Friday, August 22, 2008

IHT: Film - Andrew Ooi

Photo Courtesy of Andrew Ooi

International Herald Tribune

Andrew Ooi's talent for placement
Thursday, August 21, 2008

HONG KONG: Very late one recent evening at a fashionable Hong Kong bar, Andrew Ooi excused himself from a group of local film executives to find a quiet corner and take a phone call. And then another. Returning to his sympathetic friends some 20 minutes later, he sheepishly apologized, mumbling about how people were just starting work in Los Angeles and how a deal was about to be closed.

In several time zones these days, the Singapore-born talent manager is quite the man of the hour, with a lot of people in The Industry wanting to speak to him. If you have recently noticed an Asian actor playing a meaty supporting role in a big Hollywood film, chances are that he or she is represented by Ooi through his Vancouver company, Echelon Talent Management. His best clients not only get good work, but do so regularly, an unusual situation for Asian actors in the United States.

Meeting a few days later at a hotel lobby, Ooi, who is in his mid-thirties, fiddled with his ubiquitous cellphone between sips of hot mint tea. During the interview he took only two calls, one about a client and another from his sister who lives in Hong Kong and was due to give birth. ("It's a nephew!," he later e-mailed.)

Ooi has a gentle, boy-next-door demeanor, and his Singapore staccato picked up when he talked about the success of "The Dark Knight," Warner Brother's latest Batman summer blockbuster. To date it has grossed an astonishing $470 million in the United States. One of Ooi's clients, Chin Han, plays the mob accountant, a pivotal supporting character. "We worked very hard to get him that role," the manager said, evidently pleased.

With Dark Knight's success, the Singaporean actor won a lead part in "2012." A doomsday thriller backed by Sony Pictures, it is directed by Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day") and touted as a major movie for summer 2009. Echelon has four actors in that project. In "Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-li," a big action film based on the hit video game and due in cinemas next year, three plum roles went to Ooi's actors, including the Hong Kong indie film star Josie Ho Chiu-yi. Valerie Tian was in last year's quirky drama "Juno."

Today John Woo, Chow Yun-fat and Tsui Hark are back in China making movies. But more than a decade ago, many articles about a so-called "Hong Kong Invasion" were inspired by Asians getting top-billing in Hollywood fare. "That's when I first came on the scene, so full of idealism," Ooi chuckled.

And now? He's become pragmatic. "It is still a lot easier for an Asian actress to break into Hollywood" than it is for an Asian actor, he said. "As much as Hollywood is global, they have to sell tickets and in the U.S., which is their big market, it is about middle America. They need an actor who can help open at theaters and sell DVDs; an Asian actress can get a good support role or be the love interest."

One of Echelon's top talents is Maggie Q, the Hong Kong model-actress. She starred with Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible 3" (2006), with Bruce Willis in "Live Free or Die Hard" (2007) as well as with the Chinese superstar Andy Lau Tak-wah in this year's "Three Kingdoms." Last week, the video gaming behemoth Electronic Arts announced that she would feature as a lead character in "Need for Speed: Undercover," due at the end of the year.

The actress, who is currently shooting "Rogue's Gallery" with Ving Rhames and Ellen Barkin, replied to questions by e-mail, saying: "Your manager is your ring leader, one who brings everyone together on the same page, and pushes what's necessary to the forefront. For me, I need eyes on the East and the West. So for that reason alone, my manager has an incredibly complex and big job."

Up against the big agencies like William Morris and CAA, Echelon - which has only five employees, including Ooi - has held its own specializing in Asian talents with Ooi's own brand of personal attention, wise counsel and multicultural sensitivity. According to Raymond Pathanavirangoon, the Southeast Asia and Hong Kong programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, Ooi is "not very Hollywood. He doesn't just think about how much he can get but he thinks of the long-term."

A 1994 graduate of the University of British Columbia's chemistry department, Ooi originally planned to become a doctor. Doing volunteer work in a geriatrics ward, however, he took deaths very hard, making him realize he wasn't cut out for medicine.

He comes from a family of bankers, and his conservative parents in Singapore were horrified when, on top of ditching medical school, he sold his car to take over a friend's small company that supplied Asian extras for television shows and films in Canada. By the third year he closed that division to concentrate on actors, and has never looked back. As the management company, Echelon takes a standard 15 percent commission. Ooi won't reveal what his clients command now, and will only say, "they are holding their rates and they are comfortable."

Ooi spends most of his time in North America, visiting Asia every month. "We are very busy," he said. "Now, more films are looking for Asian casts" as big-budget productions covet revenues from overseas, which can sometimes account for two-thirds of total sales. "They want to appeal to the Asian market, so they cast Asians," he said.

