Who Mattered Most in Asia 2009

Who Mattered Most in Asia 2009

Whether trying to save the world or sing to it, these guys and gals had the year's biggest impact on the world's biggest continent

See our expanded lists of Who Mattered Most this year in:
Japan | Singapore | China | Thailand | India | Hong Kong

Big things happened on the world's fastest moving continent in 2009 -- boasting big people behind them. From art to politics to adorable military fashions, the pace and magnitude of Asia's growth and change has been dizzying, led by the men and women (and children) we've compiled below.

Vo Trong Nghia: Bamboo architect (Vietnam)

Vo Trong Nghia bamboo designVo Trong Nghia's bamboo constructions are winning fans

Vo Trong Nghia is building himself an enviable reputation. And he’s doing it with bamboo. A pioneer in green architecture, Vo Trong Nghia designs modern buildings with a traditional Vietnamese twist. His innovations, such as a culture centre shaped like a bird’s wing and a central pond for natural cooling, are sustainable, affordable and inspiring. In 2009, the architect took home two prizes at the prestigious International Architecture Awards in Helsinki.

Hideki Matsui: American hit (Japan)

Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui has long been a baseball hero to the Japanese nation, and he has even been beloved in America for his hard-hittin' work for the New York Yankees since 2003. His World Series MVP this year, however, took him up to legendary status. Matsui is now the first Japanese-born player to ever win that accolade.

Mong Thongdee: Paper pilot (Thailand)

He’s Thailand’s unlikeliest hero, a stateless boy born to Burmese migrant workers in Chiang Mai province. Mong captured the imagination of the entire country when he was denied travel permission by the Thai government to compete in Japan's international paper airplane contest, owing to his unique (lack of) citizenship.

We were shocked. We were outraged. And we also secretly wanted to know where these competitions were when we were kids. Prime Minister Abhiset eventually stepped in, Mong brought back two medals and now he's been guaranteed a college education.

Lamnao Singto: Soccer sensation (Laos/Thailand)

Lamnao Singto, PEA strikerLamnao Singto is headed for stardom

He’s young, gifted and has the world at his feet. At least, he has the Asian footballing world at his feet. Lamnao Singto, the 21-year-old striker for Thailand’s top team PEA, is being heralded as Laos’ first international quality soccer role model. He became the first Laotian player to play outside Laos when he joined PEA this year, and is already credited with giving the team a fighting chance of succeeding in the Asian Football Confederation Cup. Such is his popular following that he also featured in a Beerlao commercial for the 2009 Southeast Asian Games.

Bo Xilai: Chongqing's Governator (China)

The governor of Chongqing had a year so good that he’s now projected to succeed Hu Jintao. With the city long paralyzed by gang activity and high-level corruption, Bo launched an unprecedented crackdown that saw some 5,000 people taken into custody. Among them was Wen Qiang, head of the city’s Justice Bureau, and alleged recipient of more than RMB 100 million in bribes.

Ratan Tata: Role model for the price conscious (India)

When he handed over the keys of the first Nano car, the 71-year-old chairman of Tata Sons became everyone’s hero. Not only did Ratan Tata keep his promise of delivering the world’s cheapest car, he did it despite political opposition. He also unveiled the poor man’s water filter and championed the speedy restoration of his devastated hotel, The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai, to reopen on the anniversary of the 26/11 terror attacks.

Andy Lau (Hong Kong)

Tabloids whispered about Andy Lau’s love life after he was spotted in Hong Kong Airport with -- gasp -- a girl. The star has long been rumored to be romancing Carol Chu, but after photos piled up of the two together, he admitted he was secretly married to her. Lau claimed he lied to protect her privacy, but critics suggest he was more concerned with maintaining heartthrob status.

Jay Chou: Entertainer extraordinaire (Taiwan)

Jay Chou, Taiwan singerJay Chou hopes to crack Hollywood too

Taiwan’s singing superstar, Jay Chou, once again led Taiwan’s music industry money list, pulling in 554 million Taiwan dollars this year. His ambitions are stretching abroad too, with his latest projects taking place in Hollywood. Chou will star with Nicholas Cage and Cameron Diaz in an upcoming superhero blockbuster, The Green Hornet. First looks at Chou dressed as Kato have already caused a buzz.

