How a Chinese boy band has become an international hit

By Wang Han Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-5 19:01:44

The TFBoys performing in Hunan TV's New Year's Eve Concert. Photo: IC

 The term "little fresh meat" (xiaoxianrou) is a Net buzzword for good-looking male pop idols in their teens or early 20s. This phrase has come to define a new wave of interest in teen pop stars in China. Like it or not, these clean-cut young men are becoming increasingly hard to ignore in China's entertainment industry.

According to Forbes' 2015 list of Chinese celebrities, nine "little fresh meat" idols have been listed in the top 100, including Li Yifeng, William Chan Wai-ting, Lu Han, Wu Yifan, and The Fighting Boys (TFBoys). And among these "fresh meat" celebrities, TFBoys are the youngest but perhaps the most striking.

When TFBoys debuted with the single "Heart" in 2013, the three band members were only 13 or 14. But within two years, these young teenagers soared from being upstarts to A-list pop stars. They have appeared constantly on TV variety shows, reality shows, at awards ceremonies and in news headlines. Just one year after their debut, they were named the most popular songsters in the Chinese mainland. In February 2016, the group was invited to perform in CCTV's New Year Gala, a major honor for any Chinese performer.

And each member of this group has millions of followers on Sina Weibo - 15 million for Wang Junkai, 14 million for Wang Yuan and 13 million for Yi Yangqianxi. Even their most casual posts get hundreds of thousands of comments and retweets. The group's leader Wang Junkai made social media history when his birthday message was reposted 42,776,438 times, gaining him a place in the Guinness World Records for the most reposts of a Weibo post.

The Internet has not only created an enormous fan base for TFBoys in China, but has also helped spread their music abroad. The Global Times talked to some foreign TFBoys "seed fans" to discover their special appeal and how fans are supporting the group.

Immediate attraction

Half Chinese and half Vietnamese, Hung Tang is from a small town in Kansas in the US. He discovered TFBoys when he was watching the 2015 Jiangsu New Year's Eve Concert, and was immediately attracted by the boy group when they performed their hit "Manual of Youth."

Hung Tang. Photo: courtesy of the interviewee

 "At the time, I thought to myself that they must be very popular considering the fact that every time their name popped up on screen, the fans screamed like crazy. I enjoyed their performance even though they only sang like two songs," Tang said. He was also impressed by their confidence and charm on stage. "When they performed, even though they're young, they had a strong presence on stage."

His personal favorite TFBoys' song is "Young" - this slow piano ballad always gets him, and, right off the bat when he heard it, he immediately fell in love with it. Despite the language and cultural barriers, Tang feels he is connecting with the TFBoys every time he watches their music videos.

"For me, music has no boundaries. I don't have to understand the language to enjoy the music. I have really enjoyed every one of their music videos. I like how the songs flow and the melodies flow behind," Tang said.

Carla Bofill and Yanna Estrada are from the Philippines. Both are 20-year-old undergraduates studying fine arts and first saw the TFBoys' music video "Adore" in October 2015, and were bowled over by the boys' musical talents and style. After watching a lot of TFBoys' videos, they really started falling for the group's charm.

Yanna Estrada and Carla Bofill. Photo: courtesy of the interviewees

 "When we first watched their videos, they were so young. That was our first impression of them," Bofill said. "Yet they were already very talented. Their songs are very catchy, and their voices go well together - it's nice to listen to their singing. So we decided to follow this group to see how they would progress and mature."

Like Tang, they don't see language as a barrier to connecting with TFBoys. "As long as the song is being expressed well by the singer, you generally get what the song is about," Estrada said.

Another fan, Bailey Jackson, a 19-year-old girl from the US was also enraptured by the boys' music and dance.

Different genres

"From what I've seen of their music so far, the boys are really talented. They can pull off different genres of songs really well and their voices sound good together too," said Jackson. "And their dancing? I watched a recent video of Yi Yangqianxi performing his self-choreographed cover of two very popular songs, and I was super impressed."

Bailey Jackson. Photo: courtesy of the interviewee

 She said that compared with teen idols in the US, TFBoys are much younger yet more versatile, because they sing, dance, play instruments and even act.

