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Creative Guru, Milo Chao

May 30, 2019

My name is Milo Chao. I am a host on the Cao & Chao Show, which focuses on creativity in China. I was born in Dublin, raised in Queens, and now I live on Yueyang Road.

I first came to China in 1992 to visit a cousin at the Beijing Language Institute. The second time was in 1996 to study at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. I was in Hong Kong to witness the handover in 1997 and try my hand at being a journalist when I was hired by the advertising agency GREY; I helped launch Starbucks in China.

The podcast started with a question: What can China teach the world about creativity?

This is a thought-provoking question, mostly because of the stereotype that China is a copycat culture that steals ideas from the rest of the world. In particular, there is strong rhetoric that supports the notion that the West somehow has a monopoly on Creativity with a capital C — as in, original innovation — while China has shanzhai. I wanted to deconstruct this idea.

With my colleague Philana Woo, I started interviewing Chinese people that achieved a certain level of international recognition in creative fields. The project caught the attention of the TV personality Cao Jingxing and together we started the podcast.

The challenge with the first series of interviews is that I did not get a clear picture about what China can teach the world about creativity, but I can say a few things.

There is much to be gained from an exploration of China’s past creative achievements, particularly the confidence to know that the Chinese are no doubt capable of amazing feats of invention and innovation.

One architect I spoke with said that she found inspiration in the ancient art of taijiquan, because of the grace and the calming effect of it. One musician said that if there is anything the world can learn from China is how to steal unapologetically and add your own flavor and voice to it.

But to be honest, the real story is not in what China can teach the world about creativity but what it takes to be creative in China. Most of the people I spoke with talked about how difficult it is to be creative in China. The educational system stymies it, parents discourage it, and yet, they still found a way.

Shanghai"

How? Some were able to stay ahead of the homework, far enough ahead that they could daydream or pursue passions that few others had the time or energy to pursue. Some were encouraged by their parents to ignore what their teachers told them, some to question what their teachers told them. Some just left the country to discover a different way of thinking.

There were still others who suffered through their youth, lived without books, toys, diversions, having only their wits and imagination to keep them company. It was because of this, not in spite of it, that they emerged more creative.

As for me, I don’t consider myself a creative, I am just someone who gravitates to that world. In elementary school, I had a thing for Rembrandt and Caravaggio — shadows and suffering. I suppose you could say I was a bit tormented as a kid. After college, I tried to distance myself from creativity for decades. I even got an MBA, which I believed would have been the nail in the coffin. It didn’t work. I was the poet of my class.

I guess in a pool of people who do not consider creativity a primary asset, I stand out as creative. Within a pool of creatives, I think I am pretty average. There are different levels of creativity. Essentially, Picasso is at the top, and me at the bottom. But I truly believe that everyone is born with it, some people just feel more need to put it out there than others.

Creativity is a process. You have to study your subject to get some ideas. You have to be in a good mood — getting in the zone is very important. Fear is an idea killer, so losing, or at least forgetting about it, is also important. I like taking breaks; I think when you get into something for too long you start going off-course. I am a huge believer in the power of in-between spaces/places where the pressure to create is suspended and you are given the freedom to imagine without judgment: showers, walks, naps.

The first season of the podcast was all in Chinese. I’m recording interviews for the second season, which was recently released through Himalaya and iTunes. This time, a good number of episodes will be in English. We will be speaking with quite a few entrepreneurs, founders and advertising creatives this season as well. Not only to the ones who have already arrived but also to those who are on their way. I am particularly interested in their stories from the perspective of creativity.

It’s the central point of the podcast.

TELL EVERYONE

VENUES MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE:

  • Starbucks Reserve Roastery

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  • Starbucks Reserve Bakery Café

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      1/F, Grand Gateway, 1 Hongqiao Lu, near Huashan Lu
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      3424 9077

    The Starbucks Reserve Bakery Cafe has been squeezed out of the same mold the Green Giant used for its Reserve Roastery: a menu of special drinks that are twice the price... Read more

[Shanghai Famous]:

Shanghai Famous is a weekly SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city makin' the scene. They're out there around town, shaping Shanghai into what it is, creating the art, culture, and life around us. We asked them what's good in Shanghai. We asked them what's bad in Shanghai. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

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