TOKYO — Madonna and Michael Jackson, make way for Dick Lee.
Lee is 36 years old, an ethnic Chinese raised in Singapore who sings in colloquial English and is financed by a Japanese recording company. His music blends pop funk beats with Asian instruments and playful titles like "Mad Chinaman." In lighter moments, he raps in English and sings in Japanese about falling in love with a sukiyaki baby. But his main message is far more meaty:
\o7 This is Asia/This is where we're from;
We'll sing in one voice/And we'll sing one song.
Our separate lands/Are one from now on.
We are Asians/And we'll sing one song.
\f7 The West may not know Lee yet, but growing legions of pop music fans from Tokyo to Taipei, Hong Kong to Singapore, do. Indeed, Lee is the first Asian pop artist to hit the charts all around the Pacific at the same time. And, in appealing for Pan-Asian pop cultural unity, Lee stands as the clearest symbol yet of an intriguing shift afoot in the music halls and fashion boutiques, the bookstores and consumer product marts of the Pacific Rim:
Popular culture in Asia, so long dominated by the West, is looking back East.
"I grew up with 'Leave it to Beaver,' and I can't deny the Western influence on our pop culture, " said Lee, rakishly dressed in magenta suit and polka-dot tie during an interview in Tokyo. "But now we've caught up with the West and it's time for us to create our own Asian style and sound."
The shift may be too small to declare a trend, but it is too large to be ignored. It is hardly about to displace the United States, which still reigns as the chief exporter of music, film and fast food. But after years of cultural domination by Levi's and Coca-Cola, Marlboros and Madonna, Asian youth are beginning to find cultural icons in their own back yards.
Lee of Singapore and Sandy Lam of Hong Kong travel the region and sing of Asian unity. Thailand's first bona fide pop megastar, Thongchai (Bird) McIntyre, got his start with a hit album in 1984, "Made in Thailand," and has since encouraged fans to be proud of their own culture and products.
MTV Asia, broadcast by Star TV of Hong Kong, last year began airing Asian artists and special programs highlighting the best music videos and dance spots in the Pacific Rim. While Cable News Network may still be the international news network of choice, the Japan Broadcasting Co. (NHK), Japan's equivalent of Britain's BBC, has begun satellite broadcasts in the region, scoring hits with news about sports, fashion, music and culture.
Fashion designers Issey Miyake of Japan and Ichinoo of South Korea are joining ranks with two dozen other Asian designers to try to make the twice-yearly Tokyo Collection the Paris of Asia. Japanese department stores are springing up throughout Asia, spreading a distinctive style of retailing and such wares as Japan Creative's designer chopsticks, favored by the smart young set in Taipei and Hong Kong.
Children from Seoul to Singapore are snapping up Japanese comic books and cartoon videos. "Dragon Ball," a Japanese action cartoon, was so popular in Seoul that South Korean authorities finally banned it early this year, afraid it would corrupt young morals. But if comics are out, Japanese videos are in--"City Hunter" and "Seven Dragon Pearl" in Taipei, "Dragon Ball" and "Super Mario" in Seoul.
"My dad brought a video copy of 'Dragon Ball' from his trip to Japan," confided Nam Min Hyok, a fourth-grader at Hakdong primary school in Seoul. "I made a copy for my friend, and he made several copies for his friends. We love to watch it. It's exciting."
Overall, Chinese communities throughout Asia share soap operas, musicians and food, an integration that is intensifying as commerce and communication blossom among China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. But Japan is the pacesetter for a Pan-Asian pop culture, being the only nation with the financial muscle and well-developed media, marketing and merchandising systems necessary to assume that role.
Older Asians may despise Japan for its military aggression of the past, and the former colonies of South Korea and Taiwan still maintain official restrictions on Japanese film and music. But those wartime grudges don't seem to influence Asia's youth.
"From my experience as a promoter, Japan is the leading reflector, if you will, of the latest pop culture," said Daniel Lu, president of Satellite Television Marketing Inc. in Taipei.
In Taiwan, Lu said, fashion designers fly to Tokyo to copy Japanese designs. Young people devour trendy Japanese magazines and comics--so much that "the (local Chinese) media has been calling Taiwan youth culture a 'subculture' of Japan," he said. In Thailand, researchers even have a name for Japan-worshiping youths ages 13 to 20: \o7 Dek Tot.\f7
More than half of Asia's population is under age 24, a situation that may accelerate the acceptance and absorption of Japanese-defined pop culture.