This is a mammoth of an interview. Adam Schokora, the social media and youth culture expert who heads Edelman Digital in China and a partner at China’s creative community SNS neocha.com gave me the most thorough and comprehensive response I have ever received. Adam, my sincerest gratitude for your hard work and passion.
The interview concerns the future of China if you will by looking at its emerging creativity, innovation and the young Chinese behind it. They grew up during fundamental social changes, subscribe to many values different from previous generations. They (myself included in the group) will be playing a vital global role in the near future. So it is time to start to understand them. Sit back and enjoy (probably over a few installments).
JZ: China might not be the place people look to for creativity. Or is it?
AjS: Me and my Neocha.com colleagues have had many long conversations about this topic. China gets a bad rap in the international community for its lack of innovation and creativity. Actually, the country has plenty of both if you know where to look and look close enough. But, because innovation and creativity are not yet exactly widely accepted cultural, social, educational, or governmental priorities in China, and because Chinese mainstream media largely doesn’t bring either to the attention of the average Chinese person, many are left with the impression that they don’t exist in China or are stuck having to look really hard for them.
Despite this reality, major changes are underway as the government has finally started to understand and acknowledge the value of fostering the country’s latent creative energy. Part of the government’s motivation is to create jobs via a largely untapped industry. Previously, this was accomplished with state-run enterprises. Now it will be private enterprises built on the back of innovation and creativity. The other part of the government’s motivation is harnessing local creativity as a key “soft power” ingredient to its rise on the global stage. Many of the great countries of the world that China aspires to equal or surpass have robust creativity- or innovation-driven industries. China’s leadership knows this.
Not to over-simplify, but, an increased emphasis on creativity and innovation from the Chinese government will mean more media exposure for related industries, which will then influence the general public’s perception / acceptability of, and appreciation / demand for creative culture and its output, which ultimately helps, say, some extraordinarily talented kid in Gansu pursue his creative ambitions with confidence and the appropriate financial support and opportunity from a regarded industry that he otherwise wouldn’t have. That same kid then embarks on a career that contributes to further development of the creative industry, making it better for the next kid, say, in Guangxi or Tianjin, and so on. It’s circular, and it has already starting to happen.
The government in some places in China has gone beyond just “an increased emphasis on creativity / innovation via mainstream media,” to, for example, develop creative industry parks that house studios for animation companies, architecture, and design firms, etc. Such spaces are also used for large-scale, ongoing creative industry events like Neospring (the Neocha.com launch party). The government has also begun to actively emphasize creative industry education: there are now 50,000+ Chinese students a year graduating with degrees in animation (LINK).
The past 5 or so years has been a period of extraordinary maturation of “things creative” in China, the next 10 years will likely usher in similarly unprecedented development.
Our efforts at Neocha.com have afforded us a prime vantage point to observe this development. It has been really interesting to see so many of our users, and Chinese creative-types in general, grow and blossom into their talents. And not a day goes by that we aren’t introduced to someone via the website who is creating something incredible, whether it be experimental music (LINK or LINK or LINK or LINK), a unique illustration or animation (LINK), a short film (LINK), some striking photography work (LINK), DIY dolls (LINK), t-shirt / apparel designs (LINK or LINK), graffiti (LINK), etc. This kind of stuff makes us so happy because it’s exactly what Neocha.com was set up to do: enable creatives to present their work and connect to other creatives or those interested in creative communities / works.
JZ: What is the creative community like? Are they mostly marginalized sub-culture youngsters?
AjS: In a single word: emerging. But yes, for reasons I described above, still in some ways marginalized. However, I wouldn’t go as far to call it a “sub-culture.” That makes it sound “suppressed” and “underground,” and I don’t think that’s the case so much anymore – maybe 10 years ago, but not now.
Some thoughts to help characterize the Chinese creative community:
1. The Chinese creative community is an emerging culture. It has always been around in some form or another, but is only now starting to integrate itself more with mainstream culture in China. And, it’s not necessarily “the youth,” at least not in the traditional sense. There are plenty of, with all due respect, un-youthful pillars of the creative community in China, like: Ai Weiwei, Ou Ning, Cui Jian, etc. In fact, some of our users at Neocha, although in the vast minority, are over 40. It’s not just 15 – 30 year olds.
2. The Chinese creative community is typically university educated, independent, liberal, open to new ideas and products, and, although mostly urban, can be found anywhere in China. For example, Neocha.com has users in every single province across the country. But in terms of where creative communities are the most dense, hubs can be found in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, but also in second tier cities such as Wuhan, Changsha, Chengdu, Kunming, Tianjin, Hangzhou, and Nanjing.