The trend has caught the eye of other Hollywood veterans. The actress Michelle Yeoh just launched an agency to promote Asian actors in international films.

There is certainly no shortage of wannabe Maggie Qs and others who track down Ooi, seeking Hollywood fame. "Maybe one, two dozen a day? I get approached all the time," he said. For those who he feels have strong potential, he tells them what to work on, including improving their American accents. He also needs clients to know how to audition, a standard requirement in Hollywood but not in Asia, even for minor actors.

"It has to be a partnership and talents have to want to work hard," he said. After more than a decade of networking, studios often approach Echelon when they are casting Asians. Ooi usually knows what directors are looking for, and only sends a client who might be suitable.

Speaking of the Echelon office in Vancouver, Ooi seems rather proud that it does not have a sign. "People know where to find us," he said with a smile.

International Herald Tribune Copyright © 2008 The International Herald Tribune |

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Newsweek: Jesuits and Social Justice


The Classroom Reality

The Jesuits are educating the rich about the poor in their expanding network of private schools.

Alexandra A. Seno
Updated: 2:53 PM ET Aug 9, 2008

Over the past four centuries, the Jesuits have built a formidable global education enterprise. The storied, 19,000-plus-strong Society of Jesus, as the organization is formally known, is today the world's biggest Roman Catholic male religious order. It is also one of the world's largest private-school operators, with 2.9 million students, mostly in developing countries. Indeed, in January, at one of the first masses following his election, the Jesuit leader, Father Adolfo Nicolás, a Spanish priest who has spent most of his life in Asia, underscored the group's main focus on helping "the poor, the marginalized and the excluded." Though he didn't say it then, to achieve that goal, the Jesuits are accelerating the effort to educate the rich in developing countries about their poor.

The Society, which runs U.S. universities like Georgetown and Boston College, is most famous for educating key historical figures in power capitals—including Hapsburg emperors, French literary giants Molière and Voltaire, and the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. But with a new superior general in Nicolás, who has made migrant workers and globalization's "new poor" a career focus, the Jesuits' work in emerging markets has taken on a fresh urgency. One of the order's most important education missions is the cultivation of empathy among the haves in poor countries for the have-nots.

In addition to establishing schools for underprivileged children, the Society also runs top private schools, attended by the children of some of the world's most influential leaders. Through these institutions the Jesuits aim to uphold academic standards while actively preparing graduates to be agents of social change. Father Bienvenido Nebres, a member of the board of trustees at Georgetown and the president of the elite Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, believes that quality education in a population with a wide income gap presents a unique set of challenges. "The poor are not an isolated group," he says. "In the U.S. you have poor sections in a city but the rest is pretty OK. In the developing world, it is the other way around because the majority is poor. Thinking of helping the poor in terms of soup kitchens or tutoring cannot be enough. You have to change the status quo."

The lingo may seem familiar. Three decades ago in Latin America, many Jesuit schools became contentious hotbeds of liberation theology, the Marxist-inspired thought advocating political and economic reforms. For the most part, the Society appears to have moved on. "Over time, we realized that liberation theology has its limits because it did not believe in markets," says Nebres, who earned a Ph.D. in math from Stanford in 1970. "We don't need to be taking down those at the top; what we need to do is be a bridge."

At Ateneo, this has translated into a greater emphasis on academic requirements geared toward social entrepreneurship, like helping poor urban groups start small businesses, and experiencing poverty more directly. For example, in order to graduate, students must serve up to four hours a week in menial jobs like bagging groceries or toiling alongside fisher folk. For those coming from privileged backgrounds, such experiences are completely new and eye-opening.

Developing empathy for one's poor compatriots is a concept the Jesuits have rolled out in their schools in Africa and Latin America as well as Asia. "We are a very centralized order," says Nebres. It has also become a very international one. Founded in Paris in 1534 by the Spanish former soldier Ignatius of Loyola, only about 10 percent of Jesuits reside in Western Europe. About 15 percent live in the United States, with the biggest proportion—20 percent—operating in South Asia.

In Indonesia, the Society runs 81-year-old Canisius College, one of Jakarta's top high schools. Its alumni include several major business tycoons and top politicians. Part of the current curriculum requires students to live with poor families for a week, says Father Joannes Heruhendarto, the country's Jesuit education coordinator. "For the sake of study, it is quite effective," he says. "The papers they have to write show that they learn compassion for the poor." Whether these programs will actually bring about positive social change remains to be seen. As Heruhendarto puts it, "We will see with the kind of graduates we produce." For better or worse, there's no denying that living Jesuit-school alumni already include many determined to change the world. Among them: India-born Hotmail creator Sabeer Bhatia, Raúl and Fidel Castro, French anti-globalization sheep farmer José Bové, and three former Iraqi candidates for prime minister.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

NYT: Joanne Ooi Flat

The New York Times

July 23, 2008

In a Hong Kong Flat, Customized Design and Storage


Just minutes from the bustle of Hong Kong’s central business district, in a quiet hillside neighborhood of residential towers, Joanne Ooi is enjoying the first residence she has ever owned.

