PAYING A HIGH PRICE FOR UNIVERSITY
1. College Entrance Scam
Recently, Weibo netizens and Chinese media have been reporting on College Entrance Enrollment Scams (高考招生骗局): “Mr. Lu from Anhui always hoped his son would attend a good university,” Anhui Daily writes: “but his grades were not ideal. This is when Mr. Zhou appeared, who introduced himself as an official from an academic institution with the right means to make sure Mr. Lu’s son would be admitted to Hefei University of Technology, but he needed money for it.”
Worried about his son’s future, and fully trusting, Mr. Lu invested 125.000 RMB (over 20.000 US dollar) to get his son enrolled. Because his son initially received a (fake) admission letter from the university, the Lu family did not immediately discover they were scammed. When they did, their money was gone, and the son was not registered at any university at all.
The Lu family is not the only one to get victimised by this scam. Around this time of year, the results of the annual College Entrance Exams are released. Prospective students and their family feverishly look to get admitted to a good university. But because it is all about the grades, the prospects look grim for those who did not get a good score on their exam. This makes them vulnerable victims for these kinds of scams. “This time of year is the peek of all kinds of criminal activities related to the College Entrance Exams,” Anhui Daily writes: “Students and their parents should not be fooled.”
BLINDED BY JEALOUSY
2. “I Am Your Husband’s Mistress” Scam
An incoming message on your phone says: “Hi, I am your husband’s mistress. I love him and want to marry him. You can see our picture for yourself, if you don’t believe me.”
The message is a shock to many women, who do not hesitate to immediately click the link provided in the text message. Unknowingly, by clicking the link, their phone gets infected with a trojan horse virus. Many Chinese have installed apps on their phone such as Alipay (Chinese equivalent to Paypal). The virus enables scammers to access private information, and transfer money from their victim’s accounts.
So how do scammers know the person they send a message to is a married woman? Actually, they don’t. By sending the same message to as many people as possible, they enhance their chances of sending it to those that are female and married – vulnerable to clicking the link in the text.
Similarly, scammers also send out messages telling people that their daughter is a prostitute, providing them with a link for pictures as (non-existent) proof [one of our female Harbin friends was called by her father in the middle of the night, worried sick about his daughter].
Another version of this scam is the message from the school administration, telling parents to click the link to see their child’s latest report card. Scammers will even say they are their children’s English or maths teacher, boosting the chances of parents clicking the link provided.
The only way to handle these messages is to immediately delete them, without clicking the link attached. If in doubt, call school/daughter/husband to verify (although in some odd cases, the latter may happily say it is a scam when it is actually not..).
NOT MY CUP OF TEA
3. The Tea Ceremony Scam
The tea ceremony scam has been a common scam in China for years. It is aimed at tourists who are new to China, and are eager to experience something typically ‘Chinese’. Although the tea scammers are also active in Beijing (report), they famously operate around Shanghai’s People’s Park.
The scam usually involves two or three nice-looking young ladies who present themselves as “students” when approaching western tourists. What starts as small talk, soon leads to the girls inviting the tourist(s) to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony, where they will taste about eight different teas within fifteen minutes or so in a closed room in a backend alley teahouse. The tourists are led to believe that the tea that is served is inexpensive, but will later be presented with a bill of 650-2000 RMB (100-330 US dollar) or even more.
HANGING WITH THE WRONG CROWD
4. The WeChat Group Scam
WeChat (in Chinese: Weixin) is the most popular app in China. It is not just a way to connect to friends individually or by group chat, it is also an app that is used for making phone calls, ordering taxi’s, and doing money transactions. (For more on Weixin, read: China’s Weixin Revolution.) For many Chinese, the app has become an essential tool for everyday communication.
Recently, it has become more and more common for people to be asked to join a group of friends they do not know on Weixin, People’s Daily writes. Because these groups have names such as ‘finances’, or ‘entertainment’, many people agree to add themselves to the group, as it is quite normal to ‘follow’ various groups on Weixin. After doing so, they learn the group consists of hundreds of people posting spam, emoticons and vile words. When asking to exit the group, they soon discover they cannot withdraw.
The group also cannot be set to ‘do not disturb’ mode, making every message that pops up visible on your phone screen. Somebody in the group will then send you a message asking if you want to be removed from the group. If so, you will have to give him a so-called ‘red envelope’ (红包): a payment worth 8,88 RMB (1,5 US dollars). After paying, you will be removed from the groups within a couple of minutes.