3. The Chinese creative community, contrary to perceptions, is largely apolitical. As with Chinese youth in general, young Chinese creatives are simply uninterested in the government or politics. It’s not on their radar and they essentially ignore it. They are far more interested in their work, making a living out of it, their individuality / themselves, having fun (idolizing youth and play), and improving their standard of living; again, not unlike mainstream Chinese youth. Newsweek recently published a must-read article that captures this perfectly by comparing the new inwardly-focused generation of Chinese creatives to previous generations that were more outwardly focused on things like the government, post-Cultural Revolution angst, commercialism, etc. (LINK)
4. The Chinese creative community is “digitally native.” It has grown up turning to the Internet as a primary channel for information / entertainment, and to learn about the local and global creative community at large. It also uses the Internet to showcase its work and connect with other creatives for collaborative projects (domestically and internationally). The Internet is the medium of choice for anything and everything.
5. The Chinese creative community is early-adopting and trend-setting. Generally speaking, these are the “cool kids,” and they set trends that many in mainstream youth culture will ultimately follow. They are the first to try new ideas, technologies, fashions, products, and new cultural / creative content (music, movies, books, etc.). These are the kids that other kids look to, at first perhaps warily but then admiringly, for queues about what to expect and what they are behind on. This is probably the best demographic to look at in terms of trend-spotting for what’s coming next in mainstream culture. They are the first to learn about “the latest” from abroad and re-interpret it into a China context. For example, the retro-revolutionary / post 80′s nostalgia theme that’s been all the rage over the past couple years in China was first adopted by members of the creative communities, re-mixed with Chinese elements, and has now made its way into many parts of mainstream youth culture.
6. The Chinese creative community is currently culturally and financially under-served. There simply aren’t enough social, public, or professional platforms to support a proper creative culture industry. As a result, many creatives struggle to make a living off their talents and output. In most cases, creatives are forced to take part time jobs to support their craft – they are not afforded the opportunity to concentrate full-time on their work. This is problem for the development of the creative community / industry in general as most creatives never have the opportunity to realize their full potential.
7. Chinese creative community is not necessarily anti-commercial. Artists and creatives around the world are often categorized as anti-commercial, with those that even “toe the line” being pegged as sell-outs, or lacking legitimacy, etc. I think such generalizations are a “luxury” of mature creative industries where creators can afford to shy away from commercial opportunities and still have other avenues to support their lifestyles. This is not the case in China. Some members of the Chinese creative community may be wary of commercial engagements because it’s still a new thing, but they are not opposed to them by any means. In many ways, they welcome them as a great way, sometimes the only, to “stay afloat” and fund their lifestyle and creative pursuits. Such engagements are necessary and healthy for the maturation of creative industry in China at this point. I look forward to the day that Chinese creatives can truly ridicule each other for being too commercial or “sell-outs.”
8. The Chinese creative community is fiercely independent, individualistic, and generally unsatisfied with what, perhaps, older generations and the mainstream way of life encourages (i.e. study hard, go to college, get a white collar job, work 12 hours in an office everyday, get married, have kids, buy a car, be bored, get old, die…) They are adamant about there being “something more” to the daily grind. There is a lot to be said for people in China that are individualist. The social and cultural constraints in everyday Chinese life make it very difficult to be properly individualistic. I have always felt that the average individualistic / alternative Chinese kid has way more “street cred” than say the same individualist kid in say London or New York or Tokyo – the Chinese kid is overcoming and fighting much more built-in inertia to achieve his individualism.
9. The Chinese creative community is intellectually curious and engaged with the world around them and abroad. Let’s face it, the masses and mainstream culture anywhere are, for the most part, intellectually lazy. The average person rarely goes out of his way to learn more about interesting stuff down the street, let alone around the world. This is not true with Chinese creatives. They crave and thrive on being plugged into the coolest and newest things / information.
JZ: The website Neocha.com which you are a partner at is a great example of creativity in China. Tell us a bit more about it, perhaps you can start with the name.
AjS: Neocha.com just recently celebrated its second birthday (LINK), so we’ve been live online now for just over two years, but the concept was brewing for a year previous to that, so the project is currently in its third year.