Ms. Ooi, who grew up in Cincinnati, moved to Hong Kong in 1994, fresh out of the University of Pennsylvania law school. What was meant to be a short-term stint in Asia turned into a career: Since 2001 she has been creative director of Shanghai Tang, a Hong Kong-based retail chain, and in May she opened OoiBotos, Hong Kong’s first art gallery featuring contemporary Chinese photography.

Two years ago, acknowledging that Hong Kong had become more than just a stop on her regular business travels, Ms. Ooi bought a 1,400-square-foot apartment, paying six million Hong Kong dollars, or about $772,000 at the time. Recently, similar units in the 37-year-old building have been priced at 10.5 million Hong Kong dollars ($1.35 million).

Ms. Ooi spent more than $100,000 renovating the two-bedroom two-bath apartment. A self-described “detail freak,” she designed the interiors with the help of Johnny Wong, an architect at FAK3 (pronounced fake), the Hong Kong architectural firm. The living room is dominated by a custom-built unit of dark wood and industrial steel that rotates 360 degrees. Depending on how it is positioned and which panels are opened, the piece can serve as a desk, entertainment center or storage. “Because of this insane, rotating thing,” Ms. Ooi said, “and since I had everything custom made, renovations alone took six months.” It was early 2007 by the time she and her son, Sam, now 9, finally moved in.

Among the items that were made to her specifications are the dining room table, which has a black and white marble top to evoke yin and yang, and a colorful tiered lamp that hangs over the table. In the green marble guest bathroom is a shower curtain inspired by a Song dynasty painting.

One advantage of her built-in cabinets, Ms. Ooi said, is the abundance of storage space. “I have a lot of stuff,” she said, referring not only to her art and clothing, but also to objects from her job and the remaining inventory from a boutique she operated before joining Shanghai Tang.

Aside from sturdy shelves and cabinets, her architect installed many hidden cupboards. Out-of-season clothing and other items can be found behind the living room sofa; cabinets are hidden under the dining room banquettes and there is storage behind the headboard in the master bedroom.

It is easy to see a small boy lives here. A small balcony provides parking for his bike, while the rotating cabinet in the living room stores stacks of DVDs of animated films and his an electronic keyboard. His bedroom was designed with a loft sleeping area, leaving the floor free for play and drawing.

The apartment also reflects Ms. Ooi’s passion for art. Because Hong Kong’s subtropical climate can be hard on artwork, Ms. Ooi relies on air conditioning and dehumidifiers — and quality framing, she said — to maintain her collection.

She has a few small works by the late T’ang Heywen, a master of Chinese ink painting, but contemporary photography fascinates her right now. Ms. Ooi owns several prints by the French photographer Bettina Rheims, but the apartment’s prime wall space is taken up with works by Liu Ren, Chen Zhuo and Huang Keyi, three Chinese photographers represented by her gallery. Ms. Ooi runs the business side of the gallery; her partner, Lisa Botos, a former picture editor at Time magazine, handles its artistic direction. “I have worked a lot in the world of the image,” Ms. Ooi said, “and I think photography is in ascendancy as a form of human expression.”

Monday, July 28, 2008

Questions, Questions -- Last Carina-Tony Wedding Post of the Year

Courtesy: Jet Tone Films

And I really mean The Last. (Because we should move on with life, this is starting to feel like a Cher farewell concert tour, plus I'm working on other things now.)

But just figured out this comments thing, so just posted the comments and saw the links including Glenn's blog and the Singapore's Straits Times newspaper article on make-up by Zing.

Because I am often a font of trivia and in the interest of keeping the facts straight, had some handy answers from Jet Tone in my notebook for Grady who asked many good questions:

1. 140 guests included members of Bhutan's royal family who didn't need lodging, believe there were only 70 to 90 out-of-town guests

2. There are other hotels in Paro, so guests were spread out among at least three places: Uma Paro (where the couple and their families stayed), Amankora Paro and Zhiwa Ling

3. All floral arrangements by Thailand's most famous florist Sakul Intakul He is well-known for his unique creations that dominate the lobbies of at least two top hotels in Bangkok as well for as his work at the Royal Palace. William Chang Suk-ping himself did final touches as overall art director

4. Bhutanese traditional outfits were borrowed from Dasho Tobgyal Dorji, cousin of the king who just abdicated and uncle of the new king. Tony's outfit was worn by Dasho at his own wedding day

And an answer to a question unasked:

How many of the very hard-working and tenacious Hong Kong entertainment press were there in Paro? Tight security kept them at the bottom of the hill. During the reception, Carina sent down wedding cake and champagne for them. The count was 28 members of the media, which is a very impressive number considering how difficult and expensive it is to get to Bhutan and that they all managed to get there two/three days after learning where the marriage would be held.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sorry, Tom, but There was This Wedding in Bhutan...

