The fans are fantastic

By Hu Bei Source:Global Times Published: 2014-1-19 17:13:01

SNH48 members performing in their own theater in Shanghai Photos: Courtesy of the Shanghai Star48 Music & Culture Communication Company
SNH48 members performing in their own theater in Shanghai Photos: Courtesy of the Shanghai Star48 Music & Culture Communication Company

It is a memorable scene - on stage, a chorus of girls in identical miniskirts and tops sing and dance vigorously, twisting and turning to the music, gyrating and smiling, moving with cheerful precision and sensuality.

Beneath them in the auditorium and behind rails are two groups of young men. Almost identically dressed and moving with the music, writhing, twisting, waving lights in unison. And shouting along with the songs. Are they part of the act or is this a new form of extreme audience participation?

The girls are SNH48, a Chinese version of the Japanese idol group AKB48, which was launched by producer Yasushi Akimoto in December 2005. The group is different from other pop groups in that it is large (reportedly the largest idol group in the world) and it performs regularly at its own theater in Tokyo.

SNH48 was created in Shanghai in 2012 by two Chinese companies, the Ninestyle Group and the Shanghai Star48 Music & Culture Communication Company.

SNH48 comprises 48 young Chinese girls aged between 15 and 23 and they are divided into two performing teams, Team SII and Team NII. With the opening of their own theater, the SNH48 Star Dream Theater, in Jiaxing Road, Hongkou district, in Shanghai, the girls now perform nightly, Fridays to Sundays.

SNH48 members performing during a concert in Guangzhou
SNH48 members performing during a concert in Guangzhou

Bedroom or theater?

When the Global Times arrived at the theater it was impossible to ignore the huge posters of the cute, constantly smiling performers on the all-pinked walls or hear their songs. Is this a teenage girl's bedroom or a theater?

But apart from the girls in the posters and the receptionist, that afternoon the Global Times reporter was the only woman to be seen in the place. And the receptionist seemed to be wondering what a woman was doing here.

The theater foyer and auditorium were packed with young men, all with SNH48 towels dangling from their necks and most waving those fluorescent lights that are popular with concertgoers. They were all there for the night's performance.

One of the fans, 24-year-old Shanghai man Zhu Tian told the Global Times, "Other Chinese people don't really understand us. But we don't care how they see us - we live in our own world." 

Describing himself as "a communicator between Japanese and Chinese cultures," Zhu said he became a devoted fan of AKB48 five years ago, and then closely followed the creation and development of SNH48. Other young men at this concert reported similar scenarios.

They are some of the most devoted fans any pop star could wish for. They want to know every detail, from the first nationwide auditions for performers, to the group's debut in Shanghai where the original 16-girl troupe performed Chinese versions of some of AKB48's hits.

These fixated young men also turn up to the regular meet-and-greet events with the girls, buy all the latest recordings and all the paraphernalia that goes with modern artists: T-shirts, mobile phone apps and accessories, photo albums. They never pass up a chance to meet or see their idols.

More real

All the fans the Global Times talked to agreed that even though the Japanese group AKB48 was artificially created and promoted as "the idols you can meet," the Chinese the arrival of SNH48 was much more real and much more important.

Tao Ying is the CEO of Star48 and told the Global Times that "the 'idols you can meet' idea was the concept - we wanted to establish a local idol group for fans in China. We knew that AKB48 enjoyed a large fan base in China. Now all the performers are Chinese and we believe this will be even more popular with fans here."

Unlike most idol stars who appear occasionally on television or give a few concerts, the SNH48 teams have their own theater where they perform regularly. Fans can go and see their idols live every week as well as being able to meet them at the regular meet-and-greet events.

"And every SNH48 performer has a personal blog on Sina Weibo. Once you are a registered fan and a girl has met you a few times, she can surprise you by 'liking' something you say," Zhu said enthusiastically.

Fan Zhu really appreciates being able to interact with the performers. "We really enjoy this, especially meeting the girls. I try to use the time to talk to them about what they are doing and tell them a little about myself. Once you get to know these girls then you can see how different they are, how they react differently on stage or when they are talking to you and they do really know you."

The fans even get awards for their dedication. A 30-year-old Shanghai man nicknamed Naihu was recently awarded a golden gourd prize because he never missed a SNH48 performance or event since SNH48's first debut in Shanghai early last year. He admits that he doesn't have a real girlfriend but this does not worry him. "I think I might be able to find one among the girl fans," he said.

Then there is 33-year-old Chen Yaojie. Chen is a married man but said he regards the girl performers as his children. "We care about their progress, appreciate their beauty and are well aware of their failings. We give them advice about their performances when we meet them."

Chen's wife apparently couldn't understand his obsession at the beginning. "But I took her to see a show with me and she has got used to this."

SNH48 girls turn the heat up in a show.
SNH48 girls turn the heat up in a show.

Strict rules

The fans abide by the strict rules governing these performers. They never ask for a private date and if they meet one of the girls outside of a concert or official event, they do not speak to them.

"We certainly know that they are performers on the stage and even when they meet us in the meet-and-greet events, they are probably also performing. It's their work but we enjoy it," Zhu said.

For the girls inside in SNH48, it's indeed a serious business. At SNH48's talent school and headquarters in a distant apartment building in Baoshan district, 17-year-old Zhang Yuge, from Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, explained how the girls feel about their roles.

"We know well what our responsibilities are. We have to show our fans our energy and drive in our performances. And we do our best not to disappoint them in the microblogs. We have to be very conscious of our roles."

From the beginning of their training, Zhang said the girls had been taught how to put on their own makeup before performances to save time. Alongside classes for singing and dancing, the girls are given psychological advice on how to relieve stress.

Team SII's Chen Guanhui is a 20-year-old from Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province and said the advice for the girls included being given a piece of paper and told to draw whatever came into their minds.

Both Zhang and Chen are senior members of SNH48 and were first recruited in 2012.

Two younger team members, 15-year-old Gong Shiqi from Chongqing and 19-year-old Meng Yue, from Changchun, Jilin Province, showed appropriate respect and admiration for their older sisters.

The girls chosen for the performances have to prove themselves in a regular series of competitions and have to be popular with the fans. Zhang and Chen are constantly chosen to be in the performing teams (the routines are always arranged for groups of 16 or 32).

When Gong was asked what the most interesting thing that had happened since joining in September, 2013, her answer was unexpected. For her, the best thing that had happened was having to climb over the apartment complex wall one night after they returned home from a performance.

"The gatekeeper had fallen asleep and we all yelled at him but he didn't wake up. We were also exhausted but that was fun."

These four girls are all students and after one year with the group, they will return to their studies - though Chen, Gong and Zhang, whose colleges are in other Chinese provinces, have yet to find a way to both study and sing and dance with SNH48.

SNH48 members performing during a concert in Guangzhou
SNH48 members performing during a concert in Guangzhou

Group development

When the girls were asked about how they saw themselves developing individually, just as they dance and sing, their responses were identical, even rehearsed. Like what their CEO Tao Ying said, they wanted to "keep developing as a group."

Tao told the Global Times that she saw the group developing as a distinctly Chinese entertainment phenomenon. She wants them to build up a repertoire of their own Chinese songs and not rely on the Chinese versions of Japanese songs that they perform at present. She also wants to develop their live shows in the Shanghai theater for online presentations so that fans in other parts of China can enjoy the act.

One 21-year-old female fan of SNH48 told the Global Times that she liked the girls because of their dress styles and because the taller girls looked good. But when she was asked if she would like to become a SNH48 girl herself she shook her head immediately. "I just want a simple life."

Posted in: Music, Metro Shanghai

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