The site’s name in English: Neocha, and Chinese: 新茶, literally means “new tea.” Tea is of course a very traditional element of Chinese culture and we feel in many ways that the development of modern creative communities in China is an evolution and integration of many distinctly traditional Chinese elements, but yet still entirely new. So, it’s a version of something old with a new generation of Chinese creatives, thus “new tea” and Neocha. Some people also like to translate our name as “牛X,” which we quite like.
The site was borne out of the need to connect China’s growing communities of “creatives” — musicians, filmmakers, illustrators, graffiti artists, writers, designers, fashionistas, shops, venues, etc. — who are largely under-represented by mainstream Chinese media and lack effective distribution platforms on and offline. Neocha.com is a social networking website offering a centralized community with highly customizable profiles and tools that empower creatives to present / promote their original works, and meet / collaborate with other creatives. The site also serves fans and those generally interested in creative content by acting as a discovery portal to original music, art, design, goods, events, and special interest groups among local Chinese creative communities.
JZ: Do you see these young independent artists making traction in China, or even globally?
AjS: There are certainly young independent Chinese artists gaining traction among peers and fans in China, and some that even have a following globally. Below are some of my favorite examples (definitely not comprehensive):
B6 – a true jack-of-all-creative-trades who is one of the most well-known electronic musicians in China as well as one-half of the electro-pop duo IGO. B6 has toured internationally and works commercially with several major brands in China. B6 is also a co-founder of Neocha.com.
Carsick Cars – frequently cited as the leading band of Beijing’s emerging indie scene, Carsick Cars is one the most popular bands in China and has previously opened for Sonic Youth.
Hedgehog – Beijing-based indie rockers who have a solid following in China and always play to sold out audiences for live performances.
Sulumi – the godfather of 8-bit, Game Boy music in China. He has a passionate following among young electronic musicians in China and abroad. Sulumi recently rocked it at the Blip Festival in NYC (video).
Popil – a very unique multi-talented illustrator, graffiti artist, photographer, and even budding musician who has worked with brands such as Nivea, eno, iMart, etc. Last year I produced a Danwei.org video documentary on her and two other Chinese graffiti artists. (LINK) I also frequently blog about her on 56minus1. (LINK)
Ray Lei – a brilliant up-and-coming multimedia designer. The most unique and imaginative animator I have seen in China. Check out some of his work on Vimeo. (LINK) He’s worked commercially with brands like NIKE and Cotton USA, and has exhibitied his work internationally.
Birdhead (on Neocha) – a Shanghainese photography duo who has participated in many international and domestic exhibitions. Often featured by the well-respected Shanghart Gallery, Birdhead is celebrated as having the ability to capture the unique daily life moments of Chinese youth.
Lili Chen – the creative force behind no3n°4 (布三布四), an indie design company specializing in handmade sock dolls. With her dolls, Lili aims to recreate playful childhood fantasy among her, typically adult, customers in China and abroad. I recently did a post about her on 56minus1. (LINK)
TheThing – streetwear fashion brand started by two brothers that has now expanded to over 8 stores in China. TheThing’s cutting-edge products are popular among both locals and foreigners.
Cult Youth – underground comic book collective that has released 3 books and have a solid following among comic book fans in China and abroad.
Cold Fairlyland / Lin Di (lead singer) – the best example of a Chinese X Western fusion band led by an incredibly talented pipa player and lead signer Lin Di. Cold Fairyland frequently tours in China and Europe. I recently produced a video short with Lindi. (LINK) The full band was also featured in a video documentary I produced for Danwei.org last year. (LINK)
Mr. Lan (on 56minus1, on Neocha) – a prolific Shanghai-based graffiti artist (originally from Changsha) who is renowned as one of the most talented and technically sound street artists in mainland China. He is also a budding tattoo artist. Last year I produced a Danwei.org video documentary on him and two other Chinese graffiti artists. (LINK)
JZ: You are also a keen observer of China’s youth culture. These young people grew up during rapid social change. And they do indeed embody the transformation, hope and uncertainty that China has gone through. Where should we start to understand them?
