Tuesday, March 28, 2023

East-West voices

Revelations from Asian-American themed entertainment creatives

by Judith Rubin


How is the attractions industry being reinvented as the Asian market continues to flourish? What are the important cultural signposts? IPM co-editor Judith Rubin spoke to Sywa Sung, a designer and Harriet Cheng, a project manager. Their observations are as enriching as their cross-cultural backgrounds and experience.


“Westerners need to try as hard as they can to not think like Westerners, and inhabit the minds of the people in the countries they are thinking of establishing projects in, or working with.”

Sywa Sung (www.sywa.net) is a freelance art director, conceptual designer & illustrator recently contracted to Walt Disney Imagineering. He has provided design services to numerous leading design companies in the attractions and film industries, including Pixar Animation Studios, Jack Rouse Associates, The Hettema Group, Thinkwell Group and BRC Imagination Arts. He has guest lectured on design and culture to the USC Annenberg Getty Award Fellowship.

You’re an Asian-Canadian, the child of immigrant parents. You’re based in Los Angeles but you grew up in Canada. What languages do you speak?

English, French, and a little Italian. I spoke Cantonese fluently as a child, but lost most of it when I started school. I am left with basic oral comprehension and enough spoken Cantonese to order food at a restaurant. My father is from Hong Kong and my mother is from the Canton region around Hong Kong. As a born and bred native of Montreal, I do not consider myself the ultimate expert on the intricacies of Asian perceptions, but I do have some insight given my upbringing. Foreigners like myself probably have a unique insight into American culture as outsiders looking in. We are probably more objective — like the Bob Hope phenomenon.

The Bob Hope phenomenon?

Bob Hope – in that he was foreign born (UK) yet became an American cultural icon. As more contemporary examples, Shania Twain and Celine Dion have also become American music icons – yet are Canadians whose work becomes the culture. There was a kind of parallel vibe for me when I was working as the attraction art director relating to Batman for the Warner Bros. Abu Dhabi project. For me – a Canadian – getting to work with and interpret a globally synonymous American icon for a foreign audience was a thrill.

Growing up, were you encouraged to assimilate – to leave off speaking Cantonese?

Not at all. Integration and high functioning were the goals. To let go of one’s original roots was not the intention. Canada is sometimes described as a “salad” as opposed to America’s “melting pot.” I have found that nothing really melts together in reality. I will never be able to walk into a room and not have people think of my ethnicity. Sometimes I am reminded of that fact in rather jarring ways.

Do people expect you to be an instant expert on all things Oriental?

Yes! But I am of both worlds, so I can interpret for each side. That’s the unique space I think I occupy. And being Canadian plays a big part of it too. Canada is multi-cultural, and that is celebrated.

What are some things your “outsider” viewpoint helps alert you to in your work?

I am always aware of how American culture may or may not be perceived by non-Americans. Americans frequently take it for granted that everyone loves everything from America, and for the same reasons. That’s not always the case in either respect.

There is sometimes the assumption that people abroad will automatically love an American intellectual property (IP). But not every IP is going to have American qualities that appeal internationally. Here’s an example from when I worked at Sony Development [in the 1990s]. One of the attractions created and brought to Japan was “Where The Wild Things Are” based on Maurice Sendak’s beloved American children’s book. It was beautifully done and true to the book [the attraction first appeared at the original Sony Metreon in San Francisco]. “Wild Things” being American and popular in America led to some assumptions that the Japanese would also love it. It ended up not working there.

Sitting on the belly of a Oaxacan inspired Armadillo, guest thrill to the twists and turns of this playful creature, set in a lush garden setting. Parque Festival, Guadalajara, Mexico. ©MSI Design

In my personal opinion and observation, what was not realized is that Mickey Mouse and other such characters fit within the “cute” and rounded aesthetic that Japanese love, which is already in their culture. The Wild Things, on the other hand, are visually rough-hewn characters with a lot of grit and sharp teeth. That is not to the Japanese taste, so they appeared ugly and scary to them. The mother’s behavior is also different from Asian parenting – a traditional Asian parent would never allow Max to leave the dinner table without eating first. Max’s behavior as a child is very disobedient, which would be considered shameful and embarrassing of the mother, and Max’s behavior unacceptable.

To export concepts or stories to other countries and cultures without doing detailed homework can be a costly mistake.

What do Westerners need to pay attention to as the industry grows in Asia?

Westerners need to try as hard as they can to not think like Westerners, and to inhabit the minds of the people in the countries they are thinking of establishing projects in, or working with. Being a good houseguest, as it were. It is their country, and we are only invited guests. We shouldn’t go in and start rearranging their furniture or telling them how things would be better if they did things our way. You wouldn’t be welcome very long doing that. Eat their food, seek it out, and learn to like it.

When it comes to conceiving attractions, how does one follow the practice of being a good houseguest, so to speak?

We need to listen to their wants and desires, and not to impose our own tastes on them. If they love Bollywood, but don’t care that much about superheroes, give them Bollywood attractions and don’t force superheroes on them. Being a good designer is being able to inhabit your client’s mind, and bring out what they want. All too often, their tastes are not taken seriously enough. They are paying us to provide them what they want, not what we want.

What should Westerners be paying attention to culturally, in that regard?

In the Middle East, and India, we need to pay much closer attention to what Bollywood has going on, and to gain an appreciation for it. Anime in animation and comics must also be taken much more seriously. It is a huge cultural influence in Asia – yet it is considered an exotic side dish here, when in fact it should be influencing attraction design. There is more love and brand awareness of many Anime titles in Asia than for many beloved American IP’s there. We also need to appreciate that Anime storytelling is distinctive. They mix genres much more than we do. You can have a drama-comedy-vampirelove story all in one.

I have seen American Caucasian Anime fans singing Anime karaoke word-for-word in Japanese. Do they know how to speak Japanese? Probably not.

Of course American films are popular and have great reach globally. Disney is obviously a huge influence on the industry. As a generator of IP, it is the gold standard. But one walk around Anime Expo or the show floor at Comic-Con – or a browse through the Bollywood video section of an Indian video store – reveals the huge potential of many other sources – many of which, I must reiterate, are more popular abroad than American IP’s. The industry needs to be more aware of this. If not, other design firms in other countries will outmaneuver us here.

If we want to be relevant, and continue to push the edge, we need to dare to learn more, and more importantly, understand other people and cultures. We live in a global economy, and soon a global culture, whether people are prepared or not. We need to think 10-25 years ahead.


“In America, we believe that ‘Story is King.’ But when you partner with a different culture, the willingness to execute that vision is not always there.”

Harriet Cheng is currently project manager for IWitness at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute and producer/project Manager at Playground Digital Technologies. She previously worked as project coordinator, Shanghai Disneyland at Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment. She is firstgeneration Chinese-American, grew up in the US and is fluent in Cantonese and English.

Tell us about your current projects.

With Playground Digital Technologies, I am creating exhibits for the National Museum for the United States Army, a new museum opening in 2015 in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. For the USC Shoah Foundation, I’m creating content for and managing the development of an educational website using materials from the collection. The online education field is exploding right now. That is why I am there – I try to stay ahead of the curve.

How does project management or coordination in the East differ from what the industry’s used to in the West?

I think the biggest difference is the balance between project management (money) and the creative. The Chinese don’t inherently believe that better creative leads to better experiences, and thus, one should not spend money on it – unlike the Japanese, where the experience is paramount and they spend for it!

Thrilling gladiatorial sword play, pageantry, horse tricks, fire effects, humor, and drama are interwoven into an epic live stunt show in an epic Roman Coliseum set. Project in Vietnam. ©Steelman Partners

That’s a huge difference from the storytelling emphasis of the industry in the US and Europe. Here in America, we do believe that “Story is King.” Certainly, that is the case with Disney.

But when you partner with a different culture, the willingness to execute that vision is not always there. With the Japanese, they believed it – Universal Studios Japan and Tokyo Disney Sea are both winner parks. Whereas the Chinese close down parks every day because most of them are thrill ride parks that contain no magic or wonder for kids to love.

Then a stronger story core is needed to earn repeat business?

Well, that’s what we in the West believe. Look at Harry Potter. It blew the doors off Universal’s numbers because the story is so loved. I believe that the Chinese are really a very practical culture. They don’t have a lot of cultural belief in the magic of childhood, the gifts of imagination, and having fun. It is a culture built upon hard work and survival, not daydreaming.

Do you think the growth of the middle class will promote more ‘daydreaming’?

The middle class do not feel very secure in China, or America, either, for that matter. So, in China, where the culture dictates that you save money and don’t spend on idle things, I’m not sure that the parks will get repeat business. For example, Hong Kong Disney depends mostly on tourists, not the local population. Contrast that to Disneyland, where the majority of their business is local customers.

In America, you can become anything. You can start as an “Okie from Muskogee” and turn into Brad Pitt or Carrie Underwood. That is unheard of and undo-able in China. There are far fewer dreamers. When was the last time we had a Chinese performer, or character, or property have that kind of success here? Jackie Chan? No one is making theme parks out of him.

Can you give an example of a Chinese theme park that is achieving a higher standard?

One such park is Happy Valley in Shenzhen. It is an OCT park. The OCT chain spends money on items with no inherent ROI, like landscaping and theming. In America, we talk about “experience” which to us, includes all those intangibles. But the Chinese say, “the grass is not a ride, no one pays to see grass.”

You don’t go to a theme park to bootstrap, though. A theme park visit is an escape from daily life. And there is the crux of the culture clash. Escape? The practical, Chinese attitude is, “Your life is what it is. We can go to this park for a fun time today, but don’t ever believe this is real life.”

The Chinese don’t promote creativity, and in theme park development, there’s much cost cutting. It can be frustrating. As in any business, if you just tell the production teams what the real budget is at first, then they can design to that; not design to something that was never there. Then you get death by a thousand paper cuts.

Then, if allowed to, Western optimism and the concept of the guest experience may greatly benefit theme park development in China?

When society encourages you to be anything you want to be, the creativity is huge. • • •

Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin ([email protected]) is a leading journalist, publicist, strategist, blogger, content marketing specialist and connector in the international attractions industry. She excels at writing about all aspects of design and technical design, production and project management. Areas of special interest include AV integration and show control, lighting design and acoustics, specialty cinema, digital video and world’s fairs. Judith has ties to numerous industry organizations. From 2005-2020 she ran communications, publications and social media for the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). In 2013, she was honored with the TEA Service Award. She was development director of IMERSA, and co-chair of the 2014 IMERSA Summit. She was publicist for the Large Format Cinema Association in the 1990s, now part of the Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) and has also contributed to the publications of PLASA, IAAPA and the International Planetarium Society. Already making her mark as a magazine and book editor, Judith joined World’s Fair magazine in 1987, which introduced her to the attractions industry. Launching as a freelancer in the mid 1990s she has contributed to dozens of publications and media outlets including Funworld, Lighting&Sound America, Sound & Communications, Urban Land, The Raconteur and The Planetarian. She joined InPark in 2010. Judith earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute. She has lived in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area, and now makes her home in Saint Louis, where she is active in the local arts and theater community.

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