Enter China to experience Tibet independently

The inscrutable stranger

Elusive. Forbidden. Spiritual. Tibet has the heavy burden of living up to its given (and well-deserved) titles. Strikingly tall mountains, turquoise laden lakes, and colorful lungta flags flood Google’s image search. It is finding Xanadu for the curious traveler. Yet, like an inscrutable stranger, unraveling Tibet’s mysteries is not easy.

For all non-Chinese citizens, entry into Tibet is restrictive, and annoyingly so, for those who enjoy exploring freely. A permit, which can only be requested by travel agencies, is required. Moreover, a tour guide must be present for the trip’s entirety. This, by the way, only gets you into Lhasa.

Tibet’s more sociable sisters

Fortunately, seeing Tibet doesn’t have to be contained within the Tibet Autonomous Region. Historical Tibet comprised of three traditional provinces, Ü-tsang, Amdo, and Kham. And two of these provinces, Amdo and Kham, lie within modern Chinese borders. Although territorially Chinese, the Tibetan culture and heritage is omnipresent.

To enter most of Amdo and Kham, all that is required is a Chinese visa. For most visitors, this is a much less painful registration than obtaining a Tibet Permit. More importantly, traveling within China doesn’t require a constant tour guide.

Into Amdo

This is a peek into Amdo. More specifically it is a look into Xiahe County, the birthplace of the fourteenth (current) Dalai Lama.

Xiahe is home to the largest, most influential monastery, Labrang. Built in 1709, Labrang is strategically situated between two major Asian cultures, Mongolian and Tibetan. It is home to thousands of monks and around 60,000 sutras.

Inside of Labrang’s walls

Teenaged monks on their way to mid-morning prayer

Tibetan family pilgrimage

Prayer candles made of Yak butter

Pilgrims spinning prayer wheels

Modern nomads

Lush plateaus color Xiahe. They are peppered with farm animals and livestock, waiting to be herded or sold.  While Xiahe’s tourism industry is on the rise, many natives are still leading rugged nomadic lives. However, new initiatives such as the Lungta Cooperative, are cleverly fusing nomadic livelihood skills together with tourism.

It (Lungta) is meant to accommodate their skills into the changing world and the opportunities it may offer. Spread over 100 hectares of rolling hills, the cooperative comprises 140 yaks, six mud colored cabins, a yak hair nomad tent and other tents and is manned by twelve nomad men an women.

Early mornings at the Lungta Cooperative

Light leaks upon a white horse, galloping through the plateau

The 140 yaks

Dri, or a female yak, being milked

Associated with Lungta are also Norden Camp & Norlha Textiles. Both employing local Tibetans with a focus on sustainability and retaining Tibetan way of life.

Hand woven yak hair tents at Norden Camp

Hot, lazy afternoons

Women hand weaving yak khullu, or fiber, at Norlha Textiles

High mountain, low sun

Weather on the Tibetan Plateaus can change drastically, especially during summertime. Its high altitude make for particular cruel afternoons, while nights can be blistering cold without fires to keep warm.

The dry Tibeten Plateau sun

Summers can range from extreme heat to below 0o C nights




Tibet is filled with rich heritage and culture but it doesn’t have to stop at Tibetan borders. Tibet is, after all, defined by its culture, not by borderlines. While there is a lot of Tibet to discover, Amdo or Kham may be the wiser choice, especially for those who enjoy independent travel.

A dedication

I grew up pretty sheltered.

Not the ‘my parents didn’t let me out of the house’ sheltered but ‘I grew up across from a farm’ sheltered. I was safe as vanilla ice cream and not even the fancy vanilla bean kind.

I was born in Hong Kong and moved to Michigan when I was five. We touched down on Christmas Eve just in time for snowfall. It was the first time I ever saw or touched snow and I was so bamboozled. Looking back at old family albums, the story I gathered was everyday was spent outdoors during that first winter.

But as I grew older so did my surroundings. In the ocean of achromatic grey concrete and Kentucky bluegrass, it’s hard to tell which way is North. As a teen I believed it was Midwest’s endless tract housing that barred me from adventure. All I wanted to do was be elsewhere.

However, traveling post-Hong Kong was a time and economic luxury. So recounting travel stories and playing ‘name that country capital’ became favorite dinner-time activities. While stories and games kept me entertained, it also equipped me with the tools to stay curious at a young age.

