April 25, 2007

“New Tea” in China

Neocha, or “New Tea”, China’s first website for artists to show off and share their wares, launched last week in Shanghai. Think of MySpace for creative types, then think of it channeling into groups for bands, or photographers, or clothing designers, sculptors, jewelers, bookbinders, knitters, sketchers, and so on. The vision for Neocha’s success is built around the Chinese love of gabbing.

The young Chinese love to get together online to gab about topics of all and any sort, from movie stars to new products to political or sensitive issues, which they address in creative, coded ways to avoid attention from censors. Online talkfests are the lynchpin of success for BBS (the immensely popular online bulletin boards), for blogs (a wildly successful phenomenon in China, even compared to the US) and even for Baidu, China’s own search engine that is currently whipping the pants off Google, in part because of the discussion forums offered and populated around search results.

In China, online chatter seems to be a mirror for offline chatter: I once drove more than 2 hours home to Shanghai from a blogging conference in Hangzhou with 3 women, one of whom talked, I swear, the entire trip without pausing to breathe. Chinese restaurants are incredibly, noisily chattery. The Chinese seem natively comfortable with a hand-held mike in front of crowds or on TV. Even walking along on the city streets, nonstop text messaging fills in empty air with silent chatter. A famous Chinese phrase, “renao”, meaning “hot and noisy” counts as highest praise for just about any social situation.

Neocha, the brainchild of a foursome of young Americans and Chinese, went live with about 130 artists. So far, it is self-funded. They discussed one possible business plan, which is to hook into the mobile-phone-accessed internet, where neocha could capture a percentage of the cost of each SMS sent to or from their website, from RSS feeds for example. Each message may reap a fraction of a cent, but fractions add up in China, which has over 250 million mobile phone users. During February’s Chinese New Year week this year, China Mobile reported over 11 billion SMS messages had been sent, up nearly 50% from the previous year. Already, 17% of the 137 million Chinese internet users say they connect to the internet via mobile phones. And all this is in a country of 1.4 billion people, where the internet is still in its infancy, and where future mass-scale internet access is likely to largely evolve by leapfrogging over broadband connections straight to mobile internet access.

The real-life 8-hour launch party for Neocha was celebrated in a renovated warehouse in the Suzhou Creek area of Shanghai. Suzhou Creek is New York’s Chelsea of Shanghai, although this particular warehouse sits on its far edge, among neighborhoods in the midst of destruction and construction. Here, people struggle to keep their shophouses open even as the upper floors of their buildings are being demolished, taxi drivers still congregate because the stall food is famously good and cheap, and no tourists yet venture.

The crowd brought to life the dry data points of China’s internet population: young, urban, slightly more male, and – hard to quantify with statistics but easy to imagine – incomparably hip. They dressed in complicated ensembles that placed themselves right inside their artistic creations: one young woman dressed all in white, with sharply contrasting jet black hair, sported big made-up eyes, which matched the eyes she painted onto her giant anthropomorphic sculpture of an IKEA storage unit (you had to be there). If you looked down, you saw seas of bizarre and colorful shoes, difficult to come by in Shanghai shops, but perhaps their own creations (I saw at least two cobblers displaying their wares). They wore hats, wigs, layers of pants, skirts, vests, jackets, and accessorized with belts, chains, fringe, bells, buttons, bags, and jewels. On the third floor of the warehouse, a succession of live bands droned on; on the second floor, a photographer assembled an on-the-fly, crowd-participatory creation of Polaroid photos, being shot, developed, printed, signed, and hung like so much laundry on lines around the middle of the vast room. On the first floor were dozens of tables of personal creations. A surreal stroll thru the space evoked senses ranging from the sinister netherworld of blood and gore (beach flipflops with blood and dagger scenes) to a Charlotte’s Web world of small-town-USA county fairs, with hand-crocheted sock-dolls and home-made soaps. The crowd spilled outside to the alley, where you could buy Tsingdao beer and hotdogs. And in the restrooms, gaggles of young women crowded around the mirrors, reminiscent of the primping sessions at a high school prom.

Much western press focuses on China’s censorship of the internet, which is a true phenomenon. Much less focuses on the wild and crazy place the internet also is, a place which is beginning to showcase the youthful, experimental creations of an unbound culture and a hungry, impatient populace.