Apologies to star blogger/media person/personality Tom Crampton for displacing his video about printing presses and press freedom from the top of the the Far Eastern Economic Review ( ) page.

But we still love your new hair, Tom, and we had the goods on the Carina-Tony wedding soundtrack (Abba!) courtesy of Wong Kar Wai.

Here is what Colum wrote on the FEER blog:

Wong Kar-Wai’s ‘Bhutan Express’
July 21st, 2008 by admin

Hong Kong actors Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Carina Lau Kar-Ling finally tied the knot earlier today in Bhutan, in a ceremony “directed” by none other than iconic Hong Kong filmmaker, Wong Kar-Wai. The photo below, taken last Friday at the Ugyen Pelri Palace, shows the couple in traditional Bhutanese attire. But as Alexandra Seno explains below, today’s nuptials had all the typical trappings of a WKW movie—right down to the sound track.

Alex Seno told TT:

Music has always been a crucial ingredient to the magic of Cannes-winning Hong Kong art house film director Wong Kar Wai’s celluloid love stories. Think: Astor Piazolla’s cello tango rhythms from “In the Mood for Love,” “California Dreaming” in “Chungking Express.”

At the relatively intimate wedding today at the Uma Paro in Bhutan, the admirably tenacious Hong Kong paparazzi outside may be doing all they can to get pictures of the ceremony and parties (ivory Vera Wang wedding gown chosen by William Chang Suk-Ping), but we can give you more: the sounds of the celebration.

Since signing up as unpaid (and outrageously over qualified) “wedding planner” for the nuptials of Carina and Tony, Wong has been consumed with selecting just the right tunes to set just the right mood. Wong and his regular crew are essentially planning and executing this wedding—running it like one of his movie sets with his usual film cabal.

When it rained during an open-air wedding portrait shoot last Saturday, Wong ordered his regular producer to scout for another “set” immediately. A good thing that the crew were used to the director’s improvisationational working style.

For all the die-hard Wong (or Lau and Leung) fans, here are the songs and artists that the filmmaker and his crew have lined for the wedding:

Can’t Take My Eyes Off You
Mendelssohn’s wedding march
Happy Together
Even If
Songs by Sergio Mendez
Songs by Abba
Songs by the Bee Gees
Songs by Stan Getz
Live performances by Faye Wong and Tony Leung

The wedding started today with a traditional tea ceremony for Lau, Leung and their mothers at 10 a.m., followed by the Buddhist blessing with members of the Bhutanese royal family in attendance at 11. Guests then had lunch of Italian food. Tonight’s festivities include a black-tie buffet barbecue dinner.

A DJ from Hong Kong has been brought in for this evening’s dancing as well as a five-piece band directed by Roel Garcia, who did the music for such Wong classics as “Ashes of Time Redux” and “Chungking Express.”

Monday, July 21, 2008

In the Mood for Bhutan

Photo: Courtesy of Jet Tone Films


This is for everyone who called/e-mailed/instant messaged today asking for more information about Carina and Tony’s wedding.

Very glad that the IHT found space to run the story in today’s paper, but to satisfy all the inquiring minds out there, here is a slightly expanded version of the IHT story with quotes from Carina and Chang Chen as well as assorted trivia about the wedding.

I'll try to reply to questions and comments when I can. Meanwhile, enjoy…


In the Mood for Bhutan
By Alexandra A. Seno

The bride, just like so many women about to be married, hoped for what she called “a quiet, solemn and romantic wedding.” Except she is the A-list Hong Kong actress Carina Lau Kar-ling and the groom is Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Chinese cinema’s biggest dramatic star. They say their vows today, Monday, July 21, at the Uma Paro hotel in Bhutan after a relationship that stood up to decades of popular scrutiny and almost 20 years as a couple.

While Lau will probably still be able to remember her wedding day as the stuff of dreams, the Chinese media frenzy around it has been anything but quiet or solemn. Since the incomparably tenacious Chinese entertainment press discovered the once-secret wedding locale on Monday, July 14, in typical fashion, the industry deployed considerable human and financial resources to cover the Chinese entertainment world’s marriage of the century.

