I still remember the summer of 2015, when I came back to China for summer vocation and heard TFboys’ hit single “Manual of Youth 青春纪念手册” everywhere, literally everywhere I went. The more the song was played in public spaces such as malls, taxis and restaurants however, the more I noticed peoples' negative receptions toward it: my friends or even newly met acquiescence would always frown, commenting with either mocking sarcasm or bursting disgust: “Oh my god, this stupid song again?!”, “I honestly cannot tolerate those three boys anymore”, “this is the silliest thing EVER” and many more. Not a single person I met liked the song nor the boys; for them, the rise of TFboys was a bewildering joke that deserved nothing but disdain, a waste of attention and resource.
More than two years later, today, TFboys is still incredibly active on China’s entertainment front, less because of their works but more due to their crazy fandom (the three boys are the most-followed Chinese idols of the moment). To many, “fans of TFboys” have become the symbol of mindless fanaticism, a social phenomenon and a behavioral art in pursue of attention in the public space. What's about the three boys that worth of so much love, and why are the fans loving them in such hectic and loud ways? Such were the questions that puzzled a lot of outsiders like us.
Over the past week, me and Yan immersed ourselves in the world of TFboys. We spent hours studying the their performances and stories, watching visual documents and tracing into their fans' online communities. There were moments we felt we finally got the answers, and other times we felt even more baffled, unable to fully grasp on this idol-fans relationship that is so twisted yet so powerful.
Having had enough TFboys time to ourselves, we now want to share this investigative journey with you through a two-part Elephant Room story. In part I, we'd walk you through the idol-manufacturing history of the three boys and sketch you a loose portray of their fans, and in part II next week we will dive deeper into the fans' ecosystem to examine its impacts on both the Chinese entertainment industry and youth culture.
Writing about TFboys was so much harder than we thought it would be (we felt like some sorts of underground detectives for the whole week), yet at the end of the day, we believe the boys and their fans truly are an important story for those want to know about today's China beyond skin-deep.
So here you are, enjoy this week's story, and stay tuned for part II next week:)
“If looking into China’s entertainment industry is like peering through a frosted glass shower door, attempting to crack TFboys is like staring into a black hole.”
Who are TFBoys?
- TFBoys, also known as The Fighting Boys, is a Chinese boy band/idol group made up of three members:
Karry Junkai Wang, born in Sep 1999 in Chongqing, China, currently 17 turning 18;
Roy Yuan Wang, born in Nov 2000 in Chongqing, China, currently 16 turning 17;
Jackson Yangqianxi Yi, Born in Nov 2000 in Hunan, China, currently 16 turning 17.
- The group released their first offcial single in 2013 (When the three boys were aged 13, 12 and 12 respectively) after being signed by Time Fengjun, a Chinese entertainment company that was aspired to copy the business model of Japanese talent agency Johnny & Associates (who trained and managed young male entertainers known as Johnnies).
- TFboys gained massive popularity rapidly on the internet. Within less than four years, they’ve become the most followed Chinese idols on social medias, signed endless endorsement deals, appeared on the national New Year’s Gala twice, and rang in films, TV shows, reality TVs and many more (we'd talk more about their business values next week).
TFboys in their early days. (Left to right: Roy, Karry and Jackson)
TFboys this year. (Left to right: Karry, Jackson and Roy)
養成する： The Idols Who Grow Up With You
“Our vision is to give the fans a sense of ownership, a feeling of growing up with the boys together.”
-Time Fengjun, management agency for TFboys
Fans like to call TFboys “三小只”, literally meaning “three little ones” in English. This nickname, if nothing, accurately highlights the one and only aspect that most outsiders feel about the boy brand: their small age. The oldest and lead of the band Karry Wang was only 11 when he was recruited as a trainee into the company Time Junfeng, and in less than two years, he and the other trainee Roy Wang were already paired together as a duo, singing and performing in various cheaply-made music videos (most of them are shot in random indoor spaces or on streets, featuring the two boys singing directly to people passing by) or mini drama series self-produced by the agent. To say they were performing is even an overstatement; unlike most child stars in the entertainment industry who strike this “I-know-what-I-am-doing” vibe, the 11/12-year-old Kerry and Roy (Jackson Yi didn’t join the band until mid-2013) were perplexed and lost in those early-day videos, with facial expressions and body gestures loudly crying out awkwardness (many times they'd even be too shy to look straight into camera). The singing was above average to say the most; the acting was unbearably hard-going, with lines being talked out stiffly from some perfunctorily-written scripts.
The company intentionally shot clips like this: two obedient, "raw" little boys singing on streets or in other rough conditions.
Karry Wang in "The Onion", one of their early covers of Chinese pop songs.
The immaturity of these videos however was no hindrance to the already-ignited fans, who at the time were hooked to the two boys’ naive, “乖 guāi” (basically meaning obedient in a positive way) personalities, and, more importantly, the yaoi interactions between them (yes, that’s the Japanese fiction genre focusing on fantasizing romantic or sexual relationships between male characters). Realizing there was a large potential audience who’d love to see a little delicate relationship between young boys, TFboys' company quickly produced a TV series called Boys’ Study Room, in which Karry Wang played the typical seme role, aloof and dominant, and Roy played the Uke, adorable and shy. The series was coarsely-made with plot and acting so dry that there was virtually nothing to watch expect the boys’ beautiful little face, yet the more rustic the production was, the more “real”, as fans liked to believe, the Boys Love seemed to be between the boys. After airing online, the show was quickly flooded with comments like “Kiss each other!” “They are such a match!”, “This is not acting, this is real love!” especially during the scenes where Karry “teased” Roy.