Although victims of this scam will only lose a little bit of cash, this is now happening on such a large scale that these scammers are making large amounts of money. Tencent, the creator of WeChat, has responded that this specific scam is only happening to IOS users due to a software incompatibility. Users of iOs and WeChat are advised to update both their WeChat and their iOS version.
KEEPING THE DOCTOR AWAY
5. Beijing’s Hospital Scalpers
So-called hospital scalpers have been a problem in China for a long time. Hospital scalpers (医托) are people who earn their money by enticing people to obtain medical care at a certain hospital or clinic. As described by medical journalist Michael Woodhead from China Medical News (2014):
“The scalper is friendly and solicitous initially, advising the patients and family members that the official clinic is expensive and extremely busy and the service is poor. Sometimes they say the doctor on duty has a poor reputation or that the clinic is dirty and has poor hygiene. They then tell the victim that there is a better clinic nearby where they have connections and can get a quick appointment.The scalper then personally escorts the victim to the nearby clinic, where the ‘doctor’ and staff do many unnecessary expensive tests and prescribes some very common and cheap medicine but charges a high price.”
Earlier this month, Sina News reported about hundreds of people being victimised by one group of scalpers that mainly operate in and around Beijing’s West Station, Jishuitan Hospital, Fu Wai Hospital, Peking Union Medical Hospital Clinic and the 301 Hospital. The group, consisting of around sixty scammers, are active every day from early morning ’til afternoon, looking for inexperienced patients who come to Beijing to see a doctor, and are either just arriving, or are waiting in one of the long lines at the hospital.
The scammers wear costumes and look like professional staff members, asking people about their health problems and then referring them to the centrally located Baidetang Clinic near Beijing’s Pinganli Subway (Yude hutong).
According to the article, one patient, coming from Xi’an, was waiting at the Union Medical Hospital when she was approached by a woman who informed about her medical problems. When the patient told the woman that she suffered from menstrual problems, the scammer told her that the specialist she needed was currently available at the qualified Baidetang Clinic. The patient, like many others who were victimised, ended up getting a short consult and some expensive medicine, spending 10.000 RMB (1630 US dollars). According to an undercover journalist, hospital scalpers receive 70% of the amount a patient spends at the clinic.
6. “Canceled Flight” Message
This year, multiple Chinese media and netizens reported about the “canceled flight scam” (航班取消骗局). After booking a flight, passengers receive a text message from a 400-number saying that there has been a change in their flight, or that the flight has been canceled. In order to get their money back, passengers have to provide their name, ID information and bank account number.
Later on, passengers will discover that money is taken from their bank account, and that the text message they received was fake.
Anqing News Centre advises passengers to be careful with 400-numbers. After receiving similar messages, people should always first check with the official customer information number of their airline.
7. Major Bank Scam
Over the last year, several large-scale bank scams made the headlines in China. Although putting money in the bank is generally considered the safest option to protect one’s money, many Chinese netizens say that they are losing trust in China’s banking system because large amounts of people’s savings that were kept in state-owned banks have gone missing.
The scammers involved are people who work at the bank. They attract depositors by offering them high interests. Instead of annual interest rates of 2–5%, these employees will tell depositors that they can give them interests of 10%, up to 20% or even higher. In such scams, the depositors often have to sign the terms of service, which include that they have to refrain from checking the account. After the swindle is exposed, the bank usually states that it is the client’s responsibility for believing such high interests; even if the scam took place within the bank itself and clients assumed they were dealing with an honest employee.
Many netizens have expressed their astonishment over this scam. One Weibo netizen said: “If we keep money in the bank, the bank should be responsible for our savings. Since the scammer is an employee of the bank, the bank should take the responsibility for his behavior.”
The only way to avoid this scam: if it is too good to be true, it usually is. Double check with other bank staff, and properly read the terms of service. A bank can never make a client refrain from checking their own accounts.
8. Landlord Message Scam
A common scam, similar to the ‘mistress’ text message and the ‘canceled flight’ one, is a message from your landlord, who says that he has changed phone numbers, and that this month’s rent needs to be transferred to the account of his wife or another bank number.
In the end, it turns out that this message is fake – but meanwhile, many people already transferred the money to the wrong account. They discover they’re duped when they receive a message from their actual landlord who has not received the month’s rent.
These kind of text messages are sent out randomly. Because the message is send out to many people, there are always those who actually need to pay their rent and are used to communicating with their landlord in this way.
