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December 16, 2009

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Tapping talented Chinese youth

American Sean Leow used to envision his future as an economist toiling in the ivory tower of academia. Today the 28-year-old is on the cutting edge of Chinese youth culture, a promoter of the alternative arts scene.

As the founder of a blog and a social networking site for Chinese artists, Leow is consulted by international and Chinese companies alike about this new, little-known field of "youth" culture.

Leow excludes contemporary fine arts, as they are already renowned, and instead likes to discover untapped talent among Chinese youth. He covers everything else - painting, video, installation, music, design, photography and digital art.

"I'm attracted to creative people because they're not passive. They see things, they are inspired and then create, which is similar to the way I like to make things happen," Leow says.

In April 2007, Leow created a social networking Website ( for artists. With just 30,000 users and carefully chosen advertisers, it was kept small to retain its cutting edge sensibility and artistic credentials.

From this Leow and his founding partner Adam Schokora regularly received news of interesting projects and emerging talents. Four months ago they collected this into a blog,, a bilingual documentation of the alternative arts scene as it is happening.

Leow, who comes from Silicon Valley and calls himself "half Chinese," has distant Chinese roots. His great-grandfather was Chinese and emigrated long ago from desperately poor Meixian County in Guangdong Province, first to Africa, then to Malaysia, and finally to the US.

'Spoiled' generation

He could not possibly have imagined the China today where his great-grandson is making his future, one that is transforming from basic manufacturing to high tech and creative industries.

Leow is part of the transition, helping creativity grow through the Internet.

"Most of our artists are of the post-1980s generation. They were the first generation to be really exposed to opening up with the development of the Internet in the 1990s. Their influences are very wide," observes Leow.

He sees a big gap between the 1980s and 1990s generation, which he calls "more spoiled."

"But with the 1990s are the first signs of true teen culture, where they've developed their own exclusive language, and strive to be different for the sake of being different by borrowing elements of goth and punk culture," he says.

Leow first came to China in 2001 for a year as part of his economics undergraduate degree. After graduation he returned to teach English in Kunming, capital city of Yunnan Province, for six months before enrolling for a master's degree in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province, in international relations. He moved to Shanghai in 2005 and has lived here ever since with frequent trips to Beijing.

He calls Beijing a "very Chinese, very gritty place in contrast to Shanghai where it's much more cosmopolitan and pedestrian friendly."

In Shanghai Leow first worked for a strategic consultancy, advising all sorts of businesses, from carpets to trucks and spare parts. The diversity appealed to his curiosity, also his interest in youth culture.

During all his China travels, Leow has explored his interest in the arts, going to independent, quirky concerts and exhibitions, and making friends. He finds it endlessly satisfying.

"Youth culture represents the brightest parts of China - passion, optimism and creativity. In contrast I find it hard to be inspired by politicians or rich businessmen," Leow says.

In the youth art world, Leow found that though talent existed, it was very disparate and disconnected. There was nothing linking artists and ideas together to allow the flow of ideas and inspiration. This also made it difficult to link arts with business, so it was hard for artists to make a living with their creativity.

As he grew up in Silicon Valley, Leow, just like many youth, naturally viewed the Internet as the ideal medium for his linkage project.

From their original intention of supporting and connecting isolated artists, Leow and his partner have now expanded to broadcasting the creative vibe in China to the rest of the world.

"It's at the top of our list to show the world that creativity exists here and can have commercial uses. It's ridiculous that China is viewed as the world's factory," he says.

The post-1980s generation is setting the agenda for arts nowadays and many are opinion leaders, Leow says. Though they are often seen as "little emperors," they grew up in a fairly frugal time, compared with the 1990s generation.

There's a lot of nostalgia for those simpler though poorer times, especially in the face of today's fast pace of change and increasing affluence.

This has inspired retro art using classic images of Chinese brands such as White Rabbit sweets, Feiyue (Great Leap) shoes, and Seagull cameras, plus reusing school book designs.

There is also a movement to take very Chinese art forms, such as stand-up comedy, and reviving them with modern elements. These forms had been dying until people started reinventing them with modern instruments and with modern topics such as rock music.

Leow says he has created his dream job, especially so at a time when the whole nation is promoting creativity. Though creativity doesn't come from the top down, some support can open some doors through giving free venues and granting licenses for events.

"I feel it's two steps forward and one step back," says Leow. "Despite what people say about Chinese creativity, I'm fairly positive about its development. Besides whenever I go back to the US, I get bored, and need to come back."Sean Leow

Nationality: American

Age: 28

Profession: Researcher, consultant on Chinese youth culture


Description of self (three words):

Curious, half-Chinese, passionate.

Favorite place:

A tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It's dirty, loud and smoky but has really good food and a great owner.

Strangest sight:

The garbage collectors with the massive loads on the back of their bikes, it always amazes me.

Perfect weekend:

Going to an indie rock show, playing some basketball and water polo (I started a water polo team and we play in Qingpu District), drinking and playing card games with friends at a Japanese whisky bar. Also trying not to work and just playing with my cat.

Worst experience:

Being cold in winter. I remember one year my hot water broke, and I was eating breakfast wearing a huge down parka jacket.

Motto for life:

Stay curious, try new things.

How to improve Shanghai:More green space and parks. More bicycle lanes as they're not allowed on the major roads.

Advice to newcomers:

Make friends with someone who's been here for a while so they can help you out. Also go out and explore.


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