Cultural exchange rate

The fusion of Eastern and Western cultures is taking effect in interesting ways. Peter Hall finds a chance visit to a bar reflects the popularity of these hybrids.

One of the more interesting bars I’ve stumbled upon recently in Manhattan is called Double Happiness, a swinging cavernous tavern in Chinatown. The name, locale and interior (decked with the trimmings of a mah-jong parlour), are all indisputably oriental. But, unlike the Vietnamese karaoke bar around the corner (known simply as “Asian Bar”), Double Happiness pipes in agitating trip-hop drum’n’bass and attracts a fashion-conscious, predominantly guilo clientele. Another occidental element is present in the Italian speakeasy ambience, which oozes out of the brickwork from the building’s former life as a mob hang-out.

This three-way cultural fusion is carefully cultivated by the owner Ian Stell, a Chinese-American sculptor-turned-entrepreneur, who has a reputation for opening the hippest bars in town by pushing the boundaries of the fashion enclaves in Manhattan’s gritty Lower East Side. For the anthropologically minded beer drinker, the distinction between the two bars, Double Happiness and the slicker-looking Asian Bar, with its giant video screen playing French-influenced Vietnamese pop songs, is a wonder to behold. One fuses underground Chinese and European style for non-Asians, and the other fuses American and European style for Asians. Both sell fizzy beer.

A similarly absorbing cultural exchange between East and West is ongoing in contemporary graphic design, particularly in pop culture. Out in Tokyo, for instance, are groups like Tycoon Graphics, a collective of graphic hipsters who dress for publicity shots in American football uniforms and chefs’ hats. The founders, Naoyuki Suzuki and Yuichi Miyashi, are part of that international club-going set that has become adept at fusing Japanese and US pop culture into a kind of pidgin international language of hip.

The name Tycoon is particularly well-chosen, being an English derivation of a Japanese derivation of two Cantonese words, ta (great) and kiun (lord). In a pleasing echo of that linguistic journey, Tycoon takes the Western elements infiltrating Japanese culture, adds an Eastern interpretation and sells it to the Japanese, simultaneously creating stuff which has a cult appeal in the West. Apart from art directing the Japanese version of i-D magazine (which I always thought was much cooler than the English version) for a while, Suzuki and Miyashi fashion their sales slogans, logos and typefaces, using elements of multinational corporate identities, frazzled-looking fashion models and those peculiar English language maxims which adorn toys, bags and stationery of the Hello Kitty ilk (such as Design or Die! or Cash or Charge!).

Tycoon’s Western counterpart is London’s Me Company, which has, for some years, been producing weird Japanenglish hybrids, including the new doe-eyed and improbably-endowed female cartoon mascot to promote the Japanese department store Laforet. Me’s Alistair Beatty describes the cutesy Laforet gal (see ) as a synthesis of the Hentai and Manga anime-style foxy heroine, but with a British twist: “She’s slightly dumpy,” explains Beatty, “with enormous boobs.”

Me Company’s popularity in Japan adds another trade route to East-West pop cultures. The roads of influence become more maze-like when you contemplate characters like the cartoon Bjork on the cover of her Army of Me single. Based on Japan’s much-loved nuclear fission-powered anime superhero Astro Boy, Bjork’s character is, according to Beatty, an adaptation of a cute and nostalgic symbol of self-sufficiency. But, if we are to believe the authors of Eastern Standard Time (a book devoted to the history of oriental-occidental fusion), the nuclear fission-powered boy, born in 1963, was the personification of harnessed atomic energy, and the antithesis of Godzilla, who represented the atom bomb and the chaos brought from messing with mother earth.

Created by Osamu Tezuka, the father of anime, Tetsuwan Atom became Astro Boy when he was in the first Japanimation series to be shown on US TV. Thus began an anime boom that came full circle, when Disney made the Lion King, an animated epic heavily indebted to Astro Boy.

Many more happy hours could be spent contriving a gazetteer of hybrid graphics and watering holes. But, for everyone’s sake, I’ll end with the memory of a magnificently dingy bar in Seoul, Korea – a few minutes’ walk from the US Army military encampment – where ginseng whiskey is served with a book of matches bearing a map which orientates guests in terms of the nearest “Buger King” (sic). The bar’s name was Stardust. Dubious territory for a design magazine columnist.

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