Top of eastern pops

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 February, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 February, 1996, 12:00am

THE first question one asks on reading this book is who did the editor and publisher have in mind as the potential reader? With the myriad content and styles that Asian Popular Culture encompasses, it is difficult to tell.

It swings from the casual, yet informative style of Craig Lockard writing about popular music in Malaysia to the dry academic prose of Singapore music retailers (Alan Wells and Lee Chun Wah) to an analytical but boring study of cassette covers in Thailand (Deborah Wong).

The odd blend of approaches apart, most of the subjects are well-researched and, in the main, representative of their respective cultures.

Music is a source of strong cultural identity in Malaysia and Thailand, as is sex and the pachinko in Japan.

But it is doubtful whether Philippine culture can be conveyed via the reprint of a magazine article on coffee-shop gossip about politics. The exclusion of Indonesia is also puzzling.

While the book does provide a wealth of information on different aspects of 11 Asian countries, it falls short of the boast on the cover to provide 'a readable, in-depth understanding of the spectrum of Asian popular culture' and some articles seem a little outdated.

Lockard's essay on the rise of popular music in Malaysia is an enjoyable read and provides a clear view on the growth of different genres, including the Chinese music industry. However, it tends to dwell too much on the past. Lockard, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, did much of his research by studying newspaper reports: the most recent one quoted was published in 1990.

With Hong Kong's film industry changing so quickly at the whims of film-goers, the chapter on the popularity of Hong Kong gangster movies - in Chinese communities here, in Taiwan and elsewhere in the world - is another good choice of subject.

But Lent's decision to use a Taiwan-based Westerner to write about a Hong Kong-generated megatrend may have resulted in a rather lopsided view.

That Barbara Ryan has done exhaustive research on John Woo's A Better Tomorrow cannot be doubted. And at first sight, it appears impressive. She examines Woo's successful film in minute detail, searching for meaning and insight, even where none may exist.

She spends pages examining the theme of brotherhood, as depicted by Ti Lung and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, missing the fact that one of the main draws of the film is the suave persona of Mark (Chow Yun-fatt).

Some of the more enjoyable chapters are those in which the culture in question is not given such heavy-handed scrutiny such as those on Sri Lankan cartoons (Leonard Rifas), Malaysian humour magazines (Ronald Provencher) and Elizabeth Kiritani's essay on Japanese pachinko machines.

These aspects of life have evolved into popular culture simply because they are entertaining. The same cannot be said for this book.