NO HAPPY END
9. Massage Parlor Scam
Like with the Tea Ceremony scam, Massage Parlor scammers are focused on western tourists – men in specific. Basically, the scam involves somebody talking you into a massage on the streets. The ‘normal’ massage soon turns out to be a bit more erotic, and before you know it, the massage parlor big boss arrives, the door closes, and you have to pay up a large sum of money. As this tourist describes on Tripadvisor:
“I was offered a foot massage in Shanghai then was taken to a building where a different type of massage was offered on the body. I was forced to pick a girl then it took 10 minutes before we were done. Before the massage they told me about 300 RMB ($40.00) but after the massage a big guy walked in the room with 2 other guys and gave me a bill for $4200.00 which included room rent. I was shocked. They also knew which hotel I stayed.”
A host of a Dutch undercover show gets scammed in Shanghai (SBS6).
It is a common scam, especially in Shanghai city centre, that could end up becoming very costly.
Similarly, there is the KTV scam where people will lure tourists into nightclubs or karaoke and overcharge them on drinks. Avoiding these scams is simple: just do not trust anyone who approaches you on the street to take you to a club or salon.
NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS
10. China’s Pyramid Schemes (chuanxiao)
China’s ‘chuanxiao‘ scheme arguably is the most large-scale and psychological scam of this list. So-called ‘multi-level marketing’ (传销) or ‘pyramid schemes’ are quite commonplace in China, especially in certain provinces (Anhui, Hunan). New members are always is introduced to these schemes through old friends, former classmates, or relatives.
Chuanxiao are almost like cults, where people get trained in how to trick their Chinese friends into joining them. As explained in this blog by Nao, chuanxiao schemes are not about selling products, but about getting more people to join. The money people spend to join the group goes to the person above them, and the people above them. People are convinced (brainwashed?) they will eventually become millionaires if they stick to the group long enough.
People in chuanxiao live as a community, and collaborate on how to bond with new people and get them to join – and get their money into the system. Friends are usually invited to come over from other provinces for a business opportunity, or as a holiday, and are then taken into the group. Chuanxiao are psychological games, where people often only realise they have been scammed when it is already too late.
Know more scams you would like to share? Please leave your comment in the comment section below, or email us.
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K-Pop’s Recipe for Success: Why Korean Idol Groups Got So Big in China and are Conquering the World
The success of K-Pop in China and beyond is evident – the causes for its success are less obvious.
On coming Saturday, October 13, the South-Korean boy band BTS will perform in an Amsterdam area in front of thousands of fans who have been looking forward to this event for months. Ticket sales for the first concert of the 7-member boy group in the Netherlands were sold out within minutes, despite their relatively high prices, with people paying up to €250 ($290) in the official sales, or even €400 ($460) and more for a single ticket in the unofficial online sales afterward.
It is not just the success of the BTS European tour that is making headlines; the record-breaking views on YouTube on their videos – the latest being the song ‘Idol’, that had more than 200 million views in little over a month – is also attracting the attention of the media.
And BTS is not alone. Other Korean pop (K-Pop) groups such as EXO, BIGBANG, TWICE, Shinee, or Got7, have also broken records when it comes to online video views or Spotify plays.
Although the English-language media attention for the K-pop phenomenon is more recent, the Korean entertainment industry has since long been extremely popular in China and on Chinese social media. In this overview, What’s on Weibo explores the K-Pop popularity (focusing on its idol boy and girl groups), its short history, and success formula.
BTS and More: An Army of Fans
The pop group BTS (방탄소년단), also known as the Bangtan Boys (防弹少年团, lit: ‘Bulletproof Boyscouts’), is an award-winning seven-member South Korean boy band formed by Big Hit Entertainment that debuted in the summer of 2013. They are currently hyped as the “biggest boy band on the planet.”
Initial auditions for the band were held in 2010, followed by roughly three years during which the band was formed and prepared for their major debut, that was promoted on social media months before their actual launch in June of 2013.
The band consists of multi-talented young men. Singer-songwriter Kim Seokjin (Jin) (1992) was studying film at Konkuk University when he was invited to audition by Big Hit; rapper Min Yoongi (Suga) (1993) was an underground rapper before he was signed; dancer and rapper Jung Hoseok (J-Hope) (1994) was part of a dance team in his pre-BTS life.
Lead rapper Kim Namjoon (RM) (aka Rap Monster, 1994) was already active in the music scene as rapper and producer; dancer and vocalist Park Jimin (Jimin) (1995) was a top student as Busan School of Arts before joining; vocalist Kim Taehyung (V) (1995) is known to have one of the most expressing voices of the group; and main vocalist Jeon Jungguk (Jungkook) (1997) was only 12 years old when he auditioned for BTS, followed by three years of intense training.
BTS, formerly ‘Behind The Scenes’, is known for its strong social media presence, which helps to spread its music and connect to its fans, who call themselves an ‘ARMY’ (also stands for Adorable Representative Master of ceremonies for Youth). The band has more than 16 million followers on Twitter, 3.3 million fans on Weibo, 12 million subscribers on Youtube, and nearly 8 million followers on Facebook.
Although BTS is the band that is currently dominating the headlines, there are many more K-Pop bands that are extremely popular on Weibo and beyond. The nine-member South Korean–Chinese boy band EXO, for example, has dozens of fanclubs on Chinese social media. Band member Oh Se-hun alone already has almost 9,5 million fans on his Weibo page. BIGBANG has more than 7 million Weibo fans, the eight-member girl band Girl’s Generation (少女时代) is on the rise with 1,5 million Weibo followers, Super Junior over a million, and the list goes on.
A Short History of K-Pop: Finding a Sublime Entertainment Formula
Besides media attention, there has been ample scholarly attention for the Korean pop culture phenomenon over the past decade. The year 2012 especially marked a special moment in the history of K-Pop, when the song ‘Gangnam Style’ by Korean rapper Psy broke all YouTube records and became a global hit.
But before K-Pop became a global force to reckon with – that seemingly rose out of nowhere -, it had already made its first international successes in neighboring countries China and Japan since the early 2000s.
In China, the success of Korean popular culture is defined as Hallyu (韩流)*, the ‘Korean Wave’ since 1997 (Yang 2012, 105). Hallyu encompasses far more than idol bands; it includes the boom of South-Korean dramas, films, celebrity idols, and entertainment programs. In 2002, for example, the South-Korean soap opera ‘Winter Sonata’ became a hit in both China and Japan.
The early 2000s mark the ‘first Korean wave’ in China, that mainly revolved around TV dramas produced in South Korea and were liked by females above the age of 30. It was followed by the second wave from the mid-2000s to 2010, when the K-Pop music genre popularized in China.
The third period, after 2010, marks the moment when K-Pop was further incorporated into mainstream Chinese popular culture, with a ubiquity of K-Pop idols in everyday Chinese pop culture, and the launch of Chinese versions of Korean entertainment programs (Ahn 2014, 47). It was also in this ‘third wave’ that you saw the debut of pop groups such as EXO. Formed in 2012, that band incorporates both Korean and Chinese members, performing in both languages.
Although K-Pop from South Korea became somewhat less visible in the PRC during the past few years, mainly because the industry suffered from various politically-motivated bans on Hallyu in China, the genre’s influence on China’s mainstream pop culture is evident, with some Chinese groups, for example, also being modeled after K-Pop bands.
Many studies explain the foreign success of Korean popular culture in Asia, mainly China and Japan, through “cultural proximity,” saying that the success of K-Pop especially occurred in China and Japan because they have, for example, linguistic similarities and corresponding Confucian values (Ahn 2014, 47; Messerlin & Shin 2017, 412).
But the more recent global wave of K-Pop shows that cultural proximity is not the sole answer to the genre’s success. Besides, there is actually nothing traditionally “Korean” about K-Pop, which only emerged in the 1990s (Shin & Kim 2013, 256).
The genre’s success mainly lies in the big players that brought forth the first Korean pop idol groups and have excelled (and still do) in selecting the right entertainment “products” to invest in, with a strong focus on both on the production side and the market demand side.
SM Entertainment, JYP, and YG Entertainment are the first major and leading entertainment houses of the 1990s. Big Hit Entertainment, home to BTS, followed later; founder Bang Si-Hyuk (1972) used to collaborate with JYP Entertainment founder Park Jin-Young (1971) before going his own way in 2005.
-SM Entertainment, founded 1988 by musician and TV host Lee Soo Man (1952)
-YG Entertainment, founded in 1996 by musician Yang Hyun-Suk (1970)
-JYP Entertainment, founded in 1997 by musician and producer Park Jin-Young (1971)
-Big Hit Entertainment, founded in 2005 by producer/songwriter Bang Si-hyuk (1972)
What characterizes these entertainment houses is that they are/were small in terms of revenue and employees (very different from big labels such as Sony or Universal), and play multiple roles as intermediate between musicians and consumers, as well as producers.
Different from many international big players in the entertainment world, K-Pop entertainment companies integrate processes of artist selection, songwriting, management, signing advertisement deals, etc. in-house rather than leaving these processes to various parties outside their own studio (Shin & Kim 2013, 260). Significant about the founders of these entertainment powerhouses is that they all had ample experience in the music industry themselves before starting their studios.
The story of SM Entertainment, which was founded by musician and TV host Lee Soo Man in 1988, is crucial in understanding the beginning of the K-Pop industry. Lee was inspired by the transforming American music market after spending time there in the 1980s, and decided to replicate US entertainment in a new way. In his first studio he brought together the right equipment, the right expertise, and the right talent all in one place to kick-start his business (Shin & Kim 2013, 263).
Although the first acts that came from SM’s studio were no instant success, Lee was determined in learning through trial and error until he found the right beat and image that struck a chord with young consumers. In doing so, he adopted a strategy in which teenagers were surveyed on what they wanted, and in which he focused on scouting new talent from all over the country to give them intensive training in dancing, singing, and acting at the SM Studio (Shin & Kin 2013, 264).
In 1996, eight years after Lee Soo Man started his entertainment company, and going through years of changing, refining, and improving his strategies, the first success was there. The boy band H.O.T., consisting of five hand-picked members who each had their own strength, debuted in 1996 and became the first major success in the short history of K-Pop.
Companies that followed after SM’s initial successes further experimented in adopting new strategies and trying out new styles of music, but stayed true to the idea of in-house training of young, new artists, rather than selecting renowned artists with defined styles (Shin & Kim 2013, 264). With frequently held auditions and training programmes that can last for years, some trainees start as young as 5 or 6 so that they are fully equipped for the entertainment industry by the time they reach adolescence (ibid., 265).
More than being teachers, producers, songwriters, marketers, etc., these entertainment houses are also trend watchers; training their talents in various areas now in order to be able to place them in the right setting and format in the future, corresponding with (global) market demands.
Companies such as SM place an emphasis on the export of music, and focus on appealing to global audiences, making use of hundreds of composers and experts from around the world in doing so. In producing and performing the K-pop girl band Girl’s Generation’s song ‘Genie’, for example, SM Entertainment used a Japanese choreographer, a Norwegian songwriter, and Korean lyricist (Shim 2016, 38).
The Popularisation of K-Pop: A Digital Strategy
Although a main cause of K-Pop’s initial success lies in the (training) strategies adopted by the aforementioned entertainment houses, there are also other major factors that have contributed to its global influence.
The Korean government contributed to the initial success of K-Pop by developing a world-leading internet infrastructure (although the goal of developing that infrastructure, obviously, was not to promote K-Pop), which helped the rapid rise of the genre through online strategies.
According to some studies (e.g. Messerlin & Shin 2017, 422-425), Korean entertainment companies have been the first in the world when it comes to realizing the potential of the internet for the distribution and marketing of their performances; they were already long awake to its possibilities and were acting upon them, while many big players in Europe and America were still focusing on traditional album formats.
What also helped the spread of K-Pop at the time were the relatively friendly and equally balanced Korean policies on issues such as copyright, that were (and are) less protective and restrictive compared to America or the EU (Messerlin & Shin 2017, 421).
The first success (1997-2007) of K-Pop and other Korean popular culture products in China, Japan, and other countries within Asia, have also been called the first major Korean Wave, whereas the current period (2008-present), represents the ‘New Korean Wave,’ that is defined by the role that is played by new media technology and social media as a platform for K-Pop to reach every corner of the world (Jin 2016).
Online strategies were particularly relevant in the context of the (early) K-Pop industry because 1) it was dominated by relatively small businesses that did not have the means to invest in other major publishing platforms than that of efficient online distribution and 2) they did not have costly plants where they could produce CDs, DVDs, or vinyl. Having the high-tech Korean electronical market on their side, online strategies were thus a natural and cost-efficient solution to give publicity to their performances (Messerlin & Shin 2017, 426). More so than focusing on traditional album releases, the release of digital singles that come with visually attractive online videos, for example, is one important K-Pop production characteristic.
Probably the best example showing that this strategy works is the global success of ‘Gangnam Style’ that was made possible through YouTube. By now, six years after its release, the world-famous song by Psy, who was signed by YG Entertainment, has over 3,2 billion plays on YouTube.
The revenue of concert tickets for K-pop performances, its merchandise industry, the digital singles, advertisement income, the many brands wanting to associate themselves with the star industry that K-pop has generated, etc., makes K-Pop production a money-making machine that shows that the model that focuses on traditional (CD) album formats and promotional single releases has become outdated.
