ARTS / FILM
Young migrant factory workers form distinct Shamate subculture
Published: Nov 15, 2020 05:03 PM
A new documentary, We Were Smart directed by Li Yifan, focuses on what's left of the Chinese subculture known as Shamate, which is still attracting young migrant workers who are eager to express themselves.

Director Li Yifan (left) talks with a migrant worker and fan of the subculture known as Shamate. Photo: Courtesy of Li Yifan

Shamate, a sarcastic transliteration of the English word "smart," refers to a subculture of young people who wear unique clothing and straight, brightly colored hair with long bangs covering their forehead. This flamboyant anime-like hair has become their symbol.

Li, who is also a teacher at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, was first attracted by the subculture in 2012, when it was at the height of its popularity. He considers Shamate the Chinese-equivalent of grunge or punk and a symbol of young people's aesthetic awakening. 

"After talking with members of the subculture, I found Shamate is mainly found in factory districts," Li told the Global Times. 

"I tried to portray Shamate culture from their perspective."

Hanging on

Li said that he wants audiences to get to know the personal history of these young people. This is why from 2012 to 2018, Li and his team traveled to distant places such as South China's Guangdong Province where many Chinese migrants work and Southwest China's Yunnan Province from which many of them originate.

"I originally thought we would only find some old Shamate fans who were born in the 1990s and had quit the community, but surprisingly we discovered Shamate culture is alive and well in Guangdong. Most of them were born after 2000," said Li, who noted that a local ice rink in the town of Shipai in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, is their main hangout.

Li and his team conducted face-to-face interviews with 67 young people taking part in the Shamate subculture, and talked to 11 others online.  

Many of the young workers said that the repetition and monotony they experience on the assembly line was getting them down and was causing them to begin to question the meaning of life. 

"I felt like I was in a cage," Luo Fuxing, a long Shamate enthusiast, described the misery he experienced as a factory worker.

Shamate culture helps these young workers express themselves, while also offering them a community while they are far from their hometowns. 

Migrant worker dilemma

"When I interviewed them, these young Shamate fans would most often say they wished they had never gotten into factory work. But it was what they had to do, how else could they earn a living?" Li explained. 

Li found that most Shamate followers have very similar experiences; many are elementary school drop outs from rural areas, while most of them were left-behind children whose parents worked in big cities. 

Most of the young migrant workers who belong to Shamate culture felt they lost direction in their lives and didn't have many goals, said Li. Although they want to settle down in urban areas, they can't afford it.

While Shamate culture is still hanging on, Li said he doubts it will ever be as popular as it was a decade ago.

Social media and mobile games have given young migrant factory workers a new platform to congregate with others.

"The disdain Shamate subculture received from society also contributed to its decline."
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