E-commerce giant Taobao tries to sell its most ambitious product yet: Chinese originality

E-commerce giant Taobao tries to sell its most ambitious product yet: Chinese originality

More than 200 top merchants from Alibaba’s e-commerce platform were handpicked to convene at the Taobao Maker Festival, yet truly original offerings were largely conspicuous by its absence.

Taobao Maker Festival - Future Wise robot
This Pacific Rim-style large-scale robot by start-up Future Wise (Beijing) Robotic System Technology was a crowd puller at this year's Taobao Maker Festival. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

HANGZHOU, China: “To be young is to create.”

So proclaimed one of the digital couplets welcoming visitors to Taobao’s celebration of Chinese creativity and originality - the Taobao Maker Festival - held at Hangzhou’s famously picturesque West Lake over the past weekend.

Taobao Maker Fest - digital couplet
The digital couplet took a prominent spot welcoming guest to the innovation-themed zone at Taobao Maker Festival. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Mr Chris Tung, chief marketing officer at Alibaba, told a media briefing ahead of the festival’s launch on Thursday (Sep 13) that more than 200 merchants from its online shopping portal were handpicked to showcase their products. This number, he added, was up from the 108 invited last year.

Many of the exhibitors are either millennials or younger, he said.

“Taobao Maker Festival, which receives a huge number of visitors every year, is the perfect stage for these young creators to experiment and commercialise their original ideas,” the company said in its press release. 

Locating the event outdoors at West Lake was one of the many firsts in this year's edition which ran from Sep 13 to 16, Mr Tung shared. The previous two editions were held indoors.

Another was the focus to wow visitors with the products and innovation on display across six themed zones - innovation, anime, intangible cultural legacy, vintage, pets and gourmet - at the sprawling venue.

A night market was also introduced for the first time.

To enhance the shopper experience, Mr Tung also mentioned the use of mixed reality. Unfortunately, Channel NewsAsia was not able to try it out at the demo area which had the Microsoft logo emblazoned prominently, hinting at the use of its HoloLens. Company representatives limited the demonstration to selected VIP guests that day as they said some of the equipment was not working properly.

Entering the grounds, one of the most noticeable displays was an imposing, Pacific Rim-style robot hunched over as if in wait for its next opponent.

Two individuals can fit into the cockpit of the robot, dubbed XX21, with the “driver” controlling its arms and fingers. The robot's view of the crowd was beamed to a nearby flat-screen TV.

The company behind the metallic beast is Chinese start-up Future Wise (Beijing) Robotic System Technology, which began operations in 2015 and led by 34-year-old CEO Han Lei.

Mr Han told Channel NewsAsia that while those interested in the robot would likely be hobbyists and those in the film and entertainment industry,he hoped the robot would also be used for more practical things like fire-fighting.

It is not cheap, setting back customers who place orders through its online store millions in Chinese yuan.

While Future Wise peddled the possibilities of the future, another Taobao merchant is hoping to commemorate and revive a language from the country’s past.

Taobao Maker Festival - Jiangyong Nushu
One of the bags designed with Nushu script, which reads: "You urban folks really know how to party." 

Hunan native Ho Yuan Hui, 27, shared with Channel NewsAsia that he started his year-old business to spur awareness and use of the Nushu language, which was used only by the women of Jiangyong in his home province.

Mr Ho said the use of Nushu has dropped and now only “10 or so people” use the language fluently.

The recent design graduate peddled products from bags to wallets and handphone covers printed with Nushu characters to highlight the uniqueness and culture behind the art.

Yet for each merchant peddling an interesting product, there are many more at the Taobao Maker Festival that appeared to have merely given a local twist to products already available in the wider international market.

Take for example the pets-themed zone - a new addition to the show, according to Alibaba CMO Tung.

Many of the stalls there were showing off pet homes, accessories and clothing that aren’t uncommon to those available anywhere else.

Taobao Maker Festival - Pets zone
One of the merchants, which sells things like pet strollers, taking a breather with her dog at a new addition at the festival: The pets-themed zone. 

Taobao Maker Festival - Pets clothes
One of the shops, Slay All Day, hung out outfits like lightweight jackets and outdoor wear meant for one's furry friend. 

Those at the vintage-themed zone had the usual offering of old vinyl records, books and collectibles like retro cameras and coke cans. It was reminiscent of a hastily thrown together flea market.

Others simply gave a 21st-century makeover to icons from Chinese culture and folklore. One merchant, for instance, took characters from the Monkey King (or Sun Wukong) and placed them on a stick much akin to a touristy knick-knack you might find at an airport gift shop.

Taobao Maker Festival - Chinese legends model maker
Characters like Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie from the Monkey King folklore were among those displayed on a stick at this stall manned by a middle-aged man in what looked like an ancient Chinese outfit. (Photo: Jeremy Long)


Perhaps what best expressed the lofty ambitions of what Taobao wanted the festival to be and what was eventually delivered was the fashion show held in conjunction with it for the first time.

Tung told the media that the fashion show was the first of it's kind, and he wanted it to be a unique platform to showcase the originality of fashion designers on Taobao. 

Taobao Maker Festival - Broken Bridge
The crew overseeing the festival's first fashion show hard at work, even as the night sky was pierced by the many spotlights installed for the event.

The e-commerce giant picked as good a venue as any to achieve that goal: West Lake’s Broken Bridge. It invited 20 top designers in China to show off their original works not just to the guests but also to those watching the live stream of the show on its mobile app and online streaming platform Youku.

Guests were seated on a floating platform backed by what seemed to be a wall of spotlights and surrounded by massive speakers perched atop the lake.

However, these were marred by a tension-filled entry to the floating platform, followed by more than an hour of waiting for the show to start. Clearing the Broken Bridge of passers-by and park visitors also took longer, and more security, than what this reporter is used to seeing back home.

The fashion show only kicked off shortly after 11pm, when Alibaba Group co-founder and chairman Jack Ma arrived to much fanfare (and bodyguards).

Taobao Maker Festival - Jack Ma at fashion show
Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma attended the festival's first fashion show at the iconic West Lake venue. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Mr Ma's exit on the same runway the models and dancers had only just vacated marked the night's abrupt end.

It was a fitting denouement to the fashion show, and the overall festival. 

Amid the hype and energy put into creating a spectacular event and attracting public buzz, the only question that lingered after was: "That was it?"

Source: CNA/kk