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A Changing Continent

The New Faces of Asia


The New Faces of Asia


More than the center of the world's economy, Asia is the future, a stage on which a new generation of adaptable, connected and resilient Asians are living out their dreams.



The New Faces of Asia

By Hsiao-Wen Wang, Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 513 )

Macau, the pale green Dom Pedro V Theatre.

Soler, a rock duo of twin brothers with Italian and Burmese blood, grew up playing soccer and speaking Cantonese and Portuguese at the Catholic elementary school behind this neo-classical edifice. Memories of the "Western tide" have never faded in the first Western theater built in China, but the brothers, who can speak seven languages fluently, have shifted their stage from Europe to Asia. Soler plans to release its new English album in Asia during the Lunar New Year.

Kaohsiung. A temporary office on the third floor of the Yancheng Public Retail Market.

Prashant Buyyala, the head of Rhythm & Hues' international studios, has just finished two videoconferences with the company's Los Angeles headquarters and is ready to go out for an "eight treasure ice" with his Taiwanese colleagues at noon.

He still has to prepare a speech he will be giving in Malaysia in three days to coincide with the opening in Kuala Lumpur of the blockbuster film "Life of Pi," which his visual effects company helped produce. The 150-person Rhythm & Hues workshop Buyyala built in the city has been so instrumental in the Malaysian government's efforts to create an Asian multimedia center that even the country's prime minister was slated to attend the "Life of Pi" premiere.

Flying under the moonlight at 30,000 feet from Seoul to Taipei.

Troy Malone, the Asia-Pacific general manager for Evernote Corporation, the top note-taking software for mobile phones, opens his smartphone's notepad in the calm of an airplane cabin. He checks out five short notes, covering the progress of the company's business in Indonesia, a newly hired Indian employee's plans to go to Mumbai on business, and the latest Korean vocabulary he has learned, along with a short training video for employees in Taiwan.

The last entry is a short video of his eight-year-old son in Redwood City on his first rock climb, and Malone can't help grinning at his son's head-to-toe climbing getup.

This is the new generation of Asians.

Some of them have blue eyes, some have black. As children, they ran around in Asia's rice fields, under the American sun, on African soccer fields. The suitcases of their youth bulge with the aura of an Ivy League education, the memories of home and places further afield, and the embraces of friends from countless countries.

But Asia is where their future lies.

Asia's elite have traditionally gone to Europe or the United States to study and then have gotten jobs in New York, London or other Western metropolitan centers. They have brought outsiders' eyes to the West, and the West has helped them fulfill their outsider's dreams.

Today, however, the new Asians congregate in Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai, Singapore and other major Asian cities to work, generally speaking English and two or three Asian languages. They may fly to three different countries in a week, but wherever they land, they are home.

The spotlight of history is already shining on these new Asians.

Global consulting firm McKinsey & Company said in a November 2012 report on emerging markets that China and India are "experiencing roughly 10 times the economic acceleration of the Industrial Revolution on 100 times the scale."

The report predicted that by 2025, annual consumption in emerging markets will reach US$30 trillion and described the phenomenon as the "biggest growth opportunity in the history of capitalism."

This golden opportunity has made Asia a new stage where the new generation of Asians is proving their worth.

New Asian 1: Generation Y, Starting from Asia

An increasing number of young adults have decided, after graduating from school and working for a few years abroad, to return to Asia and live their dreams by starting their own businesses. Asia has emerged as the starting block for Generation Y.

John B. Chen is one of them. Born in Boston, the 33-year-old graduated from Cornell University with a degree in computer science, then went to work for a time in Silicon Valley. "Life for me was too comfortable. I had a high salary, was close to home, all I needed to do was writing programs. I ended up losing sight of my dream to start a business," he says.

Five years ago when "China fever" was at its most potent, Chen decided to vacate his comfort zone and headed to China, knowing nobody there and unable to speak the language. He enrolled at the Sino-European International Management Institute and befriended potential business partners. His first few weeks there, he was afraid to take taxis.

Two years later, Chen and two classmates established "Buzzinate Co." Its flagship product "BShare" provides an easy-to-install plug-in which allows publishers to implement web 2.0 features quickly, according to the company. The BShare button on 150,000 Chinese websites generates 1 billion page views every day. Buzzinate also extracts and analyzes user behavior on, and Chen is now testing algorithms that will offer advertisers "interest graphs" – profiles of users' interests – to help advertisers develop tailor-made ads for each of their users in China.