AjS: The Internet is where to start. As I mention above, it’s truly the medium of choice for this demographic. Without being too shamelessly self-promotional, I think anyone interested in learning more about the Chinese creative community should stop by Neocha.com, that’s the first place I go to “keep up.” Spend some time just poking around users’ profiles – you’ll find wealth of information all about the creative demographic in China. If navigating a Chinese language website is problematic, I often pull out the best of the best in terms of Neocha.com user content and post on 56minus1. (LINK) We do this via a Neocha.com Twitter feed as well. (LINK)
In addition to Neocha and 56minus1, check out Douban.com, Chinavisual.com, and Arting365.com for some of the bigger sites. Among smaller sites, there are just too many to list, but for every subculture and creative endeavor in China, there are usually several dedicated websites or BBS discussion forums. Also, you can just pick a topic you want to learn more about and search on Baidu or any of the big user generated content portals (Youku, Tudou, Tianya, etc.). I recently did this – I wanted to learn more about Parkour in China and was blown away by what I came up with; I did a post on 56minus1. (LINK)
On Neocha.com and any of the other sites I mention above, particularly Douban, you can find related offline event information. Attending creative community activities is very helpful in understanding the demographic, and just plain fun.
Lastly, the Neocha team has just formally launched Neocha EDGE , which will sit atop Neocha.com as: 1) a bilingual website acting as a curator / aggregator and discovery engine of creative content and emerging youth culture in China, and 2) a full-service idea and execution house that helps clients understand, engage, and co-create with Chinese creative communities. Consulting and research focused on the Chinese creative demographic for agencies, brands, etc. has long been a part of the Neocha business model, but going forward we will be much more focused more on it. In addition to properly presenting our consulting capabilities and service offering, Neocha EDGE will become THE destination for anyone wanting to learn more about what’s going on in the local creative space. We’ll be publishing our own editorial content via daily blog updates with interviews, profile pieces, videos, photos, podcasts, slideshows, news, events, etc., but also aggregating the best / latest content from other platforms as well. We are excited to launch the site. More coming very soon.
JZ: What do you think their future impact will be and what are some signs now?
AjS: A lot of (often sensationalist) media like to talk about how Chinese creatives are going to overtake the US’ or Europe’s competitive advantage in innovation and creativity any day now. In reality, while creativity is certainly growing in China, the creative industry as a whole here is still very young. Young creatives represent just one of the more important elements, among many, that feed into the overall development of a healthy creative industry. Their full impact will be truly felt when the industry hits its stride and we start seeing commercials in the US or Europe using Chinese musicians or hear about well-known international designers collaborating with Chinese creatives on a frequent basis. Given the pace of change in China, it’s hard to predict when we’ll see signs of the paradigm shift from “Made in China” to “Designed in China.” But when it does happens, China will gain significant confidence domestically while exerting considerable “soft power” abroad.
JZ: How powerful is China’s social media in China?
AjS: Massively powerful in and of itself, with its weight exponentially amplified via the influence it has on mainstream / offline media and culture. There are well over 300 million people regularly online in China, with most of those not just “checking the weather,” but rather actively participating in social media in some form, whether it be BBS discussion boards, video / photo sharing sites, social networking, wiki sites, blogging / microblogging, etc.
With my role at Edelman Digital in China, I have seen countless examples of the offline / mainstream media (and even government) agenda being set by events and issues first bouncing around online in Chinese social media – this is true for companies and brands too (in good and bad ways). In fact, it’s shocking how slow and just plain clumsy mainstream media has become in China. I have heard this is true in other markets too. I wouldn’t know as I haven’t picked up a foreign newspaper in nearly ten years.
Also, for a variety of social, political, cultural, and even geographical reasons, the role social media and the Internet in general plays in China is different and more significant than in other markets.
Some examples / proof points:
1) the key Internet age demographic (12 – 35) grew up, for the most part, as “only children,” products of China’s single child policy (started in the late 70′s). These folks have grown up turning to the Internet to connect and relate to peers, for friendship / companionship / interaction, etc. via social media platforms. Imagine the behavioral implications of a generation not having brothers or sisters. This is unique to China.
2) Historical legacy: social media has been around in China via simple BBS boards longer and more widespread than in other countries. Most high schools and universities and towns / cities have had a robust BBS scene since the late 90’s, long before the anglo-Internet got hip to Friendster / MySpace and other “western” social media platforms.
3) As offline protest and large-group meetings / petition, etc. are, for the most part, illegal or supressed in China, the Internet provides a perfect solution: digital mass congregation. It’s in fact more orderly and safe, and happens all the time here. It’s also just far more effective at actually affecting change compared to (scarce and extremely bureaucratic) offline avenues in China.
4) Related to #3, because of a sometimes spotty legal / judicial system, Chinese people turn to the Internet via “human flesh search engines” and other sorts of digital “taking the law into my owns hands” tactics (some good, some despicable) conducted on social media platforms to achieve justice / fair results that, again, likely wouldn’t happen via offline avenues in China.
