the pop cultures from the rest of East Asia as representations of ‘Japan’s past’, evoking nostalgia for a ‘Japan that was’, while the rest of East Asia has a tendency to read Japanese pop culture as representations of an ‘imaginable’ and ‘desired’ future. However, as the locations in the middle of the trajectory ascend to the level of the consumer culture of the Japanese, the framing and attitude of Japanese consumers will become more contested.

Finally, the emergent reality of an East Asian pop culture is juxtaposed against the presence of Hollywood and other American media cultures, defying easy suggestion that the media world in East Asia is being ‘Americanized’. This has provided the discursive and ideological space to challenge the simple xenophobic scream of ‘American media imperialism’ by Asian cultural moral gatekeepers who seek their own political and financial gains through such shrill accusations. This is an aspect of the politics of East Asian pop culture that remains to be analysed.