Photo Credit: Wu Hao

Live Dreaming

A popular video app offers rural celebrity hopefuls a taste of fame

It’s valued at over 2 billion USD, has more users than the population of the US and UK combined, and is the fourth most popular app in China. But if you’ve never heard of the live-streaming app Kuaishou (快手, literally “Fast Hand”), you’re not alone.

On Kuaishou (or Kwai, as the English version is called), the stars are rural nobodies and their acts are worlds apart from the attractive urbanites paid to document branded lifestyles on mainstream apps like UpLive, YY, and Six Rooms, or celebrity app Huajiao. On Kuaishou, instead, there’s the 46-year-old woman who made a living eating everything from light bulbs to bugs and cacti; the heavily obese nine-year-old whose mother filmed him swigging from a beer bottle, carrying a lit cigarette; the 15-year-old proudly displaying her baby bump.

It is characters like these that have earned Kuaishou an unenviable reputation of being coarse and exploitative, an image that its CEO, Su Hua, takes issue with. “In most cases the videos are simple depictions of joyful moments in everyday situations,” Su told the Chinese site TechNode last June.

Kuaishou’s fanbase is the 674 million-strong, lower-middle and working classes from parts of the country rarely depicted on mainstream TV or cinema screens—rural, undeveloped, mostly impoverished. They are the people who deliver your takeouts, serve your meals, manicure your nails and put together your iPhones. And what they sometimes lack in means or sophistication, they often make up for in enthusiasm, humor, innovation, and authenticity.

To many of them, Kuaishou is a celebration of “real China,” as well as a rare, sometimes lucrative opportunity to grab some limelight. Attention seekers perform outlandish stunts for clicks and cash, such as lighting firecrackers on foreheads (or under groins), quaffing down bottles of high-strength baijiu or, in the case of one foolhardy foodie in Sichuan, downing a full glass of super-spicy chili oil (he ended up in hospital with severe tonsillitis and a stomach abscess for his troubles).

In his studio, producer Dai Rui still performs shows for old time’s sake and to keep his fans happy

For less extroverted types, Kuaishou offers a chance to showcase real talent on a platform they can not only control, but directly profit from (fans show their appreciation by donating virtual gifts such as beer, flowers, and fancy cars; these can be converted to real currency, with the proceeds split equally between the recipient and the platform). There are decent earners like Qi Zhi’ang from Liaoning province, who posts videos playing guitar while his mother sings; the 17-year-old easily makes around 20,000 RMB a month from his 65 million paying fans. Or more modest moneymakers like Tangshan taxi driver Zhao Xinlong, who moonlights as Zhao Long’er, nighttime raconteur, cracking ribald jokes to around 100,000 viewers who, together with advertisements for health products and Vietnamese “gold,” make him a much-needed extra 6,000 RMB a month, according to The Economist.

And then there are the major players—the wanghong (网红, “web celebrities”). MC Brother Li dropped out of school at 15 to become a mechanic; the 30-year-old now makes 1 to 1.5 million RMB (146,000 to 218,000 USD) per month performing hanmai (喊麦,“microphone shouting”), loudly rapping over the thumping techno typically found in provincial nightclubs. Aspiring “stream queens” can look to the success of Wen’er, whose energetic chats and hanmai performances have earned her 12 million YY followers. Probably hanmai’s biggest star, though, is MC Tianyou, a working-class northeasterner with over 17 million YY fans and a millionaire lifestyle, who raps about the tribulations of growing up poor and dreaming big in small-town China.

Launched in 2011, Kuaishou’s extraordinary growth had remained largely under the radar of the metropolitan beltway that dominates China’s official media, until last year. In January 2016, China Unicom announced that Kuaishou was generating more traffic on its network than mobile behemoths such as WeChat and Weibo. Then last September, a widely-shared article by Huo Qiming, who runs popular WeChat account “doctorx666”, entitled “The Brutal Grassroots Phenomenon: A Snapshot of China’s Countryside in an App,” finally brought Kuaishou under the mainstream microscope.

Huo used the app’s  most extreme content to make a doom-laden if familiar argument about the abject state of China’s provincial interior. Rural education is in a state of crisis with dropout rates for secondary school as high as 63 percent, according to the China Agricultural Policy Research Center, Huo observed. Meanwhile, rural-urban migration and the subsequent dissolution of traditional family units have fostered indifferent attitudes toward education and a lack of parental and social guidance among “left-behind” children (one criticism that’s hard to refute is the extent of content involving minors that might be considered exploitative or even sexually suggestive).

“A lack of cultural nourishment and the absence of any guardians naturally means children’s common contact is with vulgar, brutal things,” Huo wrote. “China’s villages have been sowing a violent seed.” Those who’ve dropped out or failed their exams find themselves easily drawn to shallow fantasies of making quick money on the internet, Huo claimed—the gospel of mindless “might is right” materialism preached by streaming stars such as MC Tianyou.