Like many first-generation immigrants, my parents were dogged at adapting American culture. At the same time they knew being American, in its most utopian form, meant not giving up our Chinese heritage.

It is the combination of geography, revealing the importance of travel, and growing up as a XYZ-American that helped me understand the world is bigger than where I stood.

I am thankful for my parents whom took me on trips as a kid even though they knew I wouldn’t remember. Then needing to re-tell these trips to me because my three-year old brain didn’t have the capacity to store episodic memoryNow that my hippocampus is capable of pulling visual memories together, I won’t be forgetting these lessons anytime soon. Thank you.


After moving to Shanghai, I began to see how caustic my views were regarding a suburban upbringing. Growing up in Michigan makes for interesting conversation when you live abroad. It feels more unexpected, draws more confused faces, and usually leads to long talks. Perhaps this is true, perhaps it’s in my head – but it sounds about right. 


Ouzo for one

A long time coming

In 2013 I traveled solo to Greece. Both of which were firsts for me; going to Greece + traveling by myself. Over the course of 3 weeks, I ventured across the archeological landmine known as the mainland and took an overnight ferry to Crete. When I wasn’t touring, Athens and Chania became temporary squatting hubs. 

But it wasn’t until recently that I noticed Greece would creep into random conversations and silhouette my dreams. Whether it was recalling a now-hilarious transportation disaster or some serendipitous encounters; Greece left a deeper impression than I previously reckoned.

So why did it take this post 4 years to materialize? I’ve always looked back fondly on this trip and it gave me travel photography bragging rights for weeks. But, I guess, like a good bone broth (that’s ‘hip’ these days, right?), ingredients required time to ruminate, to slowly simmer, until each memory found its way to the top. Finally, impurities were patiently ladled away until distant memories revealed moments of clarity on why this trip was spectacular to me.

What’d you think about all those ruins?

The first question I typically get is: did I visit the Acropolis? I did, among many other archeological sites. Immediately followed by: what did I think about them? At this point, I think they’re trying to quiz my or their own ancient Greek philosophy, history, and mythology knowledge. But for anyone who had an all-generic high school ‘European history’ class like mine, I know I won’t have a good follow-up after “Man that Mycenaean period, so much cruder than a Hellenisitic period, but got to respect the Bronze Age”.

So I opt for a more personal answer. After 3 or so sites, I was ancient Greek’d out. I did, however, enjoy questioning the meaning of life and time with each visit. Picture staring out across a boundless ocean on the right and gazing up until the sun hurts your eyes at the Temple of Poseidon on the left.

Yet, on the relatability scale, the sites would be there with ‘Fox and Friends is my news source’ end. It was the present everyday happenings and planning which stirred my emotions. What better time than the present?

The little things

The everyday happenings. Meeting generous and quirky people on the road for one. My first local interactions were with Airbnb hosts, who were warm and curious people. I sat down for tea and snacks with my first host and her friend. The three of us exchanged stories of what was important in our culture then, work, and life. For Greeks, the conversation had a curious pattern which began with a personal story and ended with ridding fascism (anti-austerity protests were going strong then). Were their invitations to dinner genuine? Yes, I think so. It also helped their 5-star reviews.

My next memorable interaction happened in Chania. Tucked away on a winding alleyway is a record shop and sitting in the back is the owner. His appearance is a cross between Tommy Chong (from Cheech and Chong) and Doc Brown. We talked about tourism on the island. His first observation was that I was Asian. Second, I was one of his few Asian patrons. He then said, there aren’t many Asians that visit Chania except for residents of Formosa. For those who are unfamiliar The Republic of Formosa, was once a republic in present Taiwan. “It was a short-lived republic in 1895 between the formal cession of Taiwan by the Qing Dynasty of China to the Empire of Japan1“. No one has used that phrase so casually in 80-odd years. I was shocked.

Laughing at myself

Other daily adventures were personal. When traveling alone you face many truths about yourself. How coordinated, patient, and brave you are or aren’t.

Some memorable moments included: the adventurous driving along Crete’s coast. It was my second time seeing the Mediterranean Sea but my first time driving along its coast. Its beauty must’ve really captivated me because I took a wrong turn on an uphill dirt road (in a Corolla).

