From little things, big things grow.
The story of Cocoa and Little Love.
It’s sometimes strange and incredible how events pan out for the best. The story of how writer Simon Higgins and animator Jenny Wang met before their collaboration developed is inspiring. Looking back at the last four years, I explore the origins of the success of Crane Animation studio in Guilin, in the Guangxi Province of China.
“I met my wife, Jenny (Yuxiao) Wang in a coffee shop in Melbourne,” explains Simon, “after a wise friend who was also my host at a library author speaking gig, suggested in a very warm and whimsical way, that I ‘go get a coffee and at the same time find an Asian animator’ to bring my books about ninja and samurai to life.” Simon Higgins is a former policeman from South Australia, then a detective, then a very successful writer of young adult fiction. Anyway, Simon obeyed, and met a young ‘Chinese student abroad’ pouring cappuccinos and only days away from graduating from RMIT in Melbourne with a master’s degree in Animation and Creative Media. As it turned out, she was also desperately seeking a native English-speaking writer, in order to launch her dreams into reality.
COCOA and LITTLE LOVE
The lead characters in the blizzard-like success of Keke Xiaoai, created and gradually visually refined by Jenny Wang, are the twins Cocoa and Little Love. They stand upright but wear stylised nappies and bonnets, and despite obviously being babies, nonetheless talk with quite a degree of sophistication in peculiar yet adorable voices. They have human parents and are supported in their adventures by an ensemble cast of talking animals, who also stand upright, wear clothes, drive cars and generally experience human society issues. Crane Animation uses its craft as a universal language to educate, inspire and help enrich Chinese society with shards of ancient wisdom and insights from Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism.
Jenny Wang says she wanted to contribute to China’s, and beyond that, to global ‘positive social engineering’, using what she calls, ‘the universal language of animation’ to spread ancient ‘yet once again intensely needed’ social values, as expressed by Confucius. Most westerners might know as the Tao-te-Ching (ancient China’s native ‘harmony philosophy’) and the core concepts of Buddhism which came to China in ancient times via the Silk Road, what mainland Chinese people often call ‘The Three Pillars’. “Because the show is visible everywhere, which in China may involve literally three generations around one TV set, there has to be something for everyone,” she says.
“These short visual stories are also available on many Chinese internet sites, on bullet-train screens, in airports, even on massive LED screens stretching across buildings in big cities,” adds Simon. “The show’s episodes are only 30 seconds long, but screen on over 1,000 TV channels across China, and 13 of the 14 CCTV (Central Government) television channels, in many cases around the clock, and at regular intervals between all the longer programmes or in advertising breaks in a programme. So to avoid undue repetition and to deliver information useful to the public on a wide range of issues, the Cocoa and Little Love show, sometimes also referred to as Gemini Fables, have needed hundreds of episodes. This, in turn, has helped grow the company to about 40 people so that it could literally function as a high quality, high-efficiency production line for the show’s episodes.”
“The show has won more than 160 national and international awards in under six years,” laughs Simon. “I sometimes joke that as an animator/character creator, my lovely wife has already won more awards in her so-far quite short career than the iconic guru of cute animated characters, Walt Disney, received in his entire life. And purely in terms of the numbers, that’s actually an accurate statement.”
Right now, Crane Animation is in the throes of putting together a spin-off show about Cocoa and Little Love helping a foreign ‘uncle’ travel around Guangxi Province where their home city Guilin is found. In the process, they raise awareness of endangered species, successful cultural diversity and fascinating traditional Chinese culture and history. “The crazy bit,” says Simon, “is that as part of that project, the idea was successfully floated that an avatar of me, with my name, would represent the foreigner on his voyage of discovery. Just when I thought my life could take no further strange twists and turns, I am now to become a toon. Hilarious.”
Both Simon and Jenny hold strong opinions about crassly violent animation franchises available today. “There aren’t enough that share positive, useful and aspirational values based on ancient wisdom,” Jenny says. “The whole world needs ‘smart’ sets of values to help the young in increasingly blended, and often identity-confused societies make sense of life and go forward hopefully, yet astutely.”
“That’s our dream,” adds Simon. “That’s my wife’s original vision for the company she has created” Neither Simon or Jenny are concerned that it will take a long time. As even the journey of a thousand miles is accomplished one step at a time.