FOCUS NOT ON AMERICA’S CULTURAL VALUES, BUT ON THE VALUE OF ITS CULTURE
As in much of the world, Americans and American culture are often viewed in China with a mixture of repulsion and fascination. Andrew Ballen has ridden the second part of that equation to improbable heights.
Ballen arrived in China four years ago “on a whim,” he says. A native of New York, Ballen, now 32, had dropped out of Duke University’s law school, angering his father, a high-achieving Jamaican immigrant who is a physician in North Carolina. Ballen wanted to get far away from the scene of his failure, and China seemed about as far away as he could go. He didn’t know a soul in China. He didn’t speak a word of Chinese.
To cushion his landing, he took a job at one of China’s leading for-profit language schools. After a month, he realized two things. First, he’d never earn enough money as an English teacher to live well in China. Second, Chinese youth were mesmerized by hip-hop. “As an American black kid, I knew something about hip-hop,” Ballen says.
He’d never done serious performing in America, but Ballen quickly started his own weekly Thursday night hip-hop show in Shanghai, renting out a club, paying a flat fee to the Chinese owner, and keeping the $4 entrance fee and a slice of the bar take. He canvassed top universities, distributing fliers to students to announce his opening night. He did the same in expat neighborhoods, concentrating on women. “Get the hot women, and the hot men follow,” Ballen says, summarizing his marketing strategy.
Three hundred people turned out to hear Ballen rap and DJ on opening night, and kids keep coming back, in increasingly large numbers. On a recent Thursday night, Ballen takes in $3,200 from the gate, and the bar soaks up more than $10,000. In the four-year history of the show, Ballen has grossed nearly $2 million.
The rap gig launched a burgeoning multimedia empire. A few months after his debut in the club, Ballen started an English-language radio talk show where he spoke frankly about romance and the anxieties of youth. The talk show led to a deal with Motorola; Ballen became “the voice” for some cell-phone services. Next he started a popular TV travel program, striking an innovative deal with one of Shanghai’s leading stations that allowed him to sell advertising and keep the lion’s share of the take.
Andrew Ballen is now a star in China. He moves around the country with two Chinese assistants, one of them on hand simply to answer his mobile phone. The endorsement deals keep coming; even his old employer, the language school, pays him more than $1,000 a month to be a pitchman. He is frequently stopped on the street by Chinese who want to shake his hand or buy him a beer.
On a recent Friday, after staying up all night at the hip-hop club, Ballen snatches a few hours of sleep, then goes into a studio to do a radio commercial. Next he grabs a late breakfast and gulps down two cups of coffee before locking himself away to write a script for his next TV episode. Between paragraphs, he ponders how someone who never ran a business in the United States could launch so many, so quickly, in a country he still barely comprehends. “I have nothing,” he says, “but my imagination.”