On my return to Athens, I felt the power and revitalization of a good protest for the first time. I unknowingly followed their route for 20 minutes. As I popped from park to store I seemed to be on their tail. It was inspiring to see the energy of the anti-austerity protesters until a mandated lockdown was ordered in the store I was in. The staff locked the doors and pulled down metal gates. We waited until the protestors and police were deemed at a far enough distance before we could leave. I realized, years later, the irony of witnessing Democracy’s birthplace struggling to cope with an election of a Golden Dawn member into the Parliament.

Lastly, a minor hiccup. A leisurely last day was budgeted for Athens’ art scene. The visit to Athens Biennale was cut short after realizing my flight home was actually 22:00 not 10:00 (next day). Whoops.

Lessons learned

It’s near impossible not to have introspection and retrospection on solo vacations. In the trip’s denouement, three major thoughts sparked.

The first thought. Traveling can feel like having an overzealous yoga instructor at your first-ever yoga session. Traveling in unknown territory come with twists and turns that put you in uncomfortable, awkward positions. But once you warm up, hurdle over mental and physical blocks, you achieve a greater connection with your surroundings and self.

The second thought is more of a promise to myself.  I will learn one new fact about the city and its people during travel. Whether reading the latest headlines or brushing up on the city’s history, a little homework has helped my trips be more enjoyable through understanding the city’s vibe a bit more. Then when I arrive at my destination, speak to locals and ask them to kindly share with you. Their experiences, opinions, and food.

My final thought, traveling is fun. With planned activities and traveling within traveling it’s easy to forget. I’m a person who likes to play it loose but secretly loves control. In a new place, the feeling of not knowing is mildly anxiety inducing for me. Its taken a bit of reflection before I recognized the stress I encounter while traveling was a “good” kind of stress. The kind that keeps you on your toes. And for the sake of a good vacation, that mild discomfort can, for the time being, be seen as thrilling.

The little things.

Incremental change: hints of China’s travel future

The Chinese Travel Evolution

As the world witnessed an influx of Chinese travelers in the past 20 years, many of the trips accounted for were quick and easy, itinerary set, group tours – which prioritized shopping and iconic sight seeing (often in that order) first.  Undoubtedly numerous countries benefited from this tourism hike (namely Korea, European shopping meccas, and the US)– but not all were fans of this rush. As Chinese tourists started discovering the world after decades of market and economic closure – tourism began to slowly unravel and picked up momentum in the late 90’s. During this time, tourism in China was still at its infant stage – interpersonal conversations, out of group or self led tours, and cultural sensitivity was minimal. But as many white-collar tourists are going on nth trip out of China, cultural clues have been absorbed, curiosities have widened beyond tourist sites, and consumers are craving for more than a Louis Vuitton bag to take home.

Visa’s new ‘‘爱上自游’ campaign encourages travelers to explore without pretense and wander freely


Businesses recognizing this small, yet influential step towards travel have shifted their communication efforts to support their consumer’s desire for a more experiential travel. Credit card companies, for example, in lieu of capitalizing on the products or the ‘money’ aspect of travel are encouraging travelers to dive into the exploration and immersion side of travel.

In a new Visa campaign, which borrows from past Visa experiential travel tropes (e.g. ‘It’s everywhere you want to be’ in the 80’s and the not too distant past of ‘go Travel Happy’) – a storyline emerges around two businessmen who are asked for partake in a 48-hour ‘Visa Card’ challenge. They are asked to travel Chiang Mai Thailand with no cash, no help, and only a Visa card.  While the scenes can be dizzying (literally the first 10 seconds I felt nauseous from camera movement) with narrative that seem to be inspired by the 2013 Chinese hit comedy film ‘Lost in Chiang Mai’– the scenarios and trouble they find themselves in speak tremendously about the path Chinese travel is on.  Visa challenges viewers to travel independently and freely, as the last phrase viewers see is #爱上自’ – literally to fall in love with independent travel, with a homophonic play on words between the words independent and travel (independent in Chinese is自由 ‘zì yóu’, the play on words comes when the second character ‘yóu’ is replaced with the character ‘’ | yóu, which has the same pronunciation but meaning travel). In all, this commercial strikes several different chords than most ads out there in China today. It’s spunky, it’s lively, and it’s not all about the glitz and glamour of luxurious traveling. It’s sparking the imagination of future travelers and more or less telling them it’s ok to 迷路 (‘mílù’ or ‘be lost’) – without the help of a tour guide. 

