Interviewed by Hans Tung and Zara Zhang.
We interviewed Hao Wu, a Chinese American film director, producer and writer to discuss his recent work “People’s Republic of Desire”, a documentary about the live streaming industry in China.
Originally trained as a molecular biologist, Hao worked in tech before becoming a full-time filmmaker. He held various management positions at technology companies including Excite@Home, Yahoo China and Alibaba. From 2008-2011, he was the China Country Manager for TripAdvisor. As his career progressed, so did his passion in more artistic and creative endeavors. In 2012 he decided to pursue documentary filmmaking full time. His latest work, which is the subject of this episode, is a documentary called “People’s Republic of Desire”, a journey into the live streaming industry in China, where Hao follows a few top streamers on YY to document their lives behind the screen. The film has won the Grand Jury Award at the 2018 South By South West, among many other awards, and has screened at over 40 film festivals worldwide. The New York Times calls the film “hypercharged,” while The Los Angeles Times says it’s “invariably surprising and never less than compelling.” If you haven’t watched the film, we highly recommend doing so. It is available on Vimeo, iTunes, Amazon and Google Play; just visit desire.film for the links. Hao has produced two other documentaries, The Road to Fame, and Nowhere to Call Home.
Hao holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Science and Technology of China, a master’s degree in molecular and cell biology from Brandeis University, and an MBA from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
Hans Tung: On the show today we have Hao Wu, or Wu Hao in Chinese. He is a Chinese American film director, producer and writer, in our opinion superstar in the coming. Originally trained as a molecular biologist, Hao worked in tech before becoming a full time filmmaker. He held various management positions at technology companies including Excite@Home, Yahoo China and Alibaba. From 2008 to 2011 he was the China country manager for TripAdvisor. As his career progressed so has his passion in more artistic and creative pursuits. In 2012 he decided to pursue documentary filmmaking full time.
His latest work, which is the subject of our show today is a documentary called People’s Republic of Desire. It’s a journey into live streaming industry in China where Hao follows a few top streamers on YY, it’s a GGV portfolio, to document their lives behind the scenes. The film has won the Grand Jury Award at the 2018 South by Southwest among many other awards and has screened at over 40 film festivals worldwide. New York Times called the film hypercharged, while the L.A. Times says it’s, “Invariably surprising and nevertheless compelling”. If you haven’t watched the film, we highly recommend doing so. It’s available on Vimeo, iTunes, Amazon and Google Play. Just visit Desire.film for links. Hao has produced two other documentaries: The Road to Fame and Nowhere to Call Home, and both are very good.
Zara Zhang: Hao holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from University of Science and Technology in China, a master’s degree in molecular and cell biology from Brandeis University, and MBA from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Welcome to the show, Hao.
Hao Wu: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Zara Zhang: I wonder how did you come to choose the topic of this film and why did you choose to focus on YY out of all the live streaming platforms in China?
Hao Wu: Back in 2014 in the summertime I went back to China to start researching my new film project. Actually, I had six project ideas in mind. I did some research filming in China. And then just randomly one of my friends who is a financial analyst at that time asked me, since you worked in tech for so many years, have you heard of this company called YY? It’s listed on Nasdaq. Its market cap back then was over $3, $4 billion dollars already. Can you tell me a little bit about how to make money? I was immediately intrigued, because for many years as Hans was saying I was working in China Alibaba and TripAdvisor China, but then I asked around my friends in Beijing and Shanghai, very few of them have heard of YY. The few people who have heard about it said, okay it’s so Diaosi 屌丝, it’s very low. It’s all about these gamers addicted to gaming, they kill time online. I decided to really research, how can a company that even tech people in the big city don’t know about get listed on Nasdaq. That was my first impetus to start researching this.
Then luckily through an industry connection in China’s Internet industry I was introduced to Li Xueling, the founder of YY. Li Xueling then introduced me to YY’s marketing department, so I shadowed their marketing department as they worked with live streamer, what they call hosts, Zhubo 主播. In China they did some events. Then I was like, wow, this is so fascinating because you see all these live streamers who are not that very talented in the real world, but online because with their mic, with their mixers, they sound much better, they look prettier and then they attract all these digital gifts that cost so much money. And then as soon as I realize there are a lot of Tuhao 土豪, the rich-
Hans Tung: Rich consumers.
