Cultural Crosscurrents Buffet the Orient an Influx of Western Products, Ads, and TV Programming Has Asians Worried That Their Values Could Be Lost and Has Spurred a Rethinking of What It Means to Be Asian. Today the Monitor Continues a Series on the Competition for Regional Influence. Series: CONTEST OVER ASIA. CULTURE. Asians Try to Define New Values, Ward off Western Influences, and Create Bonds between Old Enemies. A Cultural Battlefield: Satellite TV. Part 3 of a 4-Part Series. First of 2 Articles Appearing Today

Article excerpt

THE streets of Hanoi were once the hottest battleground in the cold war. American B-52 planes dropped bombs on the Vietnamese capital, and anti-aircraft gunners fired back.

Two decades later, however, what's falling from the sky over Hanoi is the "Larry King Show," "I Love Lucy" reruns, and other foreign programs, beamed down by satellites that Vietnam cannot attack.

And in the small, private shops of Hanoi, a black market in pirated videotapes has sprung up, offering such films as Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July."

Like other Asian nations, Vietnam has discovered that an end to the conflict over Communism has opened up a new contest over culture and values.

Before Vietnam opened itself to the world, shed its Soviet patronage, and adopted free markets in the late 1980s, the only high points of foreign culture in Hanoi were Russian art books and Cuban modern-art exhibits. Now it is flooded with Japanese comic books and karaoke, Hong Kong television dramas, French fashion, Chinese cultural goods, and of course, Hollywood movies (although a Jane Fonda Workout videotape is still not to be found).

All over the region, rapid progress in trade, technology, and travel has combined with the demise of the cold war to create a whirlwind flow of ideas, people, and pop culture. Social values are being reshaped in undetermined ways that have made Asian leaders uneasy.

"Asia today is politically, and all the more culturally or vision-wise, a vacuum," says Prof. Arifin Bey of the Kanda University of Foreign Studies in Indonesia. "It is waiting for an alternative to what the cold war was."

The new flux of culture, mainly from the West, has also helped to bring Asians closer together. "There's a lot of synergy from Australia to Korea to Tibet," says Tommy Koh, chairman of Singapore's National Arts Council. "There's a cultural renaissance in East Asia."

Singapore's Information Minister George Yeo said in September that the Chinese tradition of celebrating with mooncakes can be spread to "promote new Asian spirit." The lunar festival, he told a group of ethnic Chinese businessmen, can become as international as Christmas.

Chinese-language television programs now flow freely to ethnic Chinese communities in almost every Asian nation. Intra-regional tourism has also taken off. Japan led the way in the late 1970s by making it easy for its citizens to travel abroad. Korea did the same in 1989. Even tiny, landlocked, Communist-run Laos recently allowed its people to travel, if they can afford it.

A new musical revue called Fantasia, touring the region, represents a new attempt at intra-Asian culture. The revue, which brings together Singapore actor Dick Lee and Japanese director Komei Sugano, deals with a man caught between East and West and with Western stereotypes of Asians. "If we {Asians} don't change the way we see ourselves," Lee says, "the rest of the world won't either."

The new intra-Asia cultural scene is sometimes anti-Western. "There's a push to reinvent what it means to be Asian, without accepting the Western definitions," says political scientist Chua Beng Huat at the National University of Singapore. "Instead of seeing the West as superior, Asian intellectuals are playing up the faults of the West - the homeless, the deficits" - defining what Asianism is not, rather than what it is.

A new pride has arisen among those East Asian nations that have achieved fast economic growth. "Until recently, many of these nations were seen as no-hopers." says Dr. Noordin Sopiee, head of the Institute for Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur.

But any attempt to confront the West in its cultural dominance with a form of "Asianism" would be meaningless, claims Yamazaki Masakazu, a Japanese author. The West, he notes, has had a 400-year head start on expanding its culture abroad. …