When it began in 1998, the Bangkok Film Festival seemed about as exciting as a college flick fest. At a theater atop a Bangkok mall, small groups of local movie buffs sat through obscure international releases. Prints sometimes failed to materialize, leaving the audience waiting in the dark.
By 2006, the film festival was hardly recognizable. Featuring filmmakers who during the past decade had transformed Asia into a hub of the movie universe, the little gathering had grown into an orgy of glamour, with paparazzi lining up for views of international stars such as Catherine Deneuve and Oliver Stone.
The Bangkok festival is not the only glitzy stop on the Asian cultural circuit. Over the past decade, East Asia, the swath between Burma and Japan, has begun to develop its own vibrant culture and regional institutions, highlighted by next month's East Asia Summit in the Philippines, where political leaders from the region will gather. Outside the rarefied air of a summit banquet table, everyday citizens, too, are building a common East Asian identity, reflected in film, television and music. It's an identity that has grown out of greater economic integration in the region, but also one that could transcend business ties and eventually lead to a cultural and political union across East Asia, helping heal the region's old divisions and animosities.
Fifteen years ago, it would have been impossible to identify a uniquely East Asian identity. Few Southeast Asians or Japanese had traveled to China, for instance, and almost no Chinese had left their country for tourism. The legacy of the Cold War continued to divide the region, and most nations remained reliant on the United States to solve their disputes. Asian businesses also looked West rather than East, exporting to America more than among themselves. And East Asian elites sent their children to universities in the United States and Australia, jetted to Las Vegas for holidays and bought up the latest CDs from American pop stars.
But in the mid-1990s, East Asia began to reorient its compass inward. Regional economies expanded, producing a class of younger businesspeople. These new cosmopolites grew up forging ties among East Asian corporations, building firms such as Thai agro-industrial giant Charoen Pokphand, which quietly became the largest foreign investor in China. More sophisticated Asian companies also began developing the high-tech industries that would keep Asian talent from migrating to Silicon Valley.
Just as Asia's economies were integrating, the financial crisis of the late 1990s struck. Washington, so long the guarantor of Asian stability, reacted slowly. "The lesson to a lot of Asian leaders was we had to depend on ourselves," says Federico Macaranas, a former official with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. As Asia's economies recovered, local companies began focusing more on the region: Intra-regional trade now comprises about 60 percent of all East Asian trade, up from 30 percent 15 years ago.
Widespread social change followed and reinforced economic integration in the 1990s and beyond. For the first time, nations such as Malaysia and South Korea created sizable middle classes, which clustered in megacities such as Kuala Lumpur and Seoul. From Thailand to Tokyo, 20-somethings adopted similar lifestyles -- working longer hours at office jobs, living in their own apartments rather than with their parents, following the same Asian pop stars and enjoying the weekend leisure time that comes with higher incomes.
Communications technology further cemented links among East Asia's urban middle classes. The region's biggest countries began to develop sophisticated film and television industries capable of packaging products for new pan-Asian Internet sites and satellite networks.
Meanwhile, rising incomes and open borders sparked intra-Asian tourism. From almost no outbound travelers in 1979, China will have about 100 million residents traveling abroad by 2020. In Thai cities such as Pattaya, Chinese tourists already dominate the town, following megaphone-wielding guides past bars and transvestite revues where Chinese visitors pay to ogle the scantily-clad dancers.
Perhaps most important, Beijing has begun to rethink its ties with its neighbors and has become an enthusiastic proponent of Asian integration. Shortly after last year's inaugural East Asia Summit, former Philippine president Fidel Ramos even suggested that East Asia could become more like the European Union, which has a common currency, common market, and common institutions to facilitate trade and other policies.
But for such a union to work, a common culture must also emerge -- and East Asia seems well on its way. The growth of region-wide satellite television and Internet sites affords artists the opportunity to work more closely and easily across national borders. In film, directors such as Thailand's Pen-Ek Ratanaruang have worked on pan-Asian productions, including "Memories" and "Last Life in the Universe." These films are featured at regional festivals, but Asian films also have taken top prizes at Cannes and Venice. In the surest sign of success, over the past decade Hollywood producers have flocked to Asia to adapt films such as Hong Kong's "Infernal Affairs," recently remade into "The Departed," starring Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Other forms of art and media also are spawning Asia-wide collaborations. Asian art biennales and museums typically feature regional themes. Media outlets such as Tokyo's Daily Yomiuri and Seoul's Korea Herald have started cooperating in the coverage of regional events, forming the Asia News Network. Blogging has only added to the pan-Asian consciousness. On the popular group blog AsiaPundit.com, respondents from across Asia recently debated perhaps the most important issue in the region -- whether China could ever become a democracy.
Fifteen years ago, few Japanese and Korean television shows appeared in China. But today, South Korea's pop exports have proved so popular that more than 1 million tourists visit the country every year to see attractions related to its television dramas. Many of these shows -- such as Korea's "Winter Sonata," which mixes romance, history, tragedy and Confucian family values -- sell out on DVD from Thailand to Japan. According to one report, when famed Korean actor Bae Yong-joon visited Tokyo, Akie Abe, the wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, asked her husband to book a room in the hotel where he was staying, just so she might catch a glimpse of the dreamy Bae.
Japan now challenges South Korea for the region's cultural lead. Researchers estimate that the annual value of Japan's media and entertainment exports nearly tripled between 1993 and 2003, to more than $12 billion. Stars of J-pop -- Japanese music mixing syrupy lyrics, heavy synthesizers and digested bits of American rock and pop -- sell out arenas across Asia. The J-pop stars also define fashion trends: one singer, Ayu, popularized fake foxtails among young girls in Asia.
As in Europe, common culture can lead to smoother politics. After all, fans of Ayu who desperately wait in line for tickets to a sold-out show in Seoul are much less likely to harbor the World War II-era anti-Japanese resentments of their parents' generation. Indeed, polls of students in South Korea reveal that respondents who enjoy Japanese pop music generally have positive impressions of the country.
Even political integration, harder to forge than economic or cultural ties, has begun to take shape in Asia. Though still lacking the formal institutions of Europe, Asia has started to form common political opinions. In studies by the East Asia Barometer, majorities in nine Asian nations said they desired democracy over any other political system. And unlike in the past, Asian human rights activists and politicians have become less squeamish about denouncing abuse in other countries, such as the new group of Asian parliamentarians working to promote reform in Burma.
Some American policymakers worry that Asia's emerging identity could diminish U.S. influence in the region. After all, the East Asia Summit will not include representatives from Washington. But economic integration and greater personal connections across Asian borders could serve as a brake on conflict between regional powers such as China and Japan -- a result the United States would clearly welcome. And an E.U.-style organization with influence over trade and other policy matters could help mediate regional conflicts. Right now, Asia lacks any formal means for resolving violent disputes, as shown by the region's impotence in handling fighting in Burma, East Timor and elsewhere.
A common culture also may allow Asians to put past conflicts behind them. Last year, the first East Asia Summit was marred by tensions over visits made before the summit by then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasukuni shrine, Japan's controversial memorial to World War II. But as Japanese and Korean and Chinese popular cultures blend together, the region's future leaders will have much more in common. Koizumi developed his admiration for the United States partly because of his love for American culture -- and was rewarded by President Bush with a visit to Graceland. How long before a Japanese prime minister makes a similar pilgrimage to the set of "Winter Sonata"?
This article was originally published in the December 10, 2006 edition of The Washington Post.