Hao Wu: Rich patrons, as well as the Diaosi 屌丝, the losers, all getting together in showrooms and worship them. And every night when they do their shows it’s 20,000 to 50,000 to even 100,000 people watching simultaneously. I was like, wow, this is fascinating. Because world over if you want to see, the rich and the poor, they don’t get together, they don’t mingle. But online this community they are together, and they actually talk to each other, they worship each other. That to me was so fascinating I decided to make a film about that.
Zara Zhang: How long did it take you to make the film and what were your biggest challenges along the way?
Hao Wu: I started filming in the summer 2014 before live streaming really exploded in China. If you guys, follow the development of the Internet industry in China you know live streaming really exploded into mainstream consciousness in 2016. My plan back then was, because I knew YY every year has this kind of Niandu Shengdian 年度盛典, the annual competition coming. I was like, wow, that’s going to cool. So, I followed my live streamers as they prepare to go to this competition to win “the Idol” title. That can be fun to watch, and then next year I can come back and film a little bit about the personal stories and cut it in and build a more typical three-act structure. But then, very quickly, soon after I finished filming the first competition where one of the live streamers won, the other one lost, the girl, the female, Shen Man, she had a plastic surgery and she moved to a different apartment so I cannot film her personal life and try to cut it in before the competition to cheat to build a three-act structure anymore. That forced me to continue filming to film the next competition.
I filmed all the way into 2016 as a witness of the explosion of live streaming in China so that’s almost like two years of filming, production. And then the editing took a long time, took a year and a half. Because YY is such a complex ecosystem. Their business rules, how they replicate the social status, the luxury cars, the digital lollipops, and how the agency works trying to promote the live streamers they manage. The business rules as well as the different levels of relationship is so complex. It took me a long time trying to streamline the story enough so audience could potentially understand it, but at the same time to really retain the complexity. Because that to me was what’s fascinating about this is that we can replicate real life online in this fantasy world. That took a year and a half for me to find the balance between simplicity and complexity, between portraying this virtual community versus the character stories, how the characters are feeling as their fame goes, ups and down, as online trolls trash them or blackmail them online, how they feel about the relationship with their families, and how their real life relationships are being impacted as their online fame grows.
Hans Tung: It feels like the mixture of Hollywood, Netflix, Snapchat kind of all combined into one and more.
Hao Wu: Yeah. When I was making the film, I’m a huge fan of Black Mirror, so the overall feeling is the film is very sci-fi-ish, because I feel like China is already compared to the US in the future already in many ways. I decided consciously to make this film feel more like a sci-fi film. Also, the feel itself is very Black Mirror-ish.
Hans Tung: Your film is Black Mirror-ish. I’m saying that YY’s system reminds me of online Hollywood, and Netflix and Snapchat all combining into one.
Hao Wu: That’s absolutely correct.
Hans Tung: I love your title, People’s Republic of Desire. I find that very thoughtful. Can you explain the logic?
Hao Wu: Yeah, I mean what’s the logic? Painaodai 拍脑袋, right, a lot of time. Because as a film title, you want to convey this film is about China. Obviously, People’s Republic of something. It’s something that took us a while to arrive at. What is this YY or virtual community about? It’s about, in the end, it’s so hard because people asked me to explain. Why do these poor people spend money online? Why do these rich people spend money online? I was like, it’s so hard to explain that. For each rose in that online community, their motivations are multifaceted. It’s not simple to summarize. In the end I just decided like, okay, desire, because the desire is this longing, is this aspiration but it’s-.
Hans Tung: It’s emotion.
Hao Wu: Yeah. And it’s broad enough to cover a lot of bases, like money, fame and relationships basically.
Zara Zhang: The film’s characters all leave a pretty deep impression on the viewer, from the two Wanghongs 网红, internet celebrities, who devote their whole lives to live streaming on YY, to the Tuhao 土豪, the super-rich, who lavish virtual gifts on their favorite streamers, to the Diaosi 屌丝 who is a migrant worker searching for cheap entertainment. I’ve always wondered, how did you find these people and how do you get them to agree to be filmed?
Hao Wu: I was lucky as I mentioned earlier, I was introduced to Li Xueling. They introduced me to their marketing department. Back in 2014, I think YY was not as conscious about its PR.