Dozens of reporters and photographers, and hundreds of thousands of dollars have relentlessly pursued the wedding party and their guests through three cities including Paro, in the remote Himalayan hills where the Buddhist ceremony will be held.

The booming Chinese entertainment media sector has proven not only profitable but also more competitive than ever. The five top-selling magazines in Hong Kong focus on pop culture and like the rest of the industry, sell 95% of their copies on newsstands. Snapshots of Lau, 42, and Leung, 46, as well as facts and fiction about their upcoming marriage have dominated front pages in the last week. The pair famously worked on classic Wong Kar Wai films like 1990’s “Days of Being Wild,” and this year’s “Ashes of Time Redux.”

Before her wedding day, in an e-mail exchange, Lau who was in Paro said: “I felt a little uncomfortable with all the attention. My intention all along is to keep the wedding low profile and share this special moment with Tony, our family and friends. I was hoping to share this news and joy with everyone after we come back. Of course, I realize we are both public figures and cannot hide. I want to thank the media friends for working very hard in the past few days and for the good wishes.”

The diplomatic language aside, in keeping with Lau’s desire for a private moment, the press has not been invited to the wedding, even as throngs continue to stake the couple and their friends. The bride, who won a prestigious Golden Rooster acting prize last year for “Curiousity Killed the Cat,” denied that landlocked Bhutan, which only allowed television in 1999 and continues to impose a complicated visitor visa process, was chosen mainly for its isolation.

The date was set at the end of last year, when they decided to wed. Lau originally considered France, Italy and Japan until a friend suggested Bhutan, which she visited for four days last month and loved. “I long to live the simple and peaceful life of the Bhutanese people. The place is so peaceful and quiet,” she said.

Paro remains relatively peaceful despite the media onslaught and the lengths the reporters have gone to get their story. By Wednesday, July 16, they found out the wedding party’s travel details. Leung’s management company believes at least six were on the flight from Hong Kong and one photographer attempted to take a picture of the couple, curtailed by airline staff. At least 20 trailed the group in Bangkok where they had dinner before flying to the Himalayan kingdom.

One reporter is believed to have obtained the difficult-to-get and expensive Bhutan visa by applying in Russia. At the end of last week, several Hong Kong reporters were in Paro and many have spent a lot of time mainly lurking on roadsides hoping to snap images. On Friday, hotel security removed at least eight Hong Kong journalists who entered the premises of the luxury, Singaporean-owned Uma Paro. Some of the bridal party are billeted and the main wedding events will be held at the 20-room, 9-villa hilltop resort.

“Chinese entertainment media are very, very aggressive and are willing to dole out money to get the job done,” says Yuen-ying Chan, director of the University of Hong Kong Journalism and Media Studies Centre. While she doesn’t encourage her graduates to build careers in the genre, she acknowledges the publications are “hugely successful.” Facts are often not the main elements for these stories, as the Lau-Leung wedding is proving, just the photograph. Chan says: “If they don’t have the facts, they use their imagination. It is entertainment and readers are nosy by nature.”

(The groom’s management company declares several tidbits in the tabloids and on the Internet to be fictional. Among them that the India-based Karmapa Lama will officiating at the ceremony, that two private jets ferried guests to Bhutan – Leung and Lau went commercial in fact, and that the wedding cost HK$10 million.)

Chan notes that the “Hong Kong style” in pop culture reporting has been a role model for the booming mainland media. She says: “In China, politics is sensitive and the government is more tolerant of soft news.” Local pop culture-oriented publications do “dramatically well” with advertisers, which is why the segment is growing, according to Vivek Couto, head of research at Media Partners Asia, a boutique consultancy.

“Hong Kong doesn't really have much real hard news, so entertainment is very important. The field is very crowded so we have to do what we can.” says Mark Simon, group advertising director for NextMedia, owner of three of the territory’s five top-selling magazines. Partly because of their Taiwan revenues have grown and partly because their publications do well financially, NextMedia, listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, reported that earnings for 2007 were up 32% and profit 52%.

“Competition is fierce. Advertisers love entertainment news. So what if some guy is sleeping with some girl – the beer and cosmetic brands don’t care if you put them beside the story,” says Simon. Unlike in Europe and the US, most Chinese paparazzi work on staff for publications and not motivated by the potential earnings from a single photo. Hong Kong is one of the world’s most crowded media markets where hundreds of publications serve 7 million residents. On the weekend, NextMedia’s publications ran candid shots from Paro.

The wedding of Lau and Leung, star of Ang Lee’s recent, critically acclaimed movie “Lust, Caution,” is irresistable to the Chinese entertainment press, also because of the personalities involved. As a friend of the couple, Hong Kong’s international award-winning art house filmmaker Wong Kar Wai signed up for an unprecedented and unpaid role: wedding planner.

Wong, in an e-mail, said that a bit like his ambiance-drenched films, he planned to work with music to set the mood. The closely guarded wedding program includes a traditional tea ceremony for the bride, groom and their mothers on Monday morning, followed by a Buddhist blessing at 11 am., then an Italian lunch, capped by cocktails and a barbeque buffet in the evening. Sakul Intakul, florist to the Thai queen, designed the décor which incorporates bamboo with blooms flown in from Bangkok.

Depending on the weather, Wong said he intended to use tunes ranging from Mendelssohn to Stan Getz, Chinese pop diva (and wedding guest) Faye Wong, to Sergio Mendes. The director’s frequent collaborator, film editor and creative director William Chang Suk-ping, has been doing visual direction for the event in Bhutan and found Lau’s ivory Vera Wang dress in Hong Kong.

The guest list of 140 includes luminaries like producer Nansun Shi, martial arts star Ti Lung and retired Taiwan actress Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, who have all traveled to Bhutan.

Fresh from a round of golf and being hounded by telephoto-lens toting Chinese paparazzi, Taiwanese actor Chang Chen, a wedding guest, on Saturday in a phone interview, described the mood among the party in Paro to be generally relaxed despite the media hoopla.

Chang, who recently co-starred with Leung in John Woo’s Chinese box office record-making “Red Cliff,” was unsurprised that despite Bhutan’s isolation, so many – invited or not – should want to be part of the couple’s special day. He said: “Their wedding is a very happy occasion. A close friend is getting married and marriage is a very big thing, this is why many people would love to be here.”


Newsweek: China, Portrait of a Country

A Photographic Journey

Chinese officials detain some shipments of a new book containing controversial images.
Alexandra A. Seno
Updated: 11:02 AM ET Jul 19, 2008

In 2001, when the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the right to host this summer's Games, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Liu Heungshing began thinking there was a China story that needed to be told. Picturing the hundreds of thousands of Olympic athletes and tourists who would descend on the Chinese capital, Liu says he wondered: "How many people—including the young generation of Chinese—appreciate the journey that China has traveled since 1949 to arrive at this central position in the world? A lot has been achieved and a big price has been paid."

So he decided to document that journey in "China: Portrait of a Country" (424 pages. Taschen), a landmark compilation of primarily vintage images by 88 of the most important Chinese photographers. Conceptualized and edited by Liu, who was born in Hong Kong, educated on the mainland and America, and now lives in Beijing, "China" will be published on Aug. 1, a few days before the Olympics' opening ceremony. On large-format pages, Liu presents what he calls a "visual history of contemporary China." As a pictorial record, the work is informative, stunning and unusually comprehensive. But it goes well beyond that, providing a thoughtful reflection of the shifting function of the photographic image on the mainland.

Underscoring Liu's training as a photojournalist, formerly with the Associated Press, the book begins with documentary images done in the "straight shooting," pre-Photoshop style. Arranged chronologically, they highlight many pivotal moments for China under the Communist Party. There are definitive pictures of Mao Zedong by his official photographer, Hou Bou, as well as rare images of personalities and events that remain highly controversial—including Mao's political rival Lin Biao, who is usually airbrushed out of "authorized" historical pictures; Mao's wife, Jiang Qing; the Cultural Revolution, and the bloody 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. Because of such images, the book will not be available on the mainland. Though Liu is optimistic that it might someday be sold there, Chinese distributors have told the publisher, Taschen, that it is "not suitable." Small shipments of the work have been impounded by Chinese Customs officials in Bejing.

To be sure, just compiling the pictures proved quite a feat. The Chinese government does not allow full access to its photo archives, and comprehensive private picture agencies don't exist. To get around those problems, Liu traveled around China for four years, meeting with many photographers who gave him access to their personal troves of prints and negatives, often haphazardly stored in shoe boxes. "This book is a tribute to the Chinese photographers," says Liu. "They have self-censorship and state interference all the time, but they recognized the event when it happened, even if the photos would not be published." Up to a third of the book's images have never been seen in print before.

The selection encompasses not just documentary photos but also propaganda shots like scenes of Mao amid bountiful harvests, which underscore how the Communist Party manipulated the genre to further its cause. As the photos become more contemporary, they grow increasingly artistic, reflecting how globalization and China's booming economy have opened up the country creatively as well. In one black-and-white image by the well-known photographer Rong Rong and his Japanese-born wife, inri, Rong Rong stands at the beginning of the Great Wall in Gansu, with the Yellow River behind him. Liu found that picture compellingly representative. "It is the whole conjecture of the Han race in that kind of self-expression," he says. It crystallizes the journey that the photographic image has made along with the country: from visual record of the past, to the service of the Party, to creative commentary about the future.


IHT: Tony, Carina and Hong Kong Popular Media

International Herald Tribune
Actors' wedding leads to Hong Kong media frenzy
By Alexandra A. Seno
Sunday, July 20, 2008

HONG KONG: The bride said she hoped for a quiet wedding, but the Chinese entertainment news media had other ideas for an A-list Hong Kong actress, Carina Lau Kar-ling.

Her wedding, to be held on Monday in Bhutan to Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Chinese cinema's biggest dramatic star and winner of the 2000 Cannes award for best actor, has generated a frenzy among a news industry that spares little expense and goes to great lengths to chase big celebrity stories.

Since the Chinese entertainment news media discovered the wedding locale, the industry has deployed, in typical fashion, considerable human and financial resources to cover the marriage.

Dozens of reporters and photographers, and hundreds of thousands of dollars have relentlessly pursued the wedding party and their guests through three cities, including Paro, in the remote hills where the Buddhist ceremony will be held.

The booming Chinese entertainment news sector has proven not only profitable but also more competitive than ever. The five top-selling magazines in Hong Kong focus on pop culture and, like the rest of the industry, sell 95 percent of their copies on newsstands. Snapshots of Lau, 43, and Leung, 46, as well as facts and fiction about their coming marriage have dominated front pages in the last week.

In keeping with Lau's desire for a private moment, news outlets have not been invited to the wedding, even as throngs of reporters continue to stake out the couple and their friends.

Paro remains relatively peaceful despite the news media onslaught and the lengths the reporters have gone to get their story. By last Wednesday, they had discovered the wedding party's travel details. Leung's management company said it believes that at least six journalists were on the flight from Hong Kong to Bhutan, via Bangkok. Airline employees prevented one photographer from taking a picture of the couple. At least 20 journalists trailed the group in Bangkok, where they had dinner before flying to Bhutan.

At the end of last week, several Hong Kong journalists were in Paro and many have spent a lot of time mainly lurking on roadsides hoping to snap images. Leung's management company said that on Friday hotel security had removed at least eight Hong Kong journalists who entered the premises of the Uma Paro, a hilltop resort where some members of the bridal party are staying and where the main wedding events will be held.

"Chinese entertainment media are very, very aggressive and are willing to dole out money to get the job done," said Yuen-ying Chan, director of the University of Hong Kong Journalism and Media Studies Center. While she does not encourage her graduates to build careers in the genre, she acknowledges that the publications are "hugely successful."

Facts are often not the main elements for these stories, as the Lau-Leung wedding is proving.

"If they don't have the facts, they use their imagination," Chan said. "It is entertainment and readers are nosy by nature."

Unlike their counterparts in Europe and the United States, most Chinese paparazzi work as employees for publications and are not motivated by the potential earnings from a single photograph.

Hong Kong pop culture-oriented publications do "dramatically well" with advertisers, which is why the segment is growing, said Vivek Couto, head of research at Media Partners Asia, a boutique consulting company.

Mark Simon, group advertising director for NextMedia, owner of three of the five top-selling magazines in Hong Kong, said: "Hong Kong doesn't really have much real hard news, so entertainment is very important. The field is very crowded so we have to do what we can."

International Herald Tribune Copyright © 2008 The International Herald Tribune |

IHT: Gao Xingjian

International Herald Tribune
Gao Xingjian: Composing a narrative in ink paint
By Alexandra A. Seno
Monday, June 9, 2008

HONG KONG: 'An artist must walk his own path, and if there are rules, they should only be rules that he himself has created," Gao Xingjian writes in the catalogue for the current exhibition of his paintings at the Alisan Fine Arts gallery in Hong Kong.

Gao, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000, has had an artistic journey notable for being multidisciplinary and outstanding in two genres.

Although he is better known around the world as a playwright and novelist, Gao, 68, is celebrated among fine art connoisseurs as one of today's giants in the ink-on-rice-paper medium. Like his writing, his paintings convey poetry, intellect and powerful narrative. At the same time, Gao, who was born in eastern China, is a master of ink technique, and his works exude a creative energy born of Chinese tradition while also being thoroughly universal and contemporary.

In the last five years, Gao's main form of creative expression has been painting, which he does as a physical activity while listening to classical music, mostly Vivaldi, Kodaly and Bach. The mental and emotional anguish of writing has been blamed for his health issues, including heart problems that resulted in two rounds of open-heart surgery.

Alisan, which has represented Gao as a painter since 1996, mounted the Hong Kong show as part of the Le French May cultural festival, which included an academic-oriented Gao Xingjian literary conference organized by the City University of Hong Kong. The art exhibit opened on May 22 and closes Wednesday.

It is Alisan's fifth Gao show, and the opening brought the artist, who lives in Paris, to Hong Kong for the first time since his health problems in 2003. Gao created most of the 25 new paintings this year and last year specifically for this show.

"Gao said that he is continuing to explore the path he has taken," said Alice King, the director of Alisan and one of the world's leading promoters of contemporary Chinese ink painting, "that is, to produce works that are neither figurative nor abstract, paintings that are about emerging shadows from his deepest self and could not be rendered in anything else but in ink.

"He puts the emphasis on the subtle play of light and shadow, flat surfaces exuding a three-dimensional depth," she added. "His surviving his illness has no doubt nourished a deeper sense of self, inspirational to his painting."

The works at Alisan continue in the unique style for which Gao has become known: dramatic pieces, rendered primarily in black Chinese ink, his chosen medium since the early 1980s. Gao had an intense childhood art education in mainland China focused on European-style drawing and oil painting. And now he has become a high priest of ink painting using a Western format. His pictures occupy nearly the full frame of the paper, and, echoing his life as a teller of tales, each painting is a story.

One piece in the show, "Guerre" (War) stands out as a sublime and thrilling testament to Gao's genius as a painter. The bottom third of the painting depicts a slightly rolling, dark landscape with an almost glaring horizon dotted with small, sharp brushstrokes that may be interpreted as either trees or battalions of warriors. Overhead, the sky is gray with a swirl like a cluster of dangerous, brooding storm clouds. The painting, which is 82 centimeters by 93 centimeters, or 32 inches by 36 inches, was executed with the difficult combination of pouring ink wash on the paper and applying more ink with a dry brush.

Another large image, "Monts et cours d'eau" (Mountains and Streams), which measures 104 centimeters by 88 centimeters, portrays mountain ranges in the distance. It is a fine example of Gao's control of ink wash: With only black ink at his disposal, he elicits varying shades and textures that suggest a range of terrain and hues found in nature. "Le Routard" (Backpacker) features one of his signature mysterious silhouette figures traveling into an unspecified distance.

Photographs of Gao's paintings often do not come close to capturing the sophistication and emotion of the originals. Gao has described his ink works as "more than self-expression, self-purification."

His paintings are an integral part of his life as an artist and have always coexisted alongside his writing. By the time he was 10 years old, Gao had published his first novel and completed two years of formal painting lessons. Although he later considered attending art school, he opted instead to study French and started a career as a translator.

When his writing began to be published, his paintings appeared as covers for the original Chinese editions of his books. Later, after fleeing China and beginning a life of exile in Europe in 1987, Gao supported himself by selling his paintings.

In the context of his own life's narrative, Gao's art and his experiences are intertwined. Hard-earned dignity and integrity imbue both his writing and painting. He has suffered much, and publicly, to stay true to his ideals.

During the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s, he was forced like many other intellectuals to destroy his works. In the mid-1980s, he was a rising literary star but ended up wandering along the Yangtze River for almost a year to escape political persecution. During that time, he also believed erroneously that he was dying of cancer. The journey produced "Soul Mountain," the semi-autobiographical novel cited by the Nobel committee in awarding him the literature prize.

After the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, he became persona non grata to the Chinese government for staging a play critical of Beijing. Having lived in France since 1988, he became a French citizen in 1997.

While Gao's paintings are well-respected among connoisseurs of ink painting and the cultural elite, his subdued yet complex style has not gained attention at a time when the fashion in contemporary Chinese art has been defined as bright and flashy oil paintings on canvas.

He is also barely known in his homeland. His writings remain banned in mainland China and have only been openly published and sold in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Despite being the only writer born in China to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, his name is never mentioned in the mainland media and he is never officially acknowledged.

When Gao won the Nobel, the Chinese government congratulated the French government because one of its citizens had been honored with literature's most prestigious award. Today, most Chinese have never heard of him.

In the Alisan show's catalogue, Gao writes, "Even when faced with a market choked with trends and fashions, or an environment saturated with political utilitarianism, if the artist is able to remain unmoved, if he does not compromise, then he will be the type of artist who can create a new aesthetic value, and who will continue to write art history."

Whatever the current winds of whim and politics, Gao's place in China's cultural history appears to be indisputably set.

International Herald Tribune Copyright © 2008 The International Herald Tribune | Chinese Contemporary Art Record