Learning To Party With Whitney Houston...

[MSNBC Report]

China educates itself on Western pop culture
Learning to party with Whitney Houston

Fans welcome Whitney Houston at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai on July 20.

Chinese soldiers manage crowd control at Whitney Houston's concert at the Olympic Sports Center in Beijing on Sunday.

By Catherine Rampell
NBC News
Updated: 12:21 p.m. ET July 27, 2004

BEIJING - And the crowd went wild.

That is to say, they remained standing. Sure, some clapped; others waved fluorescent swords sold by vendors who knew neither the singer’s name nor her native country.

But at Whitney Houston’s weekend concert in Beijing, standing was by far the rowdiest of the public displays of enjoyment.

Houston repeatedly encouraged her 20,000 concert attendees, of whom probably less than 1 percent were Westerners, to stand up, to “party,” and, most frequently, to dance.

“No? They can’t dance?” she asked, seeing 700 Chinese soldiers and police forcing people to sit.

The audience was clearly not used to these kinds of concerts. "They treat it as if they were watching an opera,” explained Houston’s production manager, Don Holder. 

Teaching rock concert etiquette

Enter Emma Entertainment. Emma, the Hong Kong-based entertainment and ticketing company that co-promoted the Houston concert, hopes to help the Chinese better acquaint themselves with Western concert etiquette.

Chinese audiences have already met the once-lustrous likes of Deep Purple, Mariah Carey and David Copperfield; Emma is working to arrange future tours by the Backstreet Boys and Madonna.

Reyna Mastrosimone, Emma’s artist relations and promotions director, said Western performers are eager to expand their careers in China, which she called “an untapped market.”

But the influx of stars whose Western careers are on the downswing suggests that China is desperate for anything culturally Western, without discriminating between Western hip and Western passé.

After all, the vogueness of all things occidental is deceptively widespread in Beijing.

At every corner, DVD vendors hawk illegal Hollywood movies and Chinese films with Hollywood actresses airbrushed onto their DVD cases.

Twenty-somethings wear t-shirts with arbitrary English words and half-words on them such as, “Hilarious Glamous Live Puppet Show This Evenin.” Most clothing ads feature Caucasian models. Every now and then, a local mother can be seen photographing her toddler standing next to a bespectacled white teen misidentified as “Harry Potter.”

Ready to learn what's cool

But do not be mistaken: theirs is not a boundless, unconditional love for Western cultural commodities. The Chinese are eager to become pop-culturally discriminating.

Mastrosimone called the cultural disconnect between Houston and her Chinese audience an opportunity for “educating on both sides.” And indeed, Chinese consumption of Western pop culture carries all the hallmarks of self-schooling.

At Sunday’s concert, fans studied Houston’s dancing with the same quizzical appreciation that tourists here reserve for acrobatics shows. Audience members could be heard echoing Houston’s spoken and sung words, mimicking her American pronunciation.

China’s music video station, Channel V, reveals more audiovisual tutelage. Many of the music videos shown are American or British, and performers in the Chinese music videos liberally borrow outfits and dance steps from J-Lo shoots.

Even leisure reading has become a study aid for replicating Western pop culture: Chinese music magazine Rock (TongSu Ge Qu) contains detailed explanations of the tracks on its Western mix CD supplement.

The prevailing attitude about manufactured and cultural products here seems to be that the West may have had a head start, but, with a little elbow grease and a 750 million-strong labor force, China will soon catch up.

New generation

Like many of the Houston concert attendees, Kai Wen, 32, said he currently listens to foreign music because it is “more developed.”

“Right now you can’t compare [Chinese music and foreign music],” said Kai. “But I know I will like modern Chinese music better.”



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