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A cartoon for China's new generation

Bad Girl aims to catch a popular culture wave in the country's youth market, competing with manga from Japan.

March 18, 2007|Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Little P is a red-haired joker with a robot dog and a mind bursting with rebellion. She has a closet filled with tight, midriff-baring clothes. Her biggest worry is getting fat.

Meet Bad Girl, a cartoon aimed at a generation of young Chinese raised on a diet of imported video games, Kentucky Fried Chicken and communist rhetoric.

When Song Yang published his Bad Girl comic book last year, his friends asked whether the character was him in disguise. "I guess I am a lot like her," said the elfin 25-year-old, dressed in a pair of tight black jeans and a T-shirt. Asked what that meant, he tilted his head and smiled. "I'm naughty."

Song, a bad boy with a pen and paper, has the oversized ambition of creating a cartoon character that can help redefine the world's image of modern China and boost a domestic industry overshadowed by manga from Japan and manhwa from South Korea. China, with its 1.3 billion people, boasts one of the world's biggest cartoon markets, but the vast majority are imports.

But Song is trying to catch a popular culture wave in a country where the tide shifts quickly, the competition for the youth market is fierce and the generation gap is measured in years rather than decades.

"Chinese kids, especially in the cities, have a cocky, smart, urban edge to them," said Stacey Duff, the arts editor for Time Out Beijing, an English-language magazine to which Song is a regular contributor. "If they see something that doesn't match their lives, they're going to lose interest fast."

Children of change

At first glance, Beijing's twentysomethings could be easily transplanted to an American college campus or skate park. Walk the streets in northwest Beijing, the city's university district, and you will see young women window-shopping in tight jeans and knee-high boots and guys with spiky, dyed hair bopping to their iPods.

Their parents lived through Mao Tse-tung's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when China's brightest youths were banished to the countryside to be reeducated. But this generation was born after Chinese leaders opened the country, spurring a flood of imported goods and ideas and double-digit economic growth. They are mostly single children, thanks to the government's one-child policy, and they enjoy the attention and resources of two extended families.

Newsstands are filled with glossy magazines promoting the hottest Taiwanese pop stars and latest weight reduction miracle. That this giant nation could veer from Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward collectivization campaign, when millions died of starvation, to a nation of calorie-obsessed youths in just a few decades is testament to China's dramatic economic transformation.

On weekends, the upscale shopping malls are crowded with young couples who plunk down $3 for a Starbucks latte and $9 for a ticket to see "Casino Royale," the first James Bond movie to be approved by the government for the big screen. (Pirated versions of all the Bond movies can be bought on the streets for a couple of dollars.)

But China's youths also face stressful competition for good schools, jobs and even relationships, because the one-child policy and the cultural affinity for boys has led to a worrisome gender imbalance. And the contradictions between the government's communist ideals and the get-rich-quick economy have exacerbated the cynicism that permeates youth culture in most countries.

Little P isn't exactly a paragon of modern Chinese virtue. She talks back to her parents, makes fun of ancestor worship and secretly smokes cigarettes. Her dysfunctional family is more like the Simpsons than the Cleavers.

But look more closely, Song said, and Bad Girl offers a positive message.

"A lot of [Chinese] young people, they appear to be very bad on the surface," he said. "They might appear to be lazy, they may cheat people often, they're crazy about money. But when they come across serious things, the kindness in their heart will be expressed."

Song finds his inspirations nearby, in places such as Hou Hai Lake, where he hangs out with his friends in the old stone buildings that have been refashioned into trendy cafes and nightclubs.

"I don't have a very rich life because of my young age," he said. "I'm not in a position to advocate love and peace and such big ideas. What I can do is try to understand the life around me."

Song is riding high: Bad Girl is featured in an advertisement for Hugo Boss' Man fragrance; he has a gallery show in Beijing's trendy Dashanzi art district; and he is working on a "cartoon-based record" for a foreign music company, featuring original songs sung by him and a voice created for Bad Girl's character. The record is due out this year.

Artists' new freedoms

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