"Only in China have I had the opportunity to define the market," Chen says frankly, explaining that the American Internet market was too mature, and every Internet start-up idea that popped into his head there turned out to have already been done before.

To 33-year-old Lin Heng-you, life seems even more like a huge roundabout.

Born in Taiwan, Lin moved to Asuncion, Paraguay with his parents when he was four and then to Iquique, Chile when he was nine. While his father was hard at work, Lin worked as a DJ at clubs every weekend, playing the Latin dance songs of Shakira and Ricky Martin.

After graduating from college in Los Angeles, he exported secondhand cars for a while but realized it was not something that excited him. Having now returned to Taiwan, he has been to Burma five times and raised NT$100 million to develop a business hotel in Rangoon.

"Every place I go, it seems like I'm returning home," Lin says without hesitation. The president of the Taiwanese Chambers of Commerce in Latin America – Junior Chapter, he is a blend of South American optimism, American independent thinking, and the four Confucian virtues. He speaks Spanish, Chinese and English and is studying Burmese, fitting in wherever he goes.

In his mind, Burma represents his big opportunity. He plans to work hard for the next three to five years and then, before he turns 40, to settle down in Los Angeles, where he can run a business virtually and enjoy life. "A business can be run on the cloud, and family and work can be kept separate. Our generation can interchange the various aspects of life effortlessly."

New Asian 2: White Collar, with Asian Experience

As wave after wave of multinationals come to Asia, professionals with Asian experience are highly sought after. At the same time, fast-growing Asian companies have emerged as the top career targets of European and American talent.

Toby Anderson, English managing director of Watsons Taiwan for the past eight months, became the general manager of petrol stations at Sainsbury's Supermarkets Ltd., one of England's biggest supermarket chains, when he was 27. He eventually rose to head Sainsbury's online businesses but discovered that he was looking for something different.

"The retail industry is global, but Sainsbury's did not have any overseas business," he says.

Anderson craved overseas experience, so at the age of 32, he consulted headhunters and had opportunities in New Zealand, continental Europe and Asia. He chose Hong Kong-based health and beauty retailer A.S. Watson Group (HK) Ltd., taking on the job of managing director of the company's operations in Thailand in 2005.

He promised his mother, who did not want to see him leave London, that he would stay in Asia for three years, but the regional market's allure has been so magnetic that Anderson has been in the Far East for seven years and counting.

In April 2012, A.S. Watson sent him to tackle Taiwan's mature, fiercely competitive market.

"My four-year-old daughter was born in Thailand and is going to school in Taiwan. She will grow up in Asia and speak Mandarin," Anderson says, already envisioning his daughter having the chance to work one day in London or Shanghai and living an even broader life than his.

New Asian 3: Gold-collar Seniors, Returning to Their Roots

By the time they reach the latter half of their lives, many talented Asians working in the West have experienced success in their careers, and their children are fully grown. Content and considerate to others with a reserve of savings, these gold-collar professionals closing in on retirement age yearn to return to Asia's embrace.

Grace Lin, the vice president and director general of the Institute for Information Industry's Advanced Research Institute, had never imagined she would catch the bug. But at the age of 56, after working for IBM for 17 years, she gave up her big house in a tree-lined New York suburb and returned to Taiwan with only two suitcases in hand. She now works as a "director general" for a third of what she made in the United States.

At IBM, she used her expertise in applied mathematics to help develop an Asset Management Tool in the 1990s that saved the company US$750 million and earned her the Franz Edelman Award for Achievement in Operations Research and the Management Sciences, considered the Nobel Prize in the operations research field.

Lin decided to return to Taiwan after seeing the country bidding adieu to a manufacturing sector that had been so vibrant for three decades and the Institute for Information Industry's desperate need for talent, hoping to help Taiwan find a new path guided by "smart" industries.

Another of these New Asians drawn home is 68-year-old Chou Lien, design partner and president of Brandston Partnership Inc., the biggest architectural lighting consulting firm in the United States. He has taught classes at the Industrial Technology Research Institute and at Taiwanese universities for years, and starting in 2012, he began participating in a project at the invitation of the Coretronic Culture and Arts Foundation to help local governments improve their lighting environments.

Chou has been involved in projects to light up some of the world's most famous landmarks – the Statue of Liberty, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, and the Summer Palace in Beijing – and over half of the lighting designers in New York are his students. But he still agreed to become the honorary chairman of the newly formed Asian Association of Lighting Designers to contribute to the lighting profession in Taiwan and Asia as a whole.

These New Asians have three particular characteristics that have enabled them to turn all of Asia into their own as they pursue new dreams.