Hans Tung: No. If it was a $10 million company, it would be different.
Hao Wu: Yeah. Nowadays if you go approach them, it’s probably going to be different. So, the marketing team was really, really nice to me. They introduced me to the different live streamers. I would say, can you help introduce me to this one or that one, and they would do that. At first, the marketing team definitely tried to push certain live streamers to me. Can you profile them? Because they are-.
Hans Tung: Up and coming maybe?
Hao Wu: No up and coming, it is more, why we want their live streaming all day.
Hans Tung: Wholesome.
Hao Wu: Wholesome, that’s the word. But then I talked to these wholesome live streamers, first of all, some of them can be boring. They can talk a lot in front of a webcam, but in real life they can be a really boring person. So that’s one thing. Secondly, some of them actually tell a different story online in terms of, one of them I really wanted to follow, I really liked and YY also liked. I’m not going to name names, but she portrays herself to be a college student online, but in real life she’s a 29-year-old teacher married with kids. So, there’s no way I can portray the real story about her.
Hans Tung: Online she’s like a Baifumei 白富美 in college?
Hao Wu: No, no. They never tried to pretend to be Baifumei 白富美, because everybody has to be, every live streamer has to have some needs that they need money so their fans can support them. So, they can never be Baifumei 白富美. But most of them kind of make up a story online about who they really are. But in terms of gaining their trust, in the beginning, the live streamers were confused. They thought I was making a corporate video for YY. After I showed up a couple of times they were like, “Why are you still coming back?” I said, “No, I am making an independent documentary.” And they were like, “What is an independent documentary? What’s going on in the film?” I was like, “I don’t know the ending yet. Can we just hang out?”
With the guys it’s easier. With the migrant worker, with Lao Li, the character was really easy they open up to me. Because I’m a guy, we can just hang out, have beer, go hang out. But with Shen Man, it was very difficult because she’s a girl, she livestreams in her bedroom, she flirts and talks sometimes dirty jokes to her patrons. And with me, a guy, in her bedroom filming the whole time, she felt really uncomfortable. So, for a period of time, she actually said, “You cannot come.” So, I’ll fly back from New York to Chengdu and wait for a week or two because I’m very thick skinned and every day I just keep on knocking on her door, “Can I come in? Can I come in?” In the end she let me.
Zara Zhang: You filmed her in some really intimate moments including when they’re like crying or really intense moments. How do you get them to be comfortable in front of the camera?
Hao Wu: I think the key is you just have to show up. Once you show up holding the camera in front of them long enough, they kind of forget that the camera exists.
Hans Tung: That’s a very good point. And they do it online anyway, so they get used to it.
Hao Wu: Yeah.
Zara Zhang: Many reviewers have called the film provocative and unsettling or terrifying. Was that part of your intention? Did you mean for it to be that way, or was it more like an unintended consequence?
Hao Wu: I think there are different types of filmmakers, different types of documentary filmmakers. Some documentary filmmakers just want to give the impression that you’re just observing life along with the filmmakers. But I’m the kind, I want to tell a good story. I want to find the most dramatic moments to tell a good story, to give a strong impression on my audience and let my audience try to figure out what the message is. Obviously, I followed them for two years, I have like 700 hours of footage which I shot, as well as hundreds and hundreds of hours of recordings of their live streaming shows. It’s up to me to pick the right moment to convey whatever I want to use this film to convey.
So, yes, I intentionally really pushed for some dramatic or provocative footage and kept some footage in the film, because even when I explain live streaming to a Chinese audience who may have heard of it but who don’t understand it, they all find it shocking, too. Because live streaming is something very uniquely Chinese, very uniquely complex and astonishing also because the amount of money being transacted on any given night. Yes, I think it’s part of my intention. It is also part of what the reality is. It is really shocking.
Hans Tung: I see it as an investment thesis. We think that there will be other forms of live streaming in other emerging markets. Whether it is Southeast Asia, or Latin America or other places. Because when I looked at YY, when my colleague Jenny made an investment, it feels like a bit of pro wrestling, and soap opera during the day in the US and professional sports all combined into one. There’s a very intense feeling that even the most Diaosi 屌丝 users, the more mass-market users can participate and feel like a part of a movement to change the order where your champion, the person you support could end up winning it all. And if he or she wins it you feel like you did it as well. Almost like sports. That’s why sports is so popular.
