Over the past week, the news of Eason Chan Yik-shun being awarded an honorary doctor of arts by his alma mater Kingston University in the UK has gone viral in Hong Kong and across mainland China. Fans were delighted that the Canto-pop star received such high recognition from an overseas institution. Those who aren’t fans of Chan were also happy for him – an honorary doctorate degree carries a much more profound meaning music awards. In some ways it has put Canto-pop back on the world map.
In a press release from the university, the school praised Chan as “a frontrunner of the new generation of Cantonese popular music”. Heather Forland, director of Kingston International noted: “As the first Asian artist to perform at the O2 in London and the second Chinese singer to hold a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Eason’s musical influence has gone beyond language boundaries and he has become an international phenomenon.” Forland added that Chan had formed a cultural bridge and inspired millions of fans across the world.
There’s no need to argue about Chan’s status as king of pop in the Chinese speaking world – Forbes China Celebrity 100 ranked him number six last year. But cultural bridge?
Although the 12,000 tickets to Chan’s last London O2 concert were reportedly snapped up in 20 minutes – a rate faster than a Lady Gaga concert – I wonder how many of them were sold to non-Chinese. Westerners seldom go to Canto-pop concerts in Hong Kong even if they live in Hong Kong. Just walk up to a Westerner who calls Hong Kong home and ask him or her to sing the melody of an Eason Chan song, I bet 99 per cent would fail to do so. And would a Brit living in London who doesn’t understand Cantonese or Chinese go to a Canto-pop concert? I seriously don’t think so.
Perhaps the “cultural bridge” was referring to the connection between the university and the lucrative China market.
Over the years mainland China and Hong Kong have been major sources of overseas students for Kingston University. In 2004, out of a total of 2,339 overseas students, 131 came from mainland China and 99 came from Hong Kong, making them the second and sixth largest contributors of overseas students respectively. The number of mainland Chinese students went up to 182 last year, the fourth highest, while Hong Kong was 13th with 82 students.
However, the university stated in its 2013 financial statement that the year 2012/13 was the “first cohort of students under the new fees regime”. Students are paying higher academic tariffs. However, “student enrolment targets were not met”. The university, which has secured £3.5 million (HK$44.64 million) budget reductions, has to continue to apply cost management measures in the current academic year. “A significant success is the recruitment of overseas students where the target income of £24.5 million was achieved in a competitive highly regulated market.”
The financial statements showed that total income dropped from £203.3 million in 2011/12 to £202.7 million in 2012/13. Funding council grants dropped by £18.6 million from £73.5 million in 2011/12 to £54.9 million in 2012/13.
Now the news of Chan that made entertainment news headlines has made Kingston University a household name across the Chinese speaking territories. Rich Chinese parents and youngsters might now have higher confidence in the university that came 95 out of 120 in The Guardian’s UK university ranking and 101 out of 116 in the Times ranking last year. In the next academic year, Kingston University might see more Chinese faces from mainland China and Hong Kong, and possibly Taiwan, Singapore and others. Just one honorary degree award to a major Canto-pop star is enough to generate the kind of publicity for the university across the Chinese speaking world that no other advertising campaign could have achieved. You might argue that it was a genuine recognition of Chan’s talent. I don’t doubt that. But on the webpage where the press release was published, there is a hyper link to “Find out more about studying at Kingston University as an international student”. Is it truly a purely innocent award? It is certainly the best marketing.