UnionPay (Visa’s strongest contender in China) on the other hand, tactfully eliminated all foreign currency exchange fees with their business cardholders – but they’ve yet to communicate this outside of their website. And as for personal UnionPay cardholders, there’s been a silence in travel communication – or communication in general (their last updated commercial spot since 2012). While American Express, has kept true to its more exclusive, premium discourse by collaborating with selected partners worldwide. Thus, much of their communication is targeted towards a specific audience, in a specific medium, and not as publically well known as the Visa commercials.

Where travel is heading in China

It’s not Visa’s sudden leap of faith that has driven their newest campaign. Chinese travelers, especially with the post-80’s generation and younger (or in Western terms Gen X&Y), are taking much more trips outside the country, and often sans tour group. So what are some of the trends that can be seen from these second generation travelers?


Travel list-and-rent sites such as AirBnB and Chinese-born Xiaozhu gain traction with modern travelers


  • Taking away comfort zones & traditional luxuries: As Chinese white-collar got richer, so did their expectations, and material possessions. So when it came time to explore Western countries or more exotic locations, comfort and pamper naturally came with. But while this is a ‘nice to have’ it doesn’t set precedent on their entire trip. Amenities of a 5-star hotel and high-noon tea have turned into AirBnB stays, which often times feels more authentic, being part of the cultural experience, and needless to say cheaper. AirBnB, is now collaborating with AliPay making it much easier for Chinese travelers to book under their site.  Because of the popularity and ease of use of AirBnB, new doors have opened up for AirBnB like sites in China – such as Xiaozhu and Tujia, where users can post listings of properties that can be rented out. Both Xiaozhu and Tujia also received large amounts of funding from investors earlier this year ($15M and $100M respectively) 1,2.
  • Observance and practice of cultural traditions and sensitivities: In the past (and perhaps with less experience travelers now) it was not uncommon to see Chinese tourists ‘stop, snap a pic, and go’ without a richer understanding of what they’re seeing. When the more sites and trips you took equated to wealth and prestige – then quantity, naturally, is what was chased after.   However, as the nouveau riche started reaching deeper than their pockets could offer, sheer quantity started becoming less impressive. For modern travelers, cultural learning is a chance to have fun and become hands on. It is also a social badge to take home in hopes to showcase one’s social development and personal growth, one that cannot be earned from economic prosperity.


Cultural immersion and practice seen in the new Visa ‘爱上自游’ campaign


  • Adventures of a different kind: With so many middle and upper class Chinese travelers no longer needing sightseeing tour operations, new adventure based activities have been sprouting up in hopes to capture their attention. Trophy hunting, for example, has grown tenfold in the past five years – with trips spanning from Tanzania, Mexico, and New Zealand3. While scuba diving remains one of the top sports for Chinese while traveling, with enthusiasts planning trips around their next dive. As a case study, one of my own friends, a Beijing native, has recently taken a trip to Thailand, not for the beaches, but for deep-sea fishing.

Staying Power of Individual Travel

For the modern traveler, interactive and immersive experiences have created a demand for travel-related content. ‘BreadTrip (面包游行)’ a China-born travel tool, merged the need of reviews and social interaction together. Travelers can record their trips and share with their friends their travelogue while reviewing and recommending destinations and accommodations. But more importantly, it’s allowing members to build a network of (mostly) modern travelers to share their adventures and tips – leaving inspiration for future trekkers.  With over 1 million registered users within the first two years, the number is only increasing as Breadtrip is currently on its 4th version with top ratings from Apple’s app store. But as sites such as BreadTrip become more popular, will its social database become more diluted with the ‘not so modern’ travelers who go on trips for the sake of social badging to make sure their face and voice is heard? If past trends give hint to the future of ‘trial and review’ these sites are surely going to be ‘overused’ leaving travelers unsure whose opinions are valuable. So where will these ‘true’ modern travelers turn to? – Organically formed groups? Websites/apps which lets you be your own travel guide (e.g. Tripomatic)?

