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THE SAFE SUBVERSIVE

2008-02-23 | THE GUARDIAN



To the Chinese she is known simply as Yue-Sai, and she lies somewhere on the scale between Martha Stewart and Oprah  although, this being China, a country where on a good day Oprah can command 30 million viewers, Yue-Sai Kan's television show has been known to broadcast to an audience of 300 million  the population of the United States.


One night in Shanghai, Yue-Sai throws a party, celebrating the winner of a prize for young artists whom she sponsors. As stated on the invite, the dress code is "Yue-Sai red". The scene inside her penthouse apartment is typical of a certain milieu in Shanghai at the moment, dominated by what might be called the men in cashmere jumpers: that is, the European art dealers, carpetbaggers and assorted taste-makers, who descend on a country after the initial boom but before the money settles. They mill about, drinking champagne and eyeing the furniture like bailiffs. To Yue-Sai's delight, the Italian ambassador is also present, and before he can get too comfortable he is grabbed by Yue-Sai's sister, Vickie, and made to watch a promotional video about Yue-Sai on a large flat screen television. "She introduced make-up to the Chinese woman," Vickie hisses, and the ambassador allows a gracious smile.


Yue-Sai, meanwhile, resplendent in red, has sushi sent out to those smoking on the balcony and mingles around a coffee table on which a copy of Forbes magazine has been left open at a page mentioning her in the context of women of achievement. As they come inside, guests file past the photo of Yue-Sai meeting Prince Charles, and congregate beneath the framed poster of her face on a set of Chinese postage stamps. At one point, she leans over and, in a voice that is neither wholly serious nor wholly self-mocking, hands me a cup and says, "Yue-Sai tea?"

Several days earlier, on a cold afternoon, I visited Yue-Sai's apartment and was invited by her assistant to watch the same promotional video. It shows Yue-Sai broadcasting in front of the Eiffel Tower and the Hollywood sign, and describes her as a "cosmetics queen", "cultural ambassador" and "humanitarian". Just as it finishes, as if she has been waiting for her cue, Yue-Sai sweeps into the room, her make-up so flawless it's like looking at someone trapped behind glass. Her Cartier watch is the size of a playing card.


The premise for our meeting is Yue-Sai's inclusion in the Victoria & Albert museum's forthcoming blockbuster show, China Design Now, which recognizes the 58-year-old TV host's iconic status in China by featuring a range of her products alongside the work of the best Chinese architects, fashion and graphic designers: there will be the "Yue-Sai Wa Wa" tribute dolls, her books on social etiquette, some of the Yue-Sai Kan cosmetics range and items from her latest venture, the House of Yue-Sai. This is a sort of Shanghai version of the Conran Shop that will sell patterned napkins and lacquered paperweights, and all the other things people in the west use to advertise their wealth, and that Yue-Sai hopes will catch on in China. "I am taking my famous brand name and horizontally growing it across a whole range of categories," she says, "from table-top glasses to chopsticks to dishes to furniture, to bedding, accessories, lighting, to everything. Because China doesn't really have a lifestyle brand, not to international standards. Yue-Sai, as you will see, is not fearful of offending her customers, the stylistic cost of whose isolationism she sums up thus: "If you go around town, there are some stores that sell the most peculiar furniture." Her baby-face puckers into an expression of horror.


There is a question as to whether the Chinese language has found a way to accommodate Yue-Sai and the broader cultural movement she represents, the way the term "lifestyle" took off in the west in the 80s. Yes, she says, the term in Chinese is "fu gue", pronounced "foo-gway". "Everyone wants to be 'fu gue' in China at the moment. What is fu gue?" she speaks in that manner peculiar to nursery school teachers and TV veterans  "Well, fu means rich; gue really means style, elegance. That's what everybody seems to want to be. There is a lot of fu in China right now, but there is little gue."


"There are few things you can do in life that live on after you die," she says. "For example, I am a great admirer of composers. Look at Mozart, look at Beethoven. There is architecture. And the other thing you can do is build a brand. Build a brand that lasts 150 years."