Hao Wu: That’s right. That’s why YY and other major live streaming platforms they all have competition. They all have annual competition. They also have monthly competition or sometimes weekly competition because they want to encourage live streamers’ fans, the patrons and the poor fans all get together to support your idol, get him or her to win the number one for the vanity for the fame.
Hans Tung: So, wherever soccer is popular I think there’s a chance for live streaming to have a shot.
Hao Wu: But we need the whales.
Hans Tung: We need the whales, yeah. And there are people who gamble on soccer games, so I feel that it’s there. You just need to have a great team to get that out of people.
Zara Zhang: I wonder if you got different reception to the film from Chinese audience versus American audience.
Hao Wu: Very different. I think here, in the developed world, not just in the US like in Europe, when people watch this film they were like, “Wow, can this be real?” Their first reaction is like, this is so crazy. I think they look at it almost really like Black Mirror, because several reviewers mentioned Black Mirror in their reviews of this film. They really do think that this is a very dystopian near future kind of story. But I think for Chinese people, it’s real. Because first of all we have heard of live streaming if you’ve not have been a fan of live streaming. Secondly, in terms of the motivation, it’s a lot more understandable for Chinese people to understand why the rich want to show off by throwing money online.
Hans Tung: They cannot do it in the real world, it’s too dangerous.
Hao Wu: Yeah, it’s too dangerous. Also, in the real world the rich people hang out with rich people, they don’t stand out. Online they stand out among tens and thousands of poor people. The poor people just say, “Oh, you’re so awesome.” Weiwu Baqi Shuai 威武霸气帅. That’s what they say. Their ego gets a huge boost. Here, people don’t understand that but in China people immediately get it.
Zara Zhang: Recently we have actually been seeing live streaming slowing down in China whereas short video is rising fast to become the go-to medium for entertainment for the vast majority of Chinese mobile internet users, like Douyin 抖音 and Kuaishou 快手. Did you see this trend coming when you were making the film?
Hao Wu: No, I was so busy editing my film. But it’s kind of obvious. You guys definitely know better. Douyin抖音 right now, or the short video Douyin 抖音短视频, Kuaishou 快手, they’re taking a lot of the buzz from live streaming. But also, live streaming, in my view, I mean I want to hear what you think, and short video are very different, the audience appear very different. Because in live streaming you really need to be spending an hour, at least an hour every night watching. So, who does it appeal to? People who are lonely, who don’t have friends, who are staying home, who don’t have income, right? The Diaosi 屌丝 population. But if you look at short video, short videos have a much wider appeal. It’s very short, it’s kind of funny. You can spend however much time you want on it. So, no wonder short video, right now the popularity I think overshadows live streaming.
Hans Tung: We’re a shareholder in TikTok, in ByteDance 字节跳动, so we know how well they’re doing.
Hao Wu: Can I make a film about that? Can you introduce me?
Hans Tung: Yes, you can. I can introduce you to Zhang Yiming. I will guess there’s probably a lot of overlap between YY users and Kuaishou 快手 because Kuai is very grassroots, mass market as well, as you know. I think users can be on both platforms and get different entertainment value out of it.
Hao Wu: Yeah. A lot of the YY live streamers I follow actually, when Kuaishou 快手 first started taking off they were all using Kuaishou 快手 as well.
Zara Zhang: One impression I’ve been getting, working in US-China cross-border tech is that there’s a general sense among people in China that tech is a force for good, whereas the opposite is true in the US. Do you agree with this assessment?
Hao Wu: Are you talking about media impressions?
Zara Zhang: Just general public.
Hao Wu: Honestly, I feel like in the US we tend to live in our own media bubble, right? Depends on which media we follow, which Twitter celebrities we follow. I feel like if you watch a lot of the films coming out about American internet, I would say the majority of the internet consumers are not as concerned as some of the media elites about “the dangers” of the internet, of technology. Even though, yes, all the mainstream media right now, we are talking about the Facebook, or privacy, or the alienating nature of technology in the mainstream media. But if you watch American Meme on Netflix, it’s a documentary about Instagram celebrities, or if you watch Cam Girlz- I recently talked to a reporter who is doing a story, writing a book about Twitch, America’s premiere live streaming platform. I think it’s the same thing. If you talk to the actual users, their day to day, they are not thinking as much about that, but I definitely do agree, in the mainstream traditional media in the US there’s a lot more pause and reflection about the complex roles technology can play in the society as compared to what’s happening in China today.
