Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The trend that wouldn't end

In the Far East, Hello Kitty continues to inspire adoration, repulsion

(A version of this ran in the Christian Science Monitor on May 20, 2009)

TAIPEI -- You might think a fad centered on a mouthless cartoon cat would quickly fade away.

You'd be wrong.

In fact, in the Far East, the Japan-spawned Hello Kitty craze shows little sign of abating. If anything, the tenacious feline is digging its claws in even deeper.

Here in Taiwan, you'll find brand-new "Hello Kitty" - themed hotel packages, Ferris Wheels, even maternity wards -- for those who want to recover from childbirth with extra moral support.

The "trend that wouldn't end" shows the vice-like grip that Japan's culture of cute holds over this island, and much of the Far East.

Forget China's supposedly rising "soft power." Forget American cartoon icons. Here, for comics and fashion at least, Japanese pop culture is King.

In fact, in Taiwan, Hello Kitty's stiffest competition is another Japanese cartoon cat -- this one blue, and with full mouth in effect. I speak, of course, of the revered Doraemon, also known here by its (his?) Chinese name, Xiao Ding-dang.

In the interest of journalistic rigor, I put the following question to Mandy, the Taiwanese owner and cook at my favorite neighborhood pasta joint. Who's more popular, Snoopy or Doraemon?

"Definitely Doraemon," she said. Why? "Taiwan was controlled by Japan for 50 years [as a Japanese colony, 1895-1945], so we more easily accept Japanese things. And Doraemon has been here longer than Snoopy."

Less known by Americans, Doraemon has achieved something akin to god-like status here in Taiwan (Snoopy, by contrast, is only a minor deity -- sorry, Snoop). Doraemon's beaming blue mug is plastered over schoolkids' backpacks, toys and a bewildering number of knick-knacks and whosiwhatsits.

Japan itself realizes Doraemon's hold: It appointed the cat as the nation's cultural ambassador to the world a year ago. His mission, which he appears to have accepted: To promote Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime) to the world.

But it's Doraemon's white sister that has sparked the most extreme emotions -- whether cult-like adoration or visceral repulsion.

I stumbled across the latest Hello Kitty outbreak on a recent trip to Kaohsiung, a port city in southern Taiwan. There, the Grand Hi-Lai Hotel has begun offering a "Hello Kitty Dreamy Holiday" package.

This includes chauffered airport pickup and a city tour in the pink "Kitty Car", a visit to a nearby mall's rooftop "Hello Kitty" Ferris Wheel, stay in a special "Hello Kitty" themed room, and breakfast in the company of a giant stuffed "Hello Kitty" doll.

"It's very popular," a concierge told me. "All four rooms have been booked every day since we started this."

He said the guests are mostly wealthy, middle-aged women from Hong Kong or here in Taiwan -- not surprising, since the bill is around U.S. $200 per night, and twice that if you want to splurge on the "Hello Kitty Suite."

This, after a "Hello Kitty" maternity ward opened in central Taiwan just a few months ago.

Meanwhile, an anti-Kitty backlash has been gathering steam. See, for example, the "Goodbye Kitty site", featuring macabre designs such as Hello Kitty crucified, burnt at the stake and fried in an electric chair.
Or check out, billed as "one man's life with cute overload."

Sample comment, about a photo of a woman who tied her hair up in a "Hello Kitty" bow: "While the fanatics may think this is cute and lovable, the rest of us normal people simply shove our finger down our throat and relieve our stomach of all its contents when we see things like this."

The abuse continues on the blog of Cahleen Hudson, an American living in Taiwan. "I can't stand Hello Kitty, or any of her little minion friends (this is where the cultural bias might be creeping in)," writes Hudson. "But alas, I love Taiwan, and therefore must learn to live with this bigheaded cat thing."

Hudson touches on a key point of cultural context: in Taiwan, far more than in the U.S., it's socially acceptable for grown -- even middle-aged -- women to persist with cutesy, girlish behavior and interests.

Academics, too, have plumbed the theoretical depths of Hello Kitty mania. Ko Yu-fen of Hsih-shin University noted in a paper that the craze peaked in Taiwan in the summer of 1999, when fistfights broke out in Taipei after McDonalds run out of stuffed "Hello Kitties" that were part of a promotional campaign.

Ko goes on to dissect the fad, complete with name-dropping references to Baudrillard and Foucault.

"The Hello Kitty mania is a cultural discourse through which different social groups debate for their superiority on taste and legitimacy; each attempts to exclude and repel the other," writes Ko. "It is a war of cultural leadership -- a battle over the hierarchy between commodified popular culture and elitism."

For the cat's loyal followers, it's all far more simple.

"I simply don't understand why some people hate hello kitty?" wrote Singaporean blogger Jessica Yim, in an online cri de coeur. "Its face is so irresistibly cute ... my heart beats faster just by looking at it."

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