Observing their lack of representation in popular culture, Huo pointed to the widening urban-rural divide and vast wealth gap as signs of a country increasingly deaf to the lifestyles of the majority of its citizens, questioning whether anyone considers what the isolated lives of the old and left-behind are like, and concluding: “No one cares.”

The regions where Kuaishou is most popular—such as China’s frozen northeast—have much in common with the Rust Belt communities whose fortunes have declined so precipitously in the US over the last two decades. The massive reforms of state-owned industry in the early 1990s saw vast swathes of redundancies, leaving those who’d grown up with “iron rice bowl” futures with neither jobs nor the know-how to find them. For the children of these laid-off industrial workers, a slowing economy has left them little better off than their parents—official statistics predict an annual GDP growth of 6.7 percent, the country’s lowest in decades.

Some parts of the northeast are already in full-blown recession. In 2015, one mining company, the Longmay Group, announced the lay-off of 40 percent of its work force, affecting 100,000 workers at 42 mines in four cities. The price of coal, the lifeblood of China’s industrial heartland, has fallen 60 percent since 2011, according to Shanghai energy consultants ICIS C1 Energy, and strikes and labor protests are on the rise. In former success stories like Shenyang, smoggy capital of Liaoning province, growth has slowed to 3.5 percent amid a housing glut and manufacturing decline. Across provinces like Heilongjiang and Jilin, aging industries like mines and steelmills are shuttering and offering their workers lump sum payoffs. As a result, hundreds of towns and cities face with bleak prospects for employment or income.

It is in such a hardscrabble culture of suburban frustration and small town subsistence that Kuaishou’s users have grown up. For those without the wealth, connections or education to seek better opportunities, Kuaishou gives them a chance to seek out their dreams or demonstrate skills to an audience of millions—a kind of online audition. Self-taught artist and full-time electrician Lu Xiaoyu, for example, managed to secure a number of clients for his 3D drawings and portraits after showcasing them on Kuaishou.

For every success story, however, there are millions more untold failures. And there may be tougher times to come. After years of allowing the live-stream market to flourish unimpeded, the government has stepped in to ensure that its contents remain more in tune with “socialist values.” There have been clampdowns, as well as arrests for producing pornographic content.

Those who do become celebrities through legitimate forms of entertainment such as hanmai face a fate arguably worse than censorship: indifference. Despite receiving tens of thousands of appreciative clicks for each of her streaming videos, hanmai singer Wen’er has had little success trying to cross over to mainstream entertainment. In September, she released the original composition “Shengnü Xinjing” (“Heart of a Leftover Woman”) on online music platform NetEase Cloud Music; it garnered just under a hundred comments.

Those who do get attention must also deal with scorn from the elites whose lifestyles they emulate. When GQ magazine profiled MC Tianyou, the backlash from readers was intense: “Disgusting,” commented one. Others wondered why the magazine was bothering to promote such a “shady” character, asking,“Why would you even interview this kind of person?”

The future does not look to be getting any easier for China’s live-streaming hopefuls. Although many breakout stars say they support the new regulations—for one thing, they thin out the competition—the introduction of requirements for streaming platforms to obtain broadcasting licenses this year is likely to have a knock-on effect on both the diversity and interest in apps such as Kuaishou and their aspiring wanghong.

Only the big hitters are expected to survive the impending cull, expert say—and their control of the new media does not bode well for the small-town rookies dreaming of life in the big time. Six Rooms CEO Li Yan, for example, plans to use algorithms and big data to calculate which facets of live streamers are most lucrative—looks, accent, style—and search for performers who fit the “perfect” mould. Live streaming may have started as an upstart revolution against the mainstream, but in the future looks destined to become simply another part of it.


Meet the performers and producers of China’s most popular live-streaming app

The Comedian

Zhou Qianbai is a 20-year-old striver from Hulin, a small city in Heilongjiang province with a single main street and little in the way of entertainment for men his age. Zhou dropped out of school at 15 and moved southwards, to warmer Guangdong, where he trained in martial arts, hoping to find work as an actor. Lonely and homesick, and having found little in the way of success down south, Zhou returned home in 2014. It was in Hulin, where he now lives with his mother, that he turned to Kuaishou as an outlet for his skills.

