Chinese women spend a fortune doting on their teenage idol

By Ren Yaoti Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/8 19:23:39

Chinese teenage pop idols have millions of fans, not only of their age, but also older women, whose willingness to spend on stars has stunned the nation.

More than 100 fans of Wang Junkai celebrate the singer's birthday in front of a building with a giant screen showing pictures of him in Chongqing, Wang's hometown. Photo: IC

On September 21, if you happened to be passing by New York's iconic Times Square, you could not help but learn that it was the birthday of Chinese teenager Wang Junkai, as more than 10 huge screens celebrated him getting one year older.

Wang Junkai, a member of boy band TFBoys, has over 18 million mostly female followers on Sina Weibo.

Having a fan kingdom about the same size as the population of the Netherlands, Wang was probably the world's most praised boy that day. He received more than just a birthday party, but also countless presents way beyond expectation.

Presents worth millions

In today's China, a 17-year-old boy usually celebrates his birthday with family members or some good buddies. Spending a few hundred RMB on a fancy dinner with a big cake, followed by karaoke until late in the night is common.

But Wang Junkai had millions of yuan spent on him by his loyal fans, with some claiming that the overall expenditure on the celebrations may have topped 50 million yuan ($7.49 million).

Though denying more extreme claims about the expenditure, Wang's fans have remained close-mouthed about the amount of money they have donated to the cause of celebration.

Xie Mei (pseudonym), a 29-year-old fan of Wang, speaking to the Global Times four days after Wang's birthday, said that 33 celebration events were held. She was not willing to even speculate about the cost, but did admit that it was very expensive and the cost of public screens and billboards made up most of the spending.

Based on the goal of "letting the world know Wang Junkai's birthday," Wang's fans prepared a series of celebrations of various kinds.

Xie Mei sent a list to the Global Times detailing some of the celebratory events including but not limited to 11 LED screens playing videos of Wang in Times Square, six in Tokyo, 32 along expressways in Paris, 533 televisions along the subway in Taipei, 42 digital billboards in Changsha airport, a light show in the Olympic Water Cube in Beijing and many billboards in cities like Seoul, Melbourne and Reykjavik.

They booked a deluxe suite with the room number 9210 (his date of birth) on the cruise ship Super Star Virgo heading from China to Japan.  Also, they advertised on Chongqing's Light Rail Line 3 and the No.7737 and No.273 buses in Seoul.

His fans even rented a helicopter, decorated with posters and stickers, and had it hover over Changsha, Central China's Hunan Province, where Wang stayed on his birthday.

"It was unprecedented," Xie Mei said to the Global Times.

Apart from putting advertisements on transport, giant digital screens and billboards, Wang's fans bought advertisement spots on Youtube and Icelandic online newspaper Morgunbladid.

"Junkai has mentioned Iceland many times in his interviews, saying that he really wants to visit this country but has been too busy to go, so we simply want to make a carnival celebration of his birthday in his dream place," Xie Mei explained to the Global Times.

Subway trains in Chongqing are covered with posters of Wang Junkai on his birthday. Photo: IC

Fan economy rocketing

It used to be the case that putting up a poster on a bedroom wall, collecting albums, writing fan mail and going to concerts were all a fan could do to show their passion.

It would have been quite impossible for Chinese pop fanatics to celebrate an idol in this fashion just a few years ago.

But China's swift economic growth has made such miracles possible.

The International Monetary Fund rated China as the number one economic power in the world,  surpassing the United States in terms of purchasing power parity-adjusted GDP terms, the Huffington Post reported in 2015.

 "In this birthday supporting events, the funding comes from every fan club, we didn't raise money. And those who are able to operate a fan club are mostly people with well-paid jobs," Xie Mei said to Global Times.

Other fans also said on Zhihu, a Chinese question and answer site, that they don't mind that people don't understand their ambitions, but they want to let producers and investors know the size of the fan economy that Wang Junkai can generate.

But Xie Mei said, "Money is not the most important part, all these celebration events are just meant to show our love to Junkai and let more people know about him."

The deep feeling held by fans toward these idols may explain why a fan from Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province was willing to spend seven hours walking over 44 kilometers, longer than a marathon, to draw picture for the TFBoys on a route recording app, according to the China News Service this March.

Idol factory

If making more money allows people to spend their dough on celebrities, then the idea of making a star shine all the brighter is the impetus that drives fans to create all these events voluntarily.

"Wang Junkai is among the first generation of 'cultivated' idols in China," Xie Mei told the Global Times. "He was first exposed to the public at the age of 12, and his fans witnessed him growing up, this built a more solid connection between the fans and the idol," she adds.

As Xie Mei said, unlike popstars created by traditional idol agencies who manage everything for their idols, the TFBoys are allowed to be more like "wild horses." 

Thanks to the development of the internet and social media, fans are able to take over the responsibility of promoting their beloved idol.

According to rough estimates, Wang Junkai has over 70 fan clubs, and each of them has its own way to help promote their idol. 

JD (pseudonym) is a 27-year-old fan of the 17-year-old idol. JD works in a media-related company in a southern Chinese city, and runs one of these 70 clubs.

As JD says, many of the people behind Wang's fan clubs have media jobs, and different clubs have different missions and preferences when it comes to the promoting process.

JD named  fan clubs that promote fan meetings and activities, some that focus on online voting or news production, making videos and posters and even maintaining public relations with Wang's sponsors.

"Wang's fan clubs are really talented, if combined, they could form an agency with clear divisions," JD pointed out.

"Now the videos of Wang Junkai have many views on YouTube, the BBC even reported on him on its website," JD told the Global Times, explaining that exporting Chinese pop culture is also one of their goals.

Unlike traditional promotion, in which companies promote stars as a product to make money from fans, these groups are bound together by their love for an idol and a common set of values and want to promote their idol simply for the sake of promotion.

Feminism has taken place 

The TFBoys fandom is reminiscent of the Beatlemania that swept the Western world in the 1960s.

Marc Myers described the fans of the Liverpool pop group in The Wall Street Journal, saying "They were a national sensation - attracting crowds of hysterical teens who became increasingly difficult to control or restrain."

This description can be used on fans of TFBoys without altering many words - but the word "teen" isn't always accurate.

These teenage boys have attracted many fans older than themselves, some are even the mothers of teenagers.

China Youth Daily described TFBoys' fans as showing "motherhood."

The report adds "This group of women are mostly the only child of their family, lacking little brothers and sisters in their childhood, and with the extension of education years, they also put off their marriage, and therefore, it is not strange that they have to place their maternity on idols."

In recent years, Chinese women have seen their economic power grow.

According to The Global Gender Gap Report 2015 published by the World Economy Forum, China scored 0.682, ranking 91st in the world, and its performance in economic participation/opportunity and educational attainment are above average. Grant Thornton also published an International Business Report in March 2015, which said that female executive officers can be found in 25 percent of enterprises in the Chinese mainland, compared with the world's average of 22 percent and 8 percent in Japan.

As women's social status rises, they are more independent, economically and mentally.

The fan club that JD runs prepared the VIP cruise suite for Wang, and when asked about the source of their money, she answered "It's just covered by the living expenses of a few members of our club."

JD also said that all the money she spends on supporting her idol comes from her salary, but she reiterated that they never actively raise funds, every penny is voluntarily donated according to members' incomes.

Due to their greater financial independence, woman can increasingly have a say in their own hobbies and are much more brave about expressing their love for a male celebrity, without worrying about their partner's jealousy.

Wang and his band are unique, but Wang's fans are just like the fans of other popstars.

They fit almost every characteristic mentioned in the Chinese Fan Report conducted by media research company iResearch and published earlier in this April.

The report says that the number of Chinese pop fans has steadily grown in recent years, and among them, nearly 30 percent are well-paid top or mid-level administrators in enterprises, and with an increasing number of people preferring youth culture over more "age-appropriate" entertainment.

The emotional care and self-identification being a member of a fan group can offer has built a solid connection between these fans.

Like Xie Mei said, "Once in, it is hard to get rid of the connection with idols and the groups."

Newspaper headline: Popstar planet

Posted in: In-Depth

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