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Fashion across borders
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About 14 years ago when Beijinger Chen Chen traveled to Japan to study economics, his dream was to gain a master's degree from prestigious Keio University and then settle down.

The First China-Japan-South Korea "Friendship Ambassador" Cup International Super Model Contest features models from the three countries.   

Soon after graduation, Chen worked with a Tokyo trade company. Shuttling between China and Japan, Chen gradually realized how little the younger generation in Japan knew about its Chinese counterparts.

"While Chinese young people have learnt something about Japan through their pop culture, there is no understanding about Chinese cultural icons," Chen says.

Chen's impulse to promote cultural communication between the two countries has now evolved into the First China-Japan-South Korea "Friendship Ambassador" Cup International Super Model Contest. The final, held on Friday at Beijing's 798 art district, attracted a crowd of 1,000. The contest featured 36 models, 16 Chinese, 10 Japanese and 10 South Korean, wearing pieces from various Asian labels.

Chen says the fashion show doubles as an event which promotes understanding between the three countries.

The 39-year-old, now the president and CEO of China-Japan International Co, says that during his travels to China he noticed what fashions Chinese high school boys and girls were wearing. What he found was that their tastes weren't inspired by catalogues or fashion magazines, but rather Japanese comic books and TV shows South Korea.

"Despite the global taste-making power of the American entertainment industry, China's teenagers are more interested in television shows and movies produced by their Pacific rim neighbors," Chen says.

"From soap operas to music, video games to fashion, Japanese and South Korean pop culture are defining the style of Chinese youth."

Chen says that most Chinese teenagers become interested in fashion through pop music, particularly Japanese bands. Many teenagers mimic the band's style, with boys wearing dress shirts with thin ties, girls in leg warmers or miniskirts.

"Clothes are related to music and vice versa," Chen says. "Right now, I think pop stars represent Japanese and South Korea fashion in China. But what about Chinese culture?"

The realization inspired Chen to produce the First China-Japan-South Korea "Friendship Ambassador" Cup International Super Model Contest.

"Models are symbols of fashion which can be found in every country. Also, there is no language barrier with a runway show where the talk is clothes and the body language of the models. I think it is an effective way to promote countries' cultures," Chen says.

"Let people see today's Chinese culture."

Chen spent last year calling modeling agencies, getting approval for the contest from the government and looking for investors.

"I feel a kind of responsibility to carry out the task. China, Japan and South Korea are all close neighbors separated only by a strip of water. The three countries with different peoples and different historical backgrounds display their cultures.

"I wanted to take fashion to grassroots groups, not only for entertainment, but for them to see the culture behind it," Chen says, adding that the upcoming Olympic Games is a good opportunity to promote Chinese culture.

"I have already received letters and enquiries from enterprises and media asking about next year's contest. I am confident to make the China-Japan-South Korea 'Friendship Ambassador' Cup International Super Model Contest into a brand name."

Chen says he is particularly proud of the fact that the contest is dedicated to cultural promotion rather than simple entertainment.

"Who knows," Chen says, "the next trend may be a China Wave".

(China Daily December 29, 2007)

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