Hans Tung: But when you were in China filming, do you feel there’s more a general sense of people in China think that technology or internet can make their lives or make the world better?
Hao Wu: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think in China, it’s been well discussed elsewhere, we don’t have as much of a concern for privacy per se. That’s not to say everybody don’t care about privacy, just in general. And also, we are more open to embrace the latest, the newest technology. Even right now, right? Chinese people still believe in technology even like AI. Here AI has almost a bad name now in the US, but in China we still believe AI can bring a lot of good.
Hans Tung: I think what the Chinese are going through is very similar to founders and general consumers in Southeast Asia, in Latin America and in India. In developing countries where often world is not as efficient, extremely inefficient, you feel like tech is changing and making a difference. In developed countries, the gap is not as big between online and offline.
Zara Zhang: I want to talk about your very interesting career path. You were trained as a biologist, then went into tech and then filmmaking. Could you talk about how you made these transitions and what guided your decision-making processes?
Hao Wu: When I was growing up in China, even in middle school and college I was always interested in the humanities and arts. But as a Chinese son of very traditional Chinese parents, your parents would, and it’s not just the parents, the entire social expectation kind of nudge you, they never pushed me, they nudged you into doing STEM.
Hans Tung: They guide you to do something better.
Hao Wu: Something stable, something with a better future. That’s why I decided to do biology, do science. But then it was not satisfying. I love science, but it wasn’t emotionally satisfying. Then I didn’t know what else to do. As a good Chinese immigrant, you do either business, law or medicine. I picked business because it’s the most flexible. I actually love tech. I love tech. I started off as a product manager at Excite@Home doing web products.
Hans Tung: What great timing.
Hao Wu: No, I joined just as the bubble was bursting. Then I worked my way up from product management into general management. I helped Alibaba launch Alimama.
Hans Tung: That’s a very important product.
Hao Wu: Yeah, so the Alimama platform. But then I guess I always had this urge to express myself more. I like product management because it is creative. You work with a team of people to do it. But gradually as I become more and more into general management, I feel like I’m getting farther and farther away from the creative process of actually making it. I love to get my hands dirty. I’ve always been doing some writing or filmmaking on the side.
Hans Tung: Which years were you at Alibaba?
Hao Wu: 2007-2008. That’s right after the merge with Yahoo.
Hans Tung: That’s right. Yeah.
Hao Wu: At a certain point I just had to ask my question, do I want to be an entrepreneur, launch my company, become a multi-millionaire first before I do what I like, or do I want to do what I like right now. It took a while for me to really say, it’s okay to not be a multi-millionaire and do arts. So that’s where I am right now.
Zara Zhang: When you went to Alibaba was that the first time you were back in China after spending a lot of time in the US?
Hans Tung: You were probably with Yahoo first?
Hao Wu: No, I joined the Yahoo China side right after the merger. Initially I was managing the technology transfer of Yahoo’s advertising technology, the ad networks and exchange, into the Alibaba Group. I was managing the deployment of technology so the ad operations. I moved back to China 2004, took a year off doing film making and then I joined an e-commerce startup. That didn’t go anywhere so then I joined Alibaba because back then people were already talking about Alibaba as a very unique Chinese Internet company. Because the first wave of the Baidu and the Sohu 搜狐, you can always argue they were a copy, it’s a copy to China model. But Alibaba was really unique so that really intrigued me. I really wanted to understand the culture, what makes Alibaba so different from the rest of the crop.
Hans Tung: Right. And what was your takeaway after spending there over a year?
Hao Wu: Personally, I loved it. I think the Ali culture is so strong I personally don’t think it’s right for everyone. But I consider myself still very “local”. I get the culture, whether you’re talking about the close camaraderie, the 9-9-6, the voluntary 9-9-6. Ali’s all voluntary 9-9-6. I like that. In Ali, it’s like YY. Everybody was battling. Jack Ma is the general. It’s like, “We are trying to build a great China. It’s us against the world. You guys are the troops. Let’s all do the battle.” I like that kind of feeling, but then some other people find it so different.
Hans Tung: Brainwashing.
Zara Zhang: And then you went to TripAdvisor to be their General Manager for China. What was that like?
Hao Wu: That was very different. TripAdvisor China had the advantage and disadvantage of a typical Western Internet company trying to expand in China. Whereas you have a lot of great industry know-how, you have a very successful business model in the US, but how to adapt that in the China marketplace where it’s-
Hans Tung: So fast moving.
Hao Wu: Fast moving, super competitive. Do you want to replicate the success story in a different market, or do you want to create something new? That was always something we struggled with. It was a great learning experience but a challenging one.
Hans Tung: Did you guys compete with Kuxun 酷讯 and Qunar 去哪儿 back then?
Hao Wu: I think we acquired Kuxun 酷讯.
Hans Tung: That’s what I thought.
Hao Wu: Yeah, we acquired Kuxun 酷讯.
Hans Tung: Because Zhang Yiming was part of Kuxun酷讯.
Hao Wu: That’s right. We were competing. TripAdvisor was primarily a hotel review so there was no pure play competitors in China back then. The two biggest competitors we looked at was Ctrip 携程, because Ctrip 携程 has both hotel booking as well as tons of reviews, as well as Qunar 去哪儿. Qunar 去哪儿was a metasearch. They have a lot of hotel data and also, they aggregate a lot of hotel reviews.
Hans Tung: Actually we did a simple analysis, look at the Chinese founders who sold their first startup to an American company, worked there for a year or two and hated it because it’s so slow and not fast-moving enough, and they come out and do their next startup, the success rate on their next startup is super high.
Hao Wu: Oh, you should have told me that, because when I quit TripAdvisor, I was thinking to do a startup, but then I thought, oh, there’s a film I didn’t finish in editing. So, I gave myself six months to finish editing that film. The six months became a year, became a year and a half. By the end I was like, “Should I go back?” That’s when I decided not to go back to tech.
Hans Tung: You could’ve done either one successfully.
Hao Wu: Yeah.
Zara Zhang: So, are you still playing with the idea of entrepreneurship?
Hao Wu: No. It’s really funny because whenever I travel back to the US, the immigration will always say, “Welcome back to the US.” Sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, what do you do.” In the past whenever I said I’m a filmmaker, I always feel like I’m a fraud, like an imposter, the imposter syndrome. But now finally I feel like I can say I’m a filmmaker.
Zara Zhang: What’s the next film we can expect from you? What are you working on?
Hao Wu: My new film is launching on Netflix, it’s a Netflix original short. It’s a 39-minute. It’s called All in My Family. It’s about me having kids through a surrogacy in the US and take my kids and my “modern family” back to China and face my traditional Chinese parents. If you guys watched Ang Lee’s early film, Wedding Banquet, it’s kind of similar to that. It’s a comedy with a lot of tears. That’s my own story so you’ll see me, you’ll hear my voice in that film.
Hans Tung: Do you find Ang Lee as an inspiration, a model or something?
Hao Wu: Obviously. I think he’s amazing. He’s someone who can stay truly Chinese but also has universal appeal because he focuses so much on the human emotion.
Hans Tung: Yeah. That’s part of motivation for us to do 996 as well. We’re nowhere near but it’s the same kind of thinking.
Zara Zhang: We’re really appreciative of people who can tell the China story in English to the greater world in a way that’s authentic and true to the actual experience of living in China. In that way I think 996 and what you’re doing are kind of in the same vein.
Hao Wu: Thank you.
Zara Zhang: As someone who has had a lot of dramatic career shifts, I wonder how you develop the self-knowledge to know what you’re good at and what you should be doing? Because I think a lot of our audience are younger people trying to figure out what their next steps should be and whether they should move to a different field etc.
Hans Tung: What did you do to help you find your true self and true calling?
Hao Wu: That’s a tough one. A lot of times you have to be almost stupid.
Hans Tung: Or idealistic.
Hao Wu: Not idealistic, you have to be pigheaded enough-.
Hans Tung: Stubborn enough.
Hao Wu: Stubborn enough to really believe you can do it in order to do it. That’s a prerequisite. Despite what everybody else tells you you’re going to fail, you have to have the strong- If we put in a bad word, it’s ego. You have to have ego that you can do it.
Hans Tung: That’s true, a chip on the shoulder.
Hao Wu: Yeah. And also, secondly, just start doing it, rather than thinking about it. When I wanted to make films, I just started writing a screenplay, I picked up a camera, started reading some books, started making short films, watched a lot of film and try to learn it that way. I did it, like I said earlier, on a part time basis for a long time before I had my last film which is The Road to Fame, Chengming Zhilu 成名之路. When I saw the film, when I premiered the film at festivals, I knew I could do this. I knew my next film would be even better than that. You need to be able to get your hands dirty to try it out before you know you can do this full time or not.
Zara Zhang: Have you figured out a business model for documentary making?
Hao Wu: No. It’s really hard because when I first started doing documentaries full time, every once in a while, I put my business hat on. I’d be thinking about the ROI of all the hours I’m putting in.
Hans Tung: Your MBA degree has to be worth something.
Hao Wu: Yeah. Where can I optimize this process to make it faster? But you can’t. If you think about it, documentary film by nature has limited market appeals, just like certain types of writing. There’s no business model per se. I’m not doing this right now to really try to make a lot of money. But ideally once you make enough films and have enough repetition, other people will commission you to do a film, like HBO and Netflix, and then that’s how you can make a decent living. But right now, I’m also like kind of in transition, thinking about the other ways-.
Hans Tung: Non-documentary kind of films.
Hao Wu: Like narrative films, like commercial narrative films and there are companies in China that’s talking to me right now. I’m exploring that as well.
Zara Zhang: Hans, I know you really enjoyed the film.
Hans Tung: Yes, I did.
Zara Zhang: I wanted to just hear from your perspective what do you like about it and why do you find it so compelling?
Hans Tung: Partially it’s personal because GGV was an early investor in YY so just seeing that story being played again and see how the characters are in it different but very familiar, is something that’s easy for me to relate to. Secondly, I think Wu Hao did an amazing job of showing the complexity of the system. I struggle to explain to the westerners how YY works, yet with a film everything becomes so alive. I think if we have more time, we’ll probably want to go into how it is very similar to how professional sports and other forms of entertainment work in the Western world were developed all around the country, around the world. How there’s a lot of similarity between the two.
I would love to see Wu Hao go through some of that later in another format to show how he sees it too. Because a lot of things I saw in the film are maybe uniquely Chinese, but the values are extremely universal. It’s the universal aspect that’s not as obvious to westerners who watch it for the first time. They were so shocked by the details that they forget that there is a universal connection as well and that’s something that I’m sure Wu Hao will do more with that kind of topic and material over time.
Zara Zhang: You lived in China on the ground for eight years so this reminds you of what you saw.
Hans Tung: Totally. And even when I go back to China today, I still see a lot of that. It’s a challenge to the point where it’s a country with a rising middle class, but also a group of people kind of left behind as well, and they want to feel part of this progress and movement. By participating on YY, it gives them a chance to do that. However little money they make they’re using that in a way to give themselves, their life a lot more meaning. That part of our connection is extremely universal. It may look specifically Chinese, but the desire was a great, great word. The desire to be connected, to be meaningful, to be part of a movement is extremely universal.
Hao Wu: Yeah. I think whenever people ask me whether the YY model can become popular in the US, I say you already have it; it’s called YouTube. The vlogging never took up in China for various reasons but then live streaming kind of took the role of vlogging in China. If you look at the Internet celebrities on YouTube, the type of content they produce, and also how they rely on stunts, controversy to generate popularity, it’s very similar to live streamers in China.
Hans Tung: And YouTube, a lot people don’t see it, but YouTube almost fails at monetization the way YY has done. If you have all these interesting broadcasters on YouTube, the form of monetization should not be just advertising. There are actually users from around the world willing to pay for additional value-add services on YouTube. It’s just that YouTube did not do as good a job as they could have. One thing that we want to do when we invest in companies, hopefully they learn the best of both the US and China and build companies to provide services that we think are truly, truly world-class and multicultural.
Zara Zhang: The concept of 9-9-6 has been in the news a lot recently with 996 ICU and all that. Jack Ma just released an article about what he thinks about the phenomenon. I was wondering as someone who has lived in both US and China deeply, what’s your perspective on this kind of, I don’t know if we should call it hours or mentality, but this phenomenon?
Hans Tung: Do you work 9-9-6?
