"This is the final boarding call for EVA Air flight BR160 from Taipei to Seoul Incheon. Final boarding call." The announcement stirred me from my reverie. I had momentarily forgotten about my surroundings. Struggling to open my eyes, I was startled by the bright-pink waiting room. Frantically, I grabbed my bag and Hello Kitty boarding pass. Maneuvering through a maze of Hello Kitty stuffed animals that were on display, I sprinted around a crowd of excited passengers snapping pictures, and presented my boarding pass at the gate to attendants dressed in Hello Kitty uniforms. No, it wasn't a crazy dream in which I had been transported to an alternate world populated by cartoons. It was simply part of Taiwanese airline EVA Air’s carefully marketed "Hello Kitty experience."
Photo courtesy EVA Air.
The Hello Kitty plane is the ultimate manifestation of Taiwanese culture's obsession with cuteness, and its attempts to market that cuteness to a global audience. In the many times that I have flown in and out of Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport over the past decade, I never gave the bright pink waiting room a second thought. That changed when I read that the Hello Kitty plane made its U.S. debut in Los Angeles on September 19. Red carpets were rolled out so that dancers dressed in Sanrio costumes could celebrate its arrival. According to USA Today, EVA Air Chairman K.W. Chang, who piloted the Boeing 777 painted with Hello Kitty and 19 other Sanrio cartoon characters, said the purpose of the jet was "to make flying fun." While astonished reporters scrambled to the tarmac as if there had been a UFO sighting, none of the reports thoroughly tapped into the cultural phenomenon behind the Hello Kitty plane, or how an American audience would perceive the concept.
When I posted pictures of my EVA Air meal — a steamed bun and ramen with fish cakes seared with Hello Kitty’s face — on Facebook, my friends around the world were amused. Responses ranged from "Cute!" to "Cringy." Similarly, while most reports addressed the creativity behind the concept, the tones of the writers varied. A reporter from the Long Beach, California Press-Telegram marveled at the idea behind the "Hello Kitty experience," and detailed how, "everywhere you look, the cute white cat and her friends are there," on pillows, head rest covers, toilet paper, and even the barf bags. An article from the Los Angeles Times expressed another perspective, stating that passengers, "might suffer from a Hello Kitty overdose."
NBC News was one of the few media outlets to recognize the cultural significance of Hello Kitty. Their article explains how EVA Air chose Los Angeles as its first long-haul destination to attract more passengers from the United States, stressing that the goal was to "bridge cultural barriers." But it does not explore the deeper implications of EVA Air's choice. The airline's obsession with cuteness is part of a larger East Asian phenomenon, which, as an article from the Taiwan Times points out, can be difficult for people of other cultures to understand. The article cites a Dutch toy collector in Taiwan who recounted her shock at seeing Hello Kitty items scattered on top of the desk of a 40-year-old secretary, thinking that it was "unprofessional."
But appreciation for Hello Kitty transcends age. Much has been said about the popularity of Japanese cultural exports such as Hello Kitty, Pokemon, and Tamagotchi pets. As in Japan, sparkly cellphone cases and fancy dog clothing stores can be found all over Taiwan. Unlike Japan, however, the obsession with cuteness in Taiwan is not so much representative of a withdrawal from the bleakness of the real world, but is rooted in young people's desire to chill and have fun. The Wall Street Journal depicted Taipei as the most laid-back capital city in Asia. Unlike Seoul, Hong Kong, or Shanghai, the pursuit of happiness trumps the pursuit of wealth in Taipei. Taiwanese culture is very visual, but in a way that sets it apart from other East Asian cultures. While its flashy neighbors erect skyscrapers, "artist villages" pop up all over Taipei, and sounds from indie-pop concerts float through its parks. The Hello Kitty plane should be viewed in the context of Taiwan's creative landscape and its entrepreneurial spirit.
Whether you think the Hello Kitty plane is "cute" or "cringy," we can all agree that having a good time is an essential part of life. The plane taps into the innate human desire for fun and visual entertainment. Although it may represent a cuteness overload for some, the Hello Kitty plane will make long flights less boring. EVA Air hasn't just redefined air travel, but turned a cultural phenomenon into a thriving industry, based on the simple premise that "cute" sells.