Under Karry and Roy’s first ever singing video online, “You Like Summer I like Autumn”, half of the comments were praising how cute these boys are, and the other half were shouting thirstily “Get together! Get together!”
Just enough Boys Love to get Yaoi fans high.
A 5-star review on Boys' Study Room: "horrible composition, absolutely no acting, and the plot doesn't even make sense, but the boys are just so cute that if offsets all the flaws of the show. Young beautiful face is everything."
For those that were not impressed enough by the cute faces and loving yaoi interactions, there was one more secret weapon that eventually knocked them all: the diligent, hard-working attitude of the three boys. With a hand-held camera to follow the boys around 24/7, every bit of the three boys' idol-making journey, from learning new songs, practicing dance moves to catching up with school works after training, was all captured and posted online for public viewership. Seeing the three innocent little boys getting so exhausted yet were still working so hard towards their their idol dreams, more and more netizens claimed that they had “fell into the fandom hole”(“入坑“), beginning their love journey with the boys ever since.
After Jackson Yi joined in 2013, the company rolled out the weekly reality-show named “TFBoysGO” featuring random snippets from all aspects of the three boys daily lives.
The company intentionally aggrandized the boys' hard-working, enduring characteristics to win over the hearts of tender-hearted fans.
Boyfriends, Sons, and Everything More
Having walked through the public image that TFboys constructed, we were more curious than ever about another question: who are their fans exactly?
4 years since debuting to the public in 2013, today, the three members of TFboys now have in total over 80 million followers on Weibo.
Fans waiting at the airport.
Who are you, you and...you?
To this day, there’s no official data on the demographics of TFboys' fans, but some analytical sources (like this Zhihu post) show that they mainly fall into two categories: either teens/young adult girls in their 10s to early 20s, or self-claimed older “aunties” who are married and even with kids. Both groups have been open, or even proactively in claiming their own distinctive identities: the first group calls themselves as “girlfriend-fans 女友粉”, while the second self-titles as “mother-fans 亲妈粉”. They love the same idols, but the ways they project love are different; by fitting themselves into one of the two groups, fans have self-assigned roles, responsibilities and rights based on imaginations of the boys as either boyfriends or husbands.
Fans of each TFboys' member have their own colors, nicknames and organizations. (more on that next week...)
From our perspective, the “girlfriend - boyfriend” bonding is perhaps easier to make sense of. We’ve all been through puberty, a lonely, mindless phase of which we crave for affections, grasping on everything we could during that long, exhausting journey of identity exploration. We all needed that one figure, a special someone who could walk us gently into that abstract and scary destination called adulthood. An idol like TFboys is perfect in this case; the fact that the three boys are still in school aggrandizes the sense of intimacy, making them the ideal candidate for that illusional, next-door type boyfriend: smart and cute, quiet yet considerate, and most importantly, virtually growing up at the same pace as their self-claimed, equally immature girlfriends.
Roy in middle school classroom.
Girlfriend-fans' cry: "Marry me when you grow up!"
But the mother-son relationship baffled us. We’ve never came across anything like the motherhood identity of these TFboys’ fans; fine, Justin Bieber had tons of mature female fans as well when he first debuted at age 15, but as he eagerly took off his “teen-boy” jacket, his fan base was washed as well (do correct us if we were wrong), weeding out that veiled “mother-son” intimacy rather quickly. Such has not been the case for TFboys though; for the past four years of which they grew virtually in the public eyes, they never revealed even one trace of rebellious act or thought. The three boys have all grown much taller, changed voice, and transited from middle school to college-really (Karry Wang just attended the national college entrance exam this summer), but they are still as obedient and, to a large extent, sexless; instead of showing off masculinity and thumping up testosterones as most teen boys at this age would do, the three boys continue to laugh when they should, quiet when they are not allowed to talk, sing, act, post, promote and attend things as instructed by their agent. They admit their performances are still flawed, consistently attributing their popularity to nothing but luck. They are humble, polite, graceful and well-behaved; they are, in the end of day, the exact kind of sons that Chinese mothers would proudly show off to a table of relatives at Spring Festivals dinners.
Mother-fans are usually the ones with greater purchasing power, hence able to throw money on things such as LED screens in New York's Times Square(the slogan reads: "Karry and Roy, we wish you sing well and grow up with love").
Three boys in 2017.
In today's capitalistic society, celebrities are both merchants and merchandises; they sell dreams to those who are trapped by reality, sell comfort to those who are uncomfortable with themselves, and sell their fantastical, constructed selves to those who are - as we all are - longing for accompanies and love.
What makes the story of TFboys so unique is that their fans are not just consumers. Copying the Korean model of "응원" (“应援”, cheerleading/supporting), the company behind TFboys has authorized those 80 million fans to not only consume the three boys, but to actually decide for them, to guide them, and to grow virtually with them. It is the fans that are making TFboys into their own beings; the three teen boys, in many ways, are just empty shells carrying the love, dream and lives of those 80 million vivid, passionate individuals.
【To be continued...】