Hao Wu: As a filmmaker, I work longer than programmers. I’m editing around the clock. I think 9-9-6, I think the reality is that most startups are doing 9-9-6, right? Whether the startups are in the US or in China, if you want your startup to succeed, or anybody who’s doing anything they feel truly passionate about, they will do 9-9-6. I remember when I was working at Alibaba, when I was launching TripAdvisor China, we were all working 9-9-6. Nobody complained about it. Everybody felt so excited being part of something great. They want to work 9-9-6.
I think right now what maybe the discussion in China, there are two reasons why we’re having this discussion in China. One is, I don’t pretend to know the younger generation, I do feel like the younger generation think differently compared to the older generation. That’s one. Secondly, a lot of the Internet companies in China in the headlines, the Alibaba, the Tencent, they’re established companies already. For established companies to continue to have this, it’s hard to cultivate the startup culture, the cohesiveness-.
Hans Tung: That mission, that feeling-
Hao Wu: That mission to get people excited to willingly do 9-9-6. That’s why we’re observing Silicon Valley as well, right? There are some companies with the exception of Amazon, but in general, I think instead of trying to enforce or ask people to do 9-9-6, their HR should do a better job in terms encouraging people to really buy into the company’s mission, buy into the project they are working on. No, I shouldn’t be advocating volunteering, that sounds bad. Make it fun for people wanting to do that, wanting to help the company.
Hans Tung: I’ve worked in probably six or seven different companies in my career. Even VC alone, GGV is my third partnership. I think a lot of people think that they’re just working in order to live. They talk about the work-life balance. Completely understandable. But for the things I do, I don’t just do it for my employer, I’m doing it for myself. I’m sure when you decided to do filmmaking, you’re doing it for yourself. There’s a story you want to tell, there’s a mission you want to achieve. There’s a personal growth you want to get to. There’s a personal agenda and viewpoints you want to come across. And for all of us who are multicultural, who have lived in multiple cities, how do you have something that’s uniquely you with quite a bit of Chinese elements, yet at the same time you want to make a universal so that other people don’t think you’re weird but think that, “Wow, there’s something deeper there and something I can learn from.”
So, to me it’s never about work-life balance, it’s always about work-life integration because I don’t treat work as work. I treat work as my life calling. When you treat something as a life calling why would you be balancing away from that? If you treat it as a job just to make money, you don’t find meaning in what you do, quite frankly you shouldn’t be doing it at all. You should do something that you truly, truly love so you don’t find it something that you have to fight against.
Zara Zhang: Yeah. With that, I want to move to the last part of the interview which is a round of quickfire questions so you can just say the first thing that comes to your mind. The first one is, who is the entrepreneur you admire the most and why?
Hao Wu: Tony Ma. He built a truly, truly professionally well-managed Internet company in China.
Zara Zhang: As someone who worked at Alibaba.
Hao Wu: No comment. I think Alibaba’s business is hard to replicate. It really requires some charismatic leaders like Jack to do that.
Hans Tung: That’s true. We’ve seen it from 2003 onwards so we know without Jack, Alibaba wouldn’t happen.
Hao Wu: That’s right.
Zara Zhang: The second one is, what’s something you read recently that you recommend?
Hao Wu: I just finished reading the latest issue of Foreign Policy talking about nationalism. I find that fascinating. It’s emerging worldwide, everybody is talking about nationalism. It’s also happening in China. Why is that? It’s not a book but it’s a magazine.
Zara Zhang: What’s a habit you have that you think has changed your life?
Hao Wu: Always believe that in order to get better I have to do actual work. Benniao Xianfei 笨鸟先飞. That’s what my parents kept on telling me when I was little. Even nowadays sometimes I find a lot of the political discussion in this country is baffling. It’s like, if you want to get better, just work harder.
Zara Zhang: What do you do for fun?
Hao Wu: I don’t have. I have two kids. I have my films so it’s always about work. I watch films on Netflix.
Hans Tung: My wife asked me the same thing and I gave her the same answer and she’s not happy with that.
Zara Zhang: When is your Netflix film coming out?
Hao Wu: May 3rd.
Zara Zhang: Okay. So, everyone please go watch that on May 3rd. And with that, thank you so much for your time and we really enjoyed the conversation.
Hao Wu: Thank you for having me here. Thank you.
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