Skill No. 1: Adaptability

This group of globetrotting nomads has the ability to cut across linguistic, national and cultural barriers with ease.

"I've stopped talking about migration. I've started talking about mobility instead. People move, but they don't have to choose between countries. They can keep a foot in two or more," migration policy expert Kathleen Newland told The Economist's business editor Robert Guest in his book Borderless Economics.

The 38-year-old Buyyala of Rhythm & Hues embodies this new group and its ability to cut across borders.

Born in India, Buyyala moved to Africa at the age of five with his father, who was an agricultural engineer for an NGO. During his childhood and teenage years, he spent time in Tanzania, the Cote d'Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Living in countries lacking everything helped forge his open mind and his attitude that "nothing is impossible."

From Africa, Buyyala moved to the United States to attend college in California. He got degrees in both physics and economics and then picked up a master's degree in Engineering Economic Systems & Operations Research from Stanford University in a mere nine months.

While his classmates headed off to work in Silicon Valley or at Wall Street investment banks, Buyyala bucked convention, following his own instincts to join visual effects specialist Rhythm & Hues Studios.    

The company has grown from a staff of 80 when Buyyala joined it in 1995 to 1,400 today. Aside from its headquarters in Los Angeles, R&H has facilities in Vancouver, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Kuala Lumpur, each with 100-200 employees.

The Kaohsiung branch, set up with the encouragement of director Ang Lee, is the company's latest location. Buyyala and his wife have been the driving forces behind the Asian office. Because of these Asian facilities, "my colleagues can make Hollywood movies without having to leave home."

Skill No. 2: Staying Connected

Comfortable cutting across borders, these New Asians bring an even stronger sense of connectivity. In their eyes, the world no longer is a map hanging on the wall with clearly defined national borders, but rather a closely interlinked, often overlapping, always mobile multinational network of contacts.

When Lin, the former IBM employee who now works for the Institute for Information Industry, wanted to organize a seminar in Taipei, she made some calls and wrote some e-mails, and was able to get the chief architect for big data at IBM and several leading American professors.

For her next conference, she will invite the chief strategy officer of, and the head of analytics at UPS, continuing to bring elite talent in cutting-edge fields to Taipei stimulate new thinking.

Boundless new opportunities have also been spawned by this connectivity.

Kathleen Tan, AirAsia's regional head of commercial marketing, has more than 200,000 fans on China's popular Sina Weibo microblogging site. When she opened her Sina account two years ago, she never expected it would deliver such an amazing punch.

Tan positions herself in social media as a friend and mentor to her young fans, and uses a relaxed, straightforward, enthusiastic tone to interact with the young consumers she most wants to understand.

At a time when the world's CEOs are still pondering how to use social media marketing to their companies' benefit, Tan has already leveraged the long reach of online social networks to successfully connect the hearts of youths in every corner of Asia. That has helped make AirAsia Asia's biggest budget airline after it almost went bankrupt as recently as 12 years ago.

Skill No. 3: Resilience

The Macau band Soler, which can be a little stubborn and independent in temperament, delivers a sound that can rage like the surf or be as expansive as the sky. The band has countless fans in Taiwan's Indie music circles.

But they have also tasted frustration and disappointment.

The two brothers, Julio and Dino Acconci, left Macau at the age of 19 for Tuscany in Italy to live on their own, and they began learning Italian. As juniors in college, Julio and Dino decided to dedicate themselves to music and played tunes with Italian friends in a small room they soundproofed with discarded mattresses.

They later signed a contract with a record company and produced an album of Italian songs on their own. But because electronic music was in vogue at the time, the record company ultimately decided not to release the Acconcis' first album.

"In Asia, they thought we're European. In Europe, they thought we're Asians," Julio says.

Being strangers wherever they went meant they had to struggle to get recognition, which led them to intensify their efforts.

Three years ago, on the 10th anniversary of their return to Macau, Soler was the lead host of a high-profile event, to be attended by Chinese president Hu Jintao, in which they had to speak Mandarin.

To memorize all of their Chinese lines and avoid making a mistake in front of Hu, Dino repeatedly recited his lines during his daily treadmill run. He even asked his girlfriend to scare him, throw furniture, scream – basically do anything to disrupt his concentration – to train him to maintain his composure regardless of the circumstances.

Generation Y, white collar workers, and gold-collar seniors, showing adaptability, connectivity and resilience, have vaulted onto Asia's new stage.

They are standing on this century's biggest stage, brandishing the most polished package of abilities and talent, forging the most amazing lives.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier