TEA LEAVES

THE SHOW'S OVER FOR THE FA­THER OF CHINA'S ODDEST SUB­CUL­TURE, THE SHAMATE

The World of Chinese - - Editor’s Letter - – PHOEBE ZHANG

茶话会

Dressed in a dark blue, long-sleeved shirt, tight jeans, and black leather shoes, Luo Fux­ing looks noth­ing like the spikey-haired fig­ure with pur­plish lip­stick who, 10 years ago, founded one of the China’s best-known—and least-loved— sub­cul­tures.

It was 2007 when China’s in­ter­net fo­rums and so­cial me­dia plat­forms seemed sud­denly filled with mem­bers of the “shamate fam­ily.” The shamate were mostly young men from small ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, who bonded on and off­line over their shared pas­sion for flam­boy­ant cloth­ing, hair, and makeup.

To some, they looked like ex­otic aliens; to oth­ers, more like re­ject mem­bers of a Sex Pis­tols trib­ute band. But there’s no doubt the shamate were in­flu­en­tial. Ac­cord­ing to Wang Bin, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at Cen­tral China Nor­mal Univer­sity, in Septem­ber 2014 there were close to 17 mil­lion shamate web­pages, 1.5 mil­lion posts on the Baidu Shamate Fo­rum, and more than 200 ac­tive QQ groups. The sub­cul­ture had be­come a na­tional phe­nom­e­non, Wang wrote, as well as an en­ter­tain­ment sub­ject for all.

Un­for­tu­nately, much of Chi­nese so­ci­ety didn’t share the en­thu­si­asm. Few un­der­stood shamate cul­ture, and most la­beled them id­i­otic, with some even call­ing them the “fallen gen­er­a­tion.” A decade on, while a few still cling to the life­style, most of the acolytes now have jobs and fam­i­lies, and have given up their old ways.

“We never wanted to be un­der­stood by the masses any­ways,” says Luo, who has be­come reluc­tantly known as the fa­ther of shamate. It was in fourth grade that Luo came across a QQ group de­voted to punk-rock, and tried to mimic their bands’ hair­styles. When he posted a pic­ture on­line, some­one com­mented that he looked “fash­ion­able.”

He searched the Chi­nese word on­line, and an English trans­la­tion, “smart,” jumped out. The pro­nun­ci­a­tion sounded like “shamate,” so Luo cre­ated the first QQ group un­der that name. Grad­u­ally the group grew, post­ing pho­tos on fo­rums, and brand­ing them­selves “the shamate fam­ily”. At one point, Luo re­mem­bers be­ing in charge of sev­eral dozen QQ groups, each with more than 1,000 mem­bers. Most were teenagers from small cities with mi­grant par­ents.

Look­ing back at that era, Luo said he cre­ated this fam­ily partly be­cause he felt at­tracted to its fash­ion, but also be­cause he thirsted for at­ten­tion. His fa­ther worked on con­struc­tion projects in Shen­zhen, Guang­dong prov­ince, while he and his mother stayed in the city of Meizhou, 360 kilo­me­ters away. Busy with work ev­ery day, his mother had lit­tle time for him, and Luo re­ceived scant at­ten­tion at school. “I sat in the back all the time and slept,” he re­calls. “When I didn’t want to sleep any­more, I skipped school and didn’t want to go back again.”

Grad­u­ally, the “fam­ily” mi­grated to off­line groups as well: Shamate mem­bers would walk the streets to­gether, draw­ing stares with their out­landish looks and cloth­ing.

“Our goal was to make friends and meet peo­ple. If you are at the bot­tom of the so­cial lad­der, if you are a worker in a fac­tory, on an assem­bly line, you can hardly know any­body,” Luo says. “You are all alone in a first-tier city, you must feel lonely.”

He didn’t mind that peo­ple call­ing them names and belit­tled them in pub­lic; through other shamate, peo­ple like Luo felt con­nected to the out­side world. But last year, Luo’s fa­ther passed away from can­cer and he sud­denly felt the weight of re­spon­si­bil­ity on his shoul­ders. He now sup­ports his mother through his job at a bar­ber­shop in Shen­zhen, and even­tu­ally hopes to make enough money to open his own shop back home, so he can be closer to his ac­tual fam­ily.

To­day, the shamate’s in­flu­ence is wan­ing as orig­i­nal mem­bers grow up while the young men of to­day’s in­ter­net age are more at­tracted to live stream­ing on apps such as Kuaishou or Douyu. Now, when­ever peo­ple ap­proach him about shamate cul­ture, Luo tells them about the pos­i­tive side—that far from be­ing a fallen gen­er­a­tion, shamate were merely youths ex­per­i­ment­ing, and that peo­ple al­ways change as they age. And while he re­fuses to go on game or chat shows as the “fa­ther of shamate,” Luo still wants to set a good ex­am­ple. “I don’t want to be an in­ter­net sen­sa­tion,” he ex­plains. “It feels like I’m beg­ging oth­ers for money.”

Luo Fux­ing (left) in his shamate days, and (right) as he is to­day, work­ing as a hair­dresser

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