Finally, a sobering number for thought; as 2014 is wrapping up – Chinese tourists are expected to spend approximately 155 billion USD over the course of this year traveling abroad (according to the China Tourism Academy) – a 20% jump from 20134.  As modern travel rises alongside these figures– all eyes are on the next unique, extreme, and/or catered travel experiences for China’s next generation of world explorers.


1 – https://www.techinasia.com/china-xiaozhu-short-term-rentals-startup-series-b-funding/

2 – http://blogs.wsj.com/venturecapital/2014/06/18/chinas-answer-to-airbnb-tujia-com-raises-100m/

3 – http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/us/2014-09/30/content_18689384.htm

4 – http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2014-09/23/content_18647477.htm

Original publication for Flamingo Lens, written by Cheryl Hung

Olympics ad campaigns feature global unity, except in China

On August 5 the world will come together to celebrate the Olympic games. While much of the news coverage is questioning host city Rio de Janeiro’s preparedness for over 500,000 tourists, the marketing world is more focused on the 3.6 billion viewers expected to tune in worldwide.

An especially key audience for global brands is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), both because of the size of the market and the importance of the games to the national self-conception.

The 2016 Rio games marks just the 10th Olympic appearance by China. In 1952, 32 delegates were sent to Helsinki, Finland, but only one competitor arrived in time to compete. Subsequently, China would go on to withdraw from the Olympics and all other international sports federations for 25 years. Since 1984, the PRC has doubled the number of delegates it sends to compete to 412, a number exceeded only by the United States and host country Brazil. With such a large Olympic team, and the promise of a sizable medal haul, it’s no wonder that China takes considerable pride in its team.

But pride doesn’t necessarily translate into passion, which is why since the Beijing games in 2008, brands have been scrambling to come up with ad campaigns that will ignite the fervor of fans. However, this might be difficult to achieve if brands continue to recycle two tired themes—saccharine sentiment and Chinese nationalism.

Coca-Cola launched its global #ThatsGold campaign to spark “mutual understandings, friendships, solidarity, togetherness, inclusion and equality”.

While the world is watching a global campaign about togetherness through a multi-cultural lens of Olympic competitors, China gets its own adaptation on the theme of togetherness but with a cast that’s limited to Chinese teammates and their parents.

Although the theme of both campaigns is meant to be sharing and togetherness, the delivery, tonality and emotions are completely different. While the global ad, celebrating world unity, is upbeat and hopeful, the Chinese ad continues with themes of devotion, dedication and bonding only with those closest to us. Coke is purposefully plucking at Chinese heartstrings to conjure up nationalistic pride.

Using similar tactics to Coke’s global campaign, Samsung shot a beautiful, ethereal video combining 15 national anthems together to create one world anthem. Their hope was to deliver a message of unity and shared humanity. Listening to anthems from Botswana to Malaysia, the Chinese anthem is conspicuously absent.

What China received instead was another local adaptation, this time an invocation for all Chinese citizens to try their hardest (全民加油). This digital campaign is a call to action asking netizens to film themselves dancing to a pop hit performed by the band GALA. (Note here they’ve replaced China’s actual national anthem with an anthemic pop song).


The only other country to get its own local adaptation of the Samsung campaign is South Sudan, and deservedly so—it’s entering the Olympics for the very first time.

These China adaptations send a conflicting message. On one hand, brands want Chinese consumers to feel respected and understood, yet at the same time they are communicating a message of isolation. While time will tell whether these adaptations are successful, they do make a bold, pessimistic statement: brands don’t feel that Chinese people identify as global citizens.

Yet many Chinese people, and especially young people, are cosmopolitan. They’re incredibly active on digital platforms, always keeping up to date with global trends and happenings. Combined with the increase in overseas travel—this summer alone, we will witness the largest number of outbound travellers ever—China’s growing global connectedness is undeniable.

The Olympics is a major television event, and it could be a prime starting point for brands to deliver a new outlook rather than falling back on overused themes. With a little courage, brands could’ve used the openness of digital platforms to extend the idea of global connectedness to China.

In Samsung’s case, instead of asking only Chinese netizens to film themselves dancing, they could’ve extended the dance-off to other Olympic nations. In return, Chinese netizens could’ve participated in other nations’ dance-offs. This could’ve hit home the message of unity and embracing cultural differences instead of feeding the shortsighted, monoculture stereotype often associated with China.

To promote exciting, progressive ideas is to offer new and unexpected thoughts that are geared more towards the future than the present. As Chinese consumers become more worldly, and China continues to partner with businesses abroad, there’s both a need and a desire to forge a common ground and build mutual tolerance. The Olympics provide the perfect opportunity, if only brands would seize it.

Original publication for Campaign Asia, written by Cheryl Hung

Chinese women in advertising: Beyond the demure and the debauched

Hoping gender equality would boost the nation’s economic revival, Mao declared that “women hold up half the sky” back in the 1950s.

Propaganda art that followed depicted muscular women working alongside men in all kinds of professions, encouraging society to see them as equals. Today, a higher proportion of Chinese women occupy positions of professional power than in other, more developed, East Asian nations.

Yet in a traditionally Confucian society, women are also expected to be good wives, mothers and daughters. They face the difficult task of fulfilling the dual roles established by divergent cultural and political values. This is not only a challenge for individual women, but for Chinese media, whose characters rarely exhibit both professional competence and strong commitments to their partners and families.

In fact, the most common female archetypes either revert back to antiquated notions of beauty—women who are demure and delicate—or borrow from Western ideas of total independence and sexual liberation, as evidenced in Chinese imitations of Sex and the City. Neither approach deals with the more complex, negotiated identities of modern Chinese women.

Technology giants Baidu and Youku both came under fire for their sites’ International Women’s Day doodles this year, which landed heavily on the demure and delicate side of the ledger. Baidu featured a young girl on top of a music box, who, when wound up, transformed into a princess, while Youku showed a woman drinking tea in a rocking chair, nestled in a frame of flowers.

On the flip side, the immensely popular Tiny Times movie franchise, which is due to release its fourth episode this year, gives a spectacularly superficial account of Chinese career women. Beauties draped head to toe in designer clothing have affairs with handsome metrosexual men and engage in workplace conflicts with equally good-looking male bosses.

More promising is a new direction led by sports brands. This may be unsurprising to readers in the West, where the category has historically promoted female empowerment, as evidenced in Nike’s 1980s ‘Be as tough as she is’ ads. But in China, where there’s minimal support for athletics, it’s astounding to see sports communications leading this shift.

Initially sports brands continued to cast Chinese women in a feminine light. In Li Ning’s 2009 ‘Inner shine’ campaign, women were shown as slim, peaceful and pristine. But in 2012, Nike and W+K broke away from these images with its ‘Be amazing’ campaign. The spot featured a sweaty, frazzled Ella, the singer from Taiwanese girl band S.H.E, after a workout. Nike was also one of the first brands in any category to address familial and societal pressures young girls commonly face in China, including a love/hate relationship with the mirror and pressure to conceal their curves.

Meanwhile, Adidas has been pushing its ‘All in for #mygirls’ message, which celebrates the sisterhood of sports. The campaign, which has run since 2013, hopes to encourage women to break personal bests through the support of their (sisters). While Adidas concentrates on the lifestyle and social bonding aspects of sports, its women’s campaigns still endeavour to break with feminine norms by, for instance, showing female traceurs running off course instead of running ‘properly’ on a defined track.

Outside of sports, however, few brands are celebrating female intelligence, creativity and effort, despite a number of excellent real-world role models: Chai Jing for her self-financed documentary Under the Dome, Cao Fei for her significant contribution to Chinese contemporary art, or Ma Jiajia as an inspirational post-90s entrepreneur who opened a sex shop after graduating.

So the question remains, when will advertisers catch up? Dove’s ‘Real beauty’ campaign has been around since 2004, but there’s only been one major adaptation for the China market—the 2013 ‘Real beauty sketches’. Car ads still put women outside the car or in the passenger seat, even though the number of female drivers has risen more than 11 times in the past 10 years, compared to just 7.4 times for men.

Returning to Mao, Scholars Tina Mai Chen and Harriet Evans argue that propaganda poster depictions of women were not as radically feminist as some have imagined. Those women’s hard, muscular bodies were merely clones of male bodies, and in images that showed women working side-by-side with men they were almost always put in a subordinate role. Perhaps contemporary media portrayals of women are not regressive, but neither are they progressive. That leaves real opportunities for brands that can find ways to resonate with the complex lived realities of contemporary Chinese women.

Original publication for Campaign Asia , written by Cheryl Hung