Cultural entertainment, from ideologies to lifestyle

Continuing a series of reflections on the recent evolutions of the Asian attractions industry, here I look at cultural entertainment in Asia.

Having just submitted my third concept proposal for a private museum in Asia this year, I found myself constantly referring to ‘cultural entertainment’. But what does it really mean? Is it something new in Asia? Has it changed? To what extent can we learn about some of the deeper changes happening in Asia?

From ideologies

I looked up the definition of ‘cultural’ in a dictionary and the first one reads “relating to a culture, civilization”. Common sense, I guess. So here, cultural entertainment is one that is based on civilization, therefore a set of ideas, values and principles prevailing in a defined time and space.

Cultural theme parks, which have traditionally been popular in Asia, carry a great deal of ideologies through theming, shows, exhibitions, etc. In Vietnam, for example, Suoi Tien illustrates Vietnam’s history and legends. Waterfall with the face of an emperor sculpted into it, giant sculpted dragons and Buddha statues are among the visually intense attractions of the park. For a non-Vietnamese this is it a bit overwhelming, almost proselytism…

In her study of Indonesia’s hybrid theme parks, Lauren Gumb puts it clearly when she describes theme parks as “not always benign educational playgrounds, but also vehicles for dominant interpretations, even inventions, of history and tradition, and the transference of dominant ideologies into public spheres of learning and recreation”.

This explains the controversy around the planned theme park in Tibet. Located in Lhasa, the park will be based on the story of the Chinese princess Wencheng, who married a Tibetan king, and will promote ethnic harmony. Many Tibetans are not too pleased and accuse the government of cultural assimilation.

In times of nation building across Asia such approach of entertainment made sense as it allowed unification and codification. But as nations become more stable and as populations grow different needs, cultural entertainment might be getting a different meaning.

To lifestyle

The second definition of ‘cultural’ I found in the dictionary reads “relating to artistic or social pursuits / considered to be valuable or enlightened”. To me this definition changes the focus of cultural entertainment from the group (nation) to the individual and its own set of values and aspirations. Here, it is about lifestyle.

A couple of big Chinese groups, OCT and Wanda, seem to have understood this shift. For Wanda it’s through film – they became the world’s largest cinema operator after acquiring AMC theatres – and for OCT it’s through art museums – they are setting up China’s first art chain with 11 art museums – complemented by shows, festivals and dining & entertainment precincts (e.g. OCT Bay in Shenzhen).

This emerging form of cultural entertainment is less about education and ideologies and more about artistic expression and personal development. It is also very much in line with the lifestyle aspirations of a growing middle class.

The biggest shift to happen in cultural entertainment is probably in the museum world, which is rapidly growing and changing in Asia. As of 2012, China alone reported 3,589 museums and according to the AECOM 2012 Museum Index Chinese museums attendance should reach 1 billion by 2020.

New museums are designed as lifestyle hubs with a variety of offerings (arts, performance, retail, food & beverage, etc) meeting not only arts but also social aspirations. Take for example the National Art Gallery in Singapore or the Central Police Station in Hong Kong. They will both revolutionize the world of cultural entertainment and provide unique tourist assets for the two cities at a time when destinations are increasingly competing on the lifestyle they can offer.

In a fast changing Asia, we purveyors of cultural entertainment are duty bound to enrich people’s quality of life, broaden their minds and encourage creativity through lifestyle-focused venues attracting and connecting both local residents and tourists.

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