Zhou shoots a new video in a teahouse opened by his friend. Most of Zhou’s videos feature Zhou with his Hulin friends. In this scene, he is pretending to be the rich owner of the shop

The app allows Zhou to indulge his own ideas for sketches and comedy videos. By sharing these clips, Zhou has attracted around 30,000 followers to date. In the recession-hit economy of northeast China, it’s difficult for young people to find a good job; nor can they earn a living simply by broadcasting. Like his girlfriend Jing, 23, who runs a private kindergarten outside Hulin city, Zhou teaches martial arts to kids to help make ends meet. Few believe he is going to become web celebrity like the iconic MC Tianyou, least of all his girlfriend, who doesn’t like or understand his enthusiasm for Kuaishou. She would rather Zhou be a “traditional, caring man” with a reliable job, who dedicates all his free time to her; it’s a constant source of contention for the couple.

But that doesn’t stop Zhou from dreaming. After his parents divorced, his father remarried. Although the two still see each other, Zhou feels his father never really cared about him and looks down on what he does. “If I get rich and famous in the future, I want to buy a big new house for my mother, to thank her for supporting what I’m trying to do,” says Zhou.

Zhou and friends at a nightclub in Hulin

Although Zhou can earn up to 300 RMB for one of his daily broadcasts, he knows that this is not a sustainable future. Under pressure from his girlfriend, Zhou eventually decided to borrow 20,000 RMB to start his own kung fu class at his girlfriend’s school, teaching students aged 6 to 15 who pay 300 RMB a month. With his weekends spent teaching, Zhou has put his Kuaishou ambitions on hold in order to keep faith with his family—he still makes videos, only these ones promote his new business, rather than his true passion for comedy.

The Painter

An art major at Shenyang Ligong University, Zhang Ciman, 22, also helps run a coffee shop in Shenyang where she began her modest broadcasting career about a year ago. By sharing her artwork, performing songs, and taking requests, Zhang has accumulated over 10,000 followers. Hundreds of these fans watch her live shows every day and Zhang uses the virtual gifts from her audience to help pay off tuition fees of around 5,000 RMB per semester, as well as living expenses.

Zhang displays her work during a broadcast. Many of Zhang’s fans are amateur artists who use her videos for tips and advice on improving their own work

“My mother knows that I’m involved in broadcasting. She even watches my show and helps me deal with some of the problems I have during the performance,” Zhang says. “And by earning money, I feel I am more independent.”

The Anchors

Twenty-three-year-old Zhao Pengbo has just graduated from the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, where he studied to be a flight attendant. Unlike his classmates, Zhao has no immediate plans to start a career which, while seeming glamorous—especially to those who haven’t traveled abroad—can be difficult to advance within. Instead, Zhao has decided to see if he can use his natural charm to make a living as a “cyber anchor,” broadcasting himself singing and chatting with fans. He tapes live shows in a special recording room for three hours day, earning around 5,000 RMB a month.

“It’s a trend and fashionable for young people to try [online broadcasting]. Nowadays the market is growing rapidly,” says Zhao. “I like it because this job is more flexible. I can have the time and space for myself after work. My parents think it’s not even work…I don’t care.”

Meiko uses a professional studio to broadcast her live shows. Companies such as hers are springing up all over China to provide working spaces for aspiring Kuaishou celebrities

Fellow anchor Meiko, also from Shenyang, was working as a sales assistant and gym instructor before she discovered Kuaishou and decided she had what it takes to host her own show. She has joined a production company for live streamers which has hired about 30 young anchors, mainly female and provides them equipment and studio space to work. Other than a basic salary of around 2,000 RMB, a top anchor can earn around 20,000 to 50,0000 RMB a month, mainly from payment from their fans, so their survival is dependent on popularity and consistent work.

The Singer-Turned-Producer

Dai Rui is holding court to his fans at his office in Liaoyang, Liaoning province. Just 24, Dai is already a successful entrepreneur and producer of professional live-streaming shows, but he was once an ordinary online performer, like his employees.

Dai, who once made thousands of RMB for his performances, now prefers the corporate life, managing others in his agency

Dai first broke into the business in 2014, and his enthusiastic singing soon earned him a massive following. His fans included several rich businessmen who were willing to give him expensive gifts for his performances—soon his income reached as much as 200,000 RMB a month (wealthy users are often motivated to donate large amounts as a show of face; sometimes they even compete to be a performer’s most generous patron).

The income allowed Dai to break out of the performer’s life and become his own producer. The Liaoyang Zhiyuan Culture and Communication Company now turns over several million RMB a year, and Dai has more than a thousand streaming singers on contract.

Studio systems like Dai’s give amateur acts a chance to shine professionally

But despite the wealth and acclaim it brought him, Dai doesn’t miss his singing days. “The broadcasting industry made me successful, it also ruined my normal life,” Dai recalls.“I used to broadcast more than 15 hours a day. It hurt my body badly. Now I have more money than I could imagine, but I still don’t have enough time. If I could do it again, I may not choose to broadcast.”

Photography by Wu Hao (吴皓)

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Live Dreaming is a story from our issue, “Wheel Life China.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


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