Valerie Van Joenerboey, a 20-year old girl from Belgium, has been listening to Asian music ever since she was 12. Starting with Japanese music, then Korean and then Chinese, she now listens to the TFBoys on a daily basis.

What appeals to her is the boys' natural singing style. "The boys are very realistic, when they're nervous or slightly ill (like having a cold), their singing is slightly off but they don't let their guard down."

As well as their talents and achievements, most of the overseas fans delight in their individual personalities, and find the healthy, humble and hardworking images are good role models for the younger generation.

"In America, I feel teen idols are trying to mature too quickly. The type of songs that they are singing shows that they are trying to grow up and act as if they're in their 20s. Outside of the music scene, they also get into trouble with the law - drinking under age or doing drugs," Tang said. "In contrast, TFBoys seems to understand the role they play in the Chinese pop music industry. I think they're passionate about music and being good role models for kids by staying out of trouble."

They might be young but their dedication to their work and their talent are influencing many people around the world. Fatima (as she asked to be called) is a 27-year-old from Canada who likes the boys because they are passionate about what they do, and they give their all to achieve their dreams.

"I have seen early videos of them when they weren't so popular and it really warmed my heart. They went through a rough time and I loved that they didn't just give up but, rather, worked even harder. In a way, they're very good role models for youth," Fatima said.

Fatima. Photo: courtesy of the interviewee

Talent and perseverance

This belief was echoed by the Filipina fan, Estrada, who said the boys earned their fame through their talent and perseverance rather than anything else.

"They worked extremely hard to get where they are now, and that's impressive to me because they started young. Usually kids that age would have given up and lost interest after being through what Wang Junkai has been through (having a failed debut then all the other members leaving him behind)," Estrada said. "The other members Wang Yuan and Yi Yangqianxi also went to audition after audition. It just shows how much the boys wanted to achieve their dreams. They are to be admired for their perseverance."

Despite their huge popularity and despite being so young, the boys' humility is also a major attraction for fans. Joenerboey, for instance, told the Global Times: "They're still pretty young and you'd think that after three years of debut, they'd take advantage of their popularity. But it's the exact opposite. They are very down to earth and try to communicate with their fans as much as possible."

Another fan, Bailey Jackson, also pointed out the boys' way of showing their talents is not discomforting. "Even though the boys are really young they know how to show off their talents in a way that tells people that this is what they love to do," she said.

Because most overseas fans don't speak Chinese and are not familiar with Chinese culture, they have difficulties in understanding some of the performances. Tang said when he first watched TFBoys' television shows, especially talk shows, he found it difficult to connect with them because of the language barrier.

Joenerboey has had similar frustrations. Though she has been studying Putonghua for around six months, she finds Chinese people talk rapidly and it is a struggle for her to understand the content without English subtitles.

Fortunately, thanks to the effort of anonymous Chinese fans and translators, TFBoys' videos with English subtitles are available online. A TFBoys subtitle translation group launched in October 2010 regularly updates videos with subtitles on its YouTube and Weibo homepages. And according to the group's founder, they are preparing to translate TFBoys' online short shows to promote the group abroad even further.

Less access

Apart from the linguistic and cultural barriers, overseas fans also have less access to information about the group than their Chinese counterparts. "It's not always easy to find information about the boys if you are not fluent in Chinese," Joenerboey said.

Valerie Van Joenerboey. Photo: courtesy of the interviewee

 But the Internet has ensured that the space between these fans and the group is narrowing. For Joenerboey her computer is her best friend for keeping in touch with the TFBoys.

She told the Global Times that though it was a bit weird to laugh and cry in front of her computer there was no other way. "I feel so happy whenever something new about the boys is released, and I just watch everything with so much passion because it is probably the closest I can get to them."

TFBoys' fans are an extensive, large and supportive group. Fatima said the boys' real fans were very dedicated, and when they found she was interested they shared information with her, added her to their Facebook pages, and forwarded new pictures and videos for her.

"What is amazing about these boys is that they are able to show and express their talents at such a young age," Carla Bofill said. "It's true that they are just kids, but I believe their talents will continue to grow with their passion."

Newspaper headline: Admirers from abroad

Posted in: Metro Shanghai, City Panorama

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