Noriko Sakai: Fallen angel (Japan)

The actual criminal case of Noriko Sakai was relatively unsubstantial. The ex-idol singer received a suspended sentence for possessing a tiny amount of amphetamines. Yet the wider drama absorbed the entire country's consciousness this autumn. The story of a good girl turned bad captivated a nation, and while her reputation suffered, the scandal did add to her super-stardom. Her song "Aoi Usagi" hit #1 on iTunes despite her label pulling all albums from distribution.

Ris Low: Catchphrase queen (Singapore)

Ris Low is singularly responsible for giving Singapore its catchphrase of the year -- the infamous "Boomz!" Crowned Miss Singapore World in July, Ris made headlines with her ... unfortunate command of the English language, finally giving us a defensible reason to laugh at beauty queens. If that wasn’t enough, it was later revealed that she was convicted for credit card fraud earlier in the year and sentenced to two years’ probation. She revealed in an interview with The Straits Times that she suffers from bipolar disorder and subsequently stepped down as Miss Singapore.

Sherry Rehman: Democracy champion (Pakistan)

Sherry Rehman, Pakistan Minister for Information and Broadcasting Sherry Rehman is fighting for reform

Minister for Information and Broadcasting Sherry Rehman has been given a new title: Democracy’s Hero. The International Republican Institute recognized the controversial leader for her continuous efforts at democratic reform. One of the few Pakistani women in politics, Rehman has endured arrests, tear-gassing, death threats and the loss of her close friend Benazir Bhutto.

Nandan Nilekani: Identifying India (India)

Nandan Nilekani was the poster boy of the Indian IT sector when he decided to chuck it in and join the government as chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India project. The former CEO and MD of global software major Infosys, author of the best seller book "Imagining India" and voted among the 100 most influential people in world by TIME magazine, 54-year-old Nilekani is focused today on how to assign a unique identity number to each of India’s billion plus citizens. A massive task, no doubt, but an essential one -- to help pave the way for benefits, better healthcare, education and welfare to India's needy.

Doan Nguyen Duc: Major dong seller (Vietnam)

Real estate magnate. Forest products developer. Rubber plantation owner. Resort owner. First owner of a private plane in communist Vietnam. As chairman of the Hoang Anh Gia Lai conglomerate -- which anticipates US$150 million in profits this year -- this carpenter-turned-entrepreneur is Vietnam’s most high-profile businessman.

How big is big? After dumping US$260 million into investments in Laos, Duc announced last month that the Hoang Anh Gia Lai Joint-Stock Co., Vietnam’s largest listed property holder, plans to sell 1.45 trillion dong (US$81 million) worth of convertible bonds. Hobbies? Yep, the charismatic Duc has those, too -- he’s reportedly still in negotiations to purchase a 20-percent share of British football club Arsenal.

Efren Penaflorida: Pushcart educator (Phillipines)

Efren Penaflorida, Philippines educatorEfren Penaflorida is putting the kids first

Barefoot children rush out to greet Efren Penaflorida when they spot him with his pushcart. The 28-year-old visits Philippines’ poorest areas to give lessons in math, English and science. His efforts have turned around the lives of ex-gang members and drug addicts. CNN named him “2009 Hero of the Year,” awarding him $100,000 to fund his work.

APEC 2009 organizers: Efficiency experts (Singapore)

Singapore hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings this year, culminating in a visit by various prominent world leaders in November. Thanks to the smooth coordination of the whole event, Singapore, once again, showed the world that we're tops in areas such as efficiency and cleanliness. It's almost catchy enough for a T-shirt.

Michael Geoghegan: Home is... (Hong Kong)

When the banks crumbled this year, locals longed for a financial superhero to make matters right. Enter Michael Geoghegan. The CEO of HSBC group is moving to Hong Kong in February with a core London team. His goals include coordinating HSBC’s push into China and becoming the first foreign company on the Shanghai stock exchange. The leader’s message is clear: all eyes are on Asia and ground zero is Hong Kong.

AR Rahman: Pied piper of Bollywood (India)

Composer of the track Jai Ho, from the soundtrack of "Slumdog Millionaire," musician-composer AR Rahman had the world singing to his tune and went on to win a Golden Globe, an Oscar and a BAFTA. The Maestro of Madras now features on credits for mainstream Hollywood movies while still delivering hit Bollywood soundtracks. At 43, he has been named among the 100 most influential people in world by TIME magazine and most recently bagged two Grammy nominations.

Thaksin Shinawatra: Man on the Run (Thailand)

Thaksin Shinawatra is rubbing Thais the wrong way

Not everyone's a fan of the guy, but he’s managed to dominate headlines in Thailand this year anyway. Keeping the flames of discontent kindled with his hot-button rhetoric, the country's former prime minister/current fugitive managed to keep in touch with his scarlet-clad fans during rallies through regular video and phone links. Last time we checked, Thaksin was in Dubai. No doubt he’ll still be making headlines in 2010 as all watch to see where this man on the move heads next.

Illac Angelo Diaz: Activist (Philippines)

Model, Harvard and MIT grad, and social entrepreneur, Diaz launched the largest mass media campaign on climate change the Philippines has seen. Having already founded several organizations benefiting the poor, the 37-year-old brought together 50 of the top celebrities in the Philippines to join his current fight. A response to the devastation of Typhoon Ketsana, his Designer Village Challenge re-launched November 20.

Petchara Chaowarat: A legend returns (Thailand)

As Thailand’s most renowned actress in the 1960s and seventies, Petchara made 300 films in a 16-year career. But all that time under the hot lights led to total blindness after which she disappeared from the public eye, becoming a virtual recluse. She amazed an adoring nation this year by coming out of hiding to appear in a makeup commercial that benefited a development center for the blind, followed by a stunning photo spread in "Lips" magazine.

Zhou Libo: Shanghainese-only please (China)

Zhou Libo was the funny man of 2009

Zhou Libo, 42, is arguably the most sought-after entertainment personality of 2009. The homegrown stand-up comedian reliably sells out shows and has introduced a modern vibe previously missing from Shanghainese dialect. He recently published the best-selling Shanghai dictionary "Hui Ci Dian” and controversially declined an invitation to perform in next year's CCTV Spring Gala.

The women of AWARE: Drama mamas (Singapore)

Homosexuality, religion, women bickering with one another -- sounds like a midday melodrama, but it isn’t. It’s a summary of events that transpired over just a few months at AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research). As a result, Singaporeans became more aware (pardon the pun) of the organization’s activities -- and got a bawdy charge out of it, too.

Mak Pui Gor: Michelin-starred yum cha (Hong Kong)

Prepare to stand in line for an hour, but your taste buds won’t be disappointed: Tim Ho Wan’s steaming bamboo baskets live up to the hype. Mak Pui Gor, former dim sum chef at The Four Seasons, took a risk in opening a Mong Kok 20-seater -- and pricing all dishes under HK$20. But after only a few months of business, Tim Ho Wan holds the title of the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant. See CNNGo’s review here.

Women with guns: Pretty in pink (China)

girls and gunsThe girls and guns of China's birthday

Never has October Holiday been celebrated like this in China. The cavalcade featured over 100,000 people in an impressive display of marching and militancy with the highlight being a cadre of female women soldiers in pink uniforms and white knee-high boots. This display of China’s military prowess was watched by millions around the world. After the parade, everything from China's automotive capabilities to its military recruitment was on the table for discussion.

Yukio Hatoyama: A new beginning (Japan)

Before its historic landslide victory in August, the Democratic Party of Japan was considered a lite version of the LDP and uninterested in major change. In the span of a few months, however, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, along with DPJ shadow master Ichiro Ozawa, has already moved ahead with bold policy iniatives: wrangling power from the bureaucrats, rearranging spending priorities, abandoning postal system privatization and opening a few of the elite press clubs to outside media.

Hatoyama himself has also created a new kind of persona for Japan's top politician: slightly aloof but willing to engage in pop culture without the smug self-absorption of Junichiro Koizumi. And now that Hatoyama has dodged criminal charges on illegal fundraising, he may even continue to be PM in 2010.

Contributing authors: Karla Cripps (Bangkok City Editor), W. David Marx (Tokyo City Editor), La Carmina, Udita Jhunjhunwala, Larry Loh (Singapore City Editor), Rebecca Kanthor, Li Meijuan, Ric Stockvis, Jessica Beaton (Shanghai Editor), and Jenara Nerenberg.