Chinese Youth Culture
- Today's young people in China are experiencing a new revolution filled with western-influenced music, art, and action sports like skateboarding. Eli Kislevitz of SOURCE is working in China to help them develop their own styles in order to receive recognition, support and promotion from mainstream Chinese culture.
Eli Kislevitz is Brand Manager for SOURCE – a sports retailer selling skate, surf and snow boards in Chinese cities. He also works with Camp Woodward, the premier action sports camp in USA, on an advisory basis related to their business in China. He is from New Jersey, currently lives in Beijing, and has travelled extensively around China’s small and unglamorous cities with his band “Instant Noodles.”
We asked him about the youth culture in urban China, the pressures of the up-or-out educational system, and what’s a stake when a Chinese kid gets serious about music or some alternative sport.
I think Chinese cities are really taking on their own feeling. Their own culture. Nothing they didn’t have in the past, but if you went to China ten years ago, a lot of cities in the north or the west, they were all bathroom-tiled buildings. And all the cities felt the same and they had the same smog and feeling and whatnot. Nowadays, I mean, when you go to Shanghai you know you’re in Shanghai. You go to Beijing you know you’re in Beijing. Sichuan, you know, Chengdu, Chongqing – all these different cities – they have their own feel nowadays. So because of these different feels and different cultures, kids are also having different environments to grow up in and make selections for what they want to do. So you see in some cities that have more of an international influence, you’re seeing things like music, and art, and action sports. And these things really take on their own environment, their own feel to where they are. Hip hop – I mean, a kid who does free-style rap in Shanghai and Beijing have two totally different styles but it’s still Chinese rap.
There still is that academic pressure everywhere from middle school to high school. You know, taking your tests so you can get into college. That pressure’s always there. But what I have seen and I have found is that the youth have started getting involved in music, getting involved in sports. By sports I mean action sports. They don’t really put that much time and/or effort into their studies. Where here [in the US] you can still be in a band and go to school. You can still – I mean, I went to college and I worked at Sugarbush Mountain [ski resort in Vermont]. You know, it was something I did because I loved to. It’s a little bit different [in China]. It really is go left or right.
Music in particular is very tough. I think that a lot of it has to do with media and the mainstream. There really isn’t a lot of mainstream right now that supports the good music in China. It’s all pop crap. But you go to some of these smaller venues in Beijing, in Yunnan, in Wuhan, and it’s really good music. It’s really good music. And they’re not talking about my love for you is so long, and my heart is so soft, and your heart is like the moon. It’s about hardship, it’s about their life. And the music they put it to, and the rhythm. You hear it and it’s good! But they’re not getting promoted, they’re not getting money, they’re not getting an opportunity. So a lot of these guys, who I’ve known for like ten years, they’re doing okay, but I mean, they need more support. They need people from the west to come who are open in these companies to come in and say we need to support the foundation. Once the foundation’s set, you know in ten years’ time we can make something happen. But if the support isn’t there, nothing’s going on.
China is a group culture, a place where identity is strongly grounded in belonging to a larger group. So we asked Eli about individualism – whether individual expression in forms such as music or action sports is a generational marker.
Youth culture and mainstream I think is like this, and I can break it down. It might sound at first like it’s a little stereotypical – not stereotypical or racist, but one thing that always bothered me is when I was speaking to somebody in China about a topic – maybe not necessarily about a touchy topic but a topic – that person would always say “well, we Chinese whatever whatever whatever.” For me these past two years have been really liberating. It makes me really happy. The kids that I deal with are about 20 to about 26. When I ask their opinion on these same topics I’ve asked these other people about, they don’t say “women zhong guo ren
” they say “wo
.” Me. I. I feel this way about it. As soon as I hear it, it's just - and it doesn't matter what it's like. It’s like oh my god you have an opinion for yourself! This is so cool. Like, we’re making waves here. And if that’s happening at twenty, over the next 5, 6, 7, 10 years more and more stuff is going to happen that is truly new to China – a cultural explosion. Kids who take on their own thing and make it their own thing: skateboarding, for example. Now they’re having their own Chinese names for Chinese tricks. Same with snowboarding. They’re creating their own thing with the tool that they have. So I guess right now, people like myself that I work with who are both foreign and also some local Chinese guys who get it, what we’re trying to do is use the tools we have available to us, whether their from brands in the US, money we can get from whoever it may be, and make these tool available to the right people in China. And then help them, support them, use these tools to create something we can’t create; they have to create it because it’s in their guidelines. If they do it, it’ll rock. If we do it, we’re just doing our own little bubble thing in another country.
One of the classic examples of a western brand gaining traction in China is Nike. Their success came after a decade of grassroots investing– the example of actually building basketball courts at Chinese schools, and running programs to interest Chinese kids in playing basketball, in hip-hop. We asked Eli to talk about the role western brands and western-managed companies like SOURCE play in the development of skate, surf and snow culture.
For example, if you go to a company like in Beijing, in the Sanlitun Village. Sanlitun Village called me up and said we want to do a skate-in, or a skate event. In the past three or four years, the company that I work with and a few other companies have been sponsoring Chinese youth skaters. We’ve been giving them products, giving them money, building them ramps. And their level has been just screamed, been cranked. In the past two years, they’re getting really good. The Village calls us up to do a skate event. Okay, here’s what we can do for you, we’ll get the event going – oh by the way, we want foreign skaters. And I hear that and I’m like come on, why do you want foreign skaters? We’re doing so much to try to get this thing to happen, why are you going to go – and plus they’re Chinese! Have a little faith in your own people. So it’s a little frustrating, and all we’re going to do is just keep pushing. Try to get the kids to push their level, give them what we can.
Western brands – and to a large extent American brands such a Coca-Cola, Nike, KFC, the NBA and Starbucks – have created new categories of consumption, and have played a part in defining China’s urban landscapes, behavior and attitudes. How did it happen? And what is going to happen now, with China’s own brands taking that market back?
I don’t disagree. I agree. I think there’s also a timing issue, and timing is a huge factor especially right now. And the timing – even say McDonald’s, or Starbucks, or KFC, and Nike, and Coca-Cola – when they went in, I think, the culture was permeable. So, and also they have the budgets to do it, they could go in there and eat ten years of not making money and still make it happen. They were also able to go in there and do things that on our level is just not even possible. But that being said, if they were to try to – if you look at the drinks right now, Coca-Cola’s still huge, Pepsi, but now Wang Lao Ji, the tea drink, their market share is growing. It’s a local Chinese herbal tea. It’s growing every year, it’s getting huge. Li Ning – smaller Chinese brands are getting bigger and bigger. And I do think they will, in the domestic market, they may not take over, but they’ll rival. They just need to get their own R&D going, their own skill going, their own teams going. Basketball – as soon as Yao Ming was in there, basketball is huge. Three weeks ago one of the China national snowboarders won the New Zealand Open. A girl who is 18-19 years old. I guarantee you that in the next three years there’s going to be way more promotion and money going into that. Skateboarding – a kid named Lee, typical name, was brought on the by Chinese sports authority and also Woodward. He is now one of the Woodward riders, and he is going to be in Salt Lake City next week [Sept. 28 – Oct. 2 2009] taking place in the Dew Tour, getting some money. When he goes back it’s going to be like, boom – a Chinese rider who’s known internationally. It’s just going to help it grow. So timing. Timing.