4) Chinese culture and society in general are perhaps not the most conducive for open / public / unmasked self-expression, exploration, and discovery. These things are not always considered appropriate or acceptable in everyday, mainstream culture, and thus there aren’t very many avenues for such behavior in offline life, but there is definitely a need for them in modern Chinese society: enter the plethora of social media sites / online services for this kind of stuff and the luxury of anonymity that the Internet provides. Don’t get me wrong, the Internet also provides this in other markets, but, in other markets, you can do most of these things (fairly comfortably and confidently) offline, that’s not necessarily the case in China.
5) Media in China is highly regulated by a largely conservative government, and thus the country unfortunately suffers from less-than-great (perhaps terrible) entertainment and information outlets (i.e. television, newspapers, etc.) The Internet, largely via social media and peer-to-peer platforms, solves this problem. Chinese people can get their hands on pretty much any kind of entertainment and information content they want and share it via the Web. Most young people I know with Web access in China (most) rarely actually watch television. Instead, they are watching programming and content delivered via the Internet.
6) Internet access is being made available in more and more remote / rural places in China where individuals, with all due respect to those locations and the people that reside there, don’t have much to do. Most of China’s population lives in such places: villages, towns, 3rd / 4th tier cities, etc. The Internet is a window to a new world of information and entertainment possibilities, again, attainable and sharable via social media platforms.
7) Being the ever emerging economic giant that it is, and with its population as big as it is, China has many (MANY!) people buying products and services (probably more than anywhere else in the world). These consumers are making new / first time or otherwise complicated / big purchase decisions on a daily basis, and turn to the Internet community (supported wholly by social media platforms) as a resource for help with these decisions (cars, houses, insurance, electronics, medical care, etc.). There are extremely robust online conversations about pretty much any company, brand, product, service, etc. available to consumers in the Chinese market. This is not necessarily unique to China, but the extent of it as common practice to the average consumer is much more amplified here than in other markets.
JZ: There is significant interaction between China and the world in the space of social media. Edelman Digital sponsored a big event last year bringing prominent players to China. What do you hope to achieve through such activities besides getting to know what each other is doing?
AjS: Hmm, I’m not sure I agree with you that there is, or ever really will be, significant interaction between China and the rest of the world via social media. The language barrier is still, well, a huge barrier. Don’t get my wrong, it exists and is a great thing, but it’s limited to only a handful of excellent Chinese “bridge bloggers” that publish in English / translate to Chinese, and their scarce foreign counterparts; with the former far outweighing the latter. I recently did a post on Chinese bridge bloggers on 56minus1. (LINK) At any rate, this deficiency in cross border social media interaction was a key inspiration behind the China 2.0 Tour. To help address the imbalance, Edelman Digital, together with The China Business Network, CNReviews, and Web2Asia brought over (to China) a bunch of influential international bloggers to meet with a bunch of influential Chinese bloggers; then got both groups to meet with local Chinese tech / Web business people and blog the hell out it every step of the way – and that’s exactly what happened. It was a huge success. Over the weeklong period of the China 2.0 Tour there was more intelligent content created and published online in English about the Chinese digital space (and other cross-cultural topics) than for as long as I have been involved with the Internet in China. Further, many of the relationships and conversations established on the tour are still active online today. It was a good start.
I’m also involved in a similarly-aimed project now that will hopefully be the beginning of a long-term event platform that advances international awareness of the great things happening in China, and the people who are making those things happen: TEDxShanghai. More on that soon, we are pulling together the inaugural event right now, Stay tuned.
AjS: Jenny, may I ask you a question before finishing up? What’s with the Barbie X Tim Burton WordPress theme on your blog? It’s a bit split personality and confusing, no? (For the record, I quite like it.)
JZ: Doesn’t it represent the inner contradiction and quirkiness of young Chinese?
More on Adam Schokora: Besides his work at Edelman and Neocha, Adam is also the author of 56minus1.com, a popular blog covering topics including the Chinese Internet, digital / social media, creative / youth / Web culture, trend-spotting and cool-hunting, fashion, design, photography, urban art, and innovation. Adam is also a regular contributor to Danwei.org, a leading website / blog on Chinese media, marketing, advertising, and urban life.
Although originally from Detroit, Adam has been traveling the world since he was a teenager. He’s been in China since 1999, and is now based full-time in Shanghai.
For more on Adam, please Google him, or follow him on Twitter at @ajschokora.