Marketing more than a Band: Active Fans and Interesting Characters
While South-Korea’s innovative music enterprises were crucial for the international launch of K-pop, its worldwide fanbase has now also become a motor driving its continuing success.
Different from the initial spread of K-Pop in China or other Asian countries – where K-Pop has become common in everyday pop culture -, is that many consumers of the genre in the US, Europe, or elsewhere, fully depend on the internet and social media to access K-Pop, as it is not a genre that is prevalent in the mainstream popular culture of their own countries.
The fact that fans of K-Pop in these regions have to actively seek for the latest information and releases of their favorite groups, also means that they have become participatory and engaged consumers in the spread of K-Pop – almost turning them into the ‘soldiers’ of fandoms such as the BTS ‘army’. They have become part of enormous (online) subcultures in various countries across Europe and America.
More than just listening and watching K-pop, these fans become members of the ‘culture’ by translating material, circulating it to friends, or integrating it on their own social media channels (Jin & Yoon 2016, 1285).
What further strengthens this fandom is that the successful K-Pop bands are anything but one-dimensional. More than just building on their synced choreography, flawless singing, fashionable looks, and visually attractive videos, the band members of groups such as BTS, EXO, or TWICE, have their own identities, voices, and goals that go beyond music; their various characters and roles within the group resonate with their different fans.
The fact that many K-Pop groups and members also have an androgynous and gender-bender appearance also makes them more interesting to many fans, with many K-pop boys being ‘pretty and cute’ and girls having a ‘strong and handsome’ look, breaking through typical male and female stereotypes.
Furthermore, more than pop bands, these K-Pop groups have virtually become ‘platforms’ with their own streaming channels, websites, television shows, merchandise shops, lively online communities, stories, and so on.
In their recent appearance on the US Tonight Show by Jimmy Fallon, BTS frontman RM explained the group’s mission in perfect English, saying: “It is about speaking yourself, instead of letting other people speaking for you. Cause in order to truly know ourselves, it is important to firstly know who I am, where I’m from, what my name is, and what my voice is.”
Many find their voice in K-Pop. And that is a sound, from a local Korean product to a global force, we can expect to grow much louder in the future.
* For clarity: note that due to scope this article focuses on the development of the K-pop phenomenon, and does not explore the anti-Hallyu or anti-Korean wave movement in China, and the previous bans on Hallyu in the PRC.
Ahn, Jungah. 2014. “The New Korean Wave in China: Chinese Uders’ Use of Korean Popular Culture via the Internet.” International Journal of Contents, 10 (3): 47-54.
Jin, Dal Yong. 2016. New Korean Wave: Transnational Culture in the Age of Social Media. University of Illinois.
Jin, Dal Yong, and Kyong Yoon.2016. “The Social Mediascape of Transnational Korean Pop Culture: Hallyu 2.0 as Spreadable Media Practice.” New Media & Society 18 (7): 1277-1292.
Messerlin, Patrick A. and Wonkyu Shin. 2017. “The Success of K-Pop: How Big and Why So Fast?” Asian Journal of Social Science 45: 409-439.
Shim, Doobo. 2016. “Hybridity, Korean Wave, and Asian media.” Routledge Handbook of East Asian Popular Culture,Koichi Iwabuchi, Eva Tsai, Chris Berry (eds), Chapter 3. London: Routledge.
Shin, Solee I. and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-Pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010.” East Asia 30: 255-272.
Yang, Jonghoe. 2012. “The Korean Wave (Hallyu) in East Asia: A Comparison of Chinese, Japanese, and Taiwanese Audiences Who Watch Korean TV Dramas.” Development and Society, 41 (1): 103-147.
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Beyond Four Walls: ‘Home’ and ‘Unhomeliness’ in a Rapidly Transforming China
About changing concepts of home in China: from ‘home is where my pig is’ to ‘has your frog returned home yet?’
According to a global research report released by IKEA Group this week, traditional ideas of where people “feel at home” are drastically changing. The annual study on international living trends found that 35% of people feel more at home elsewhere than the place where they live, with a staggering 29% of people not feeling at home where they live at all.
The findings show remarkable changes associated with “feeling at home” compared to earlier annual reports, indicating that demographic, technological, and cultural forces are rapidly transforming conceptions of “home” in various places across the world.
China is part of this trend. The report, undertaken by London-based agency C Space, is based on studies that were conducted from March to August of 2018. Besides China, a large-scale survey was undertaken in 21 other countries among 22,854 respondents (11,325 from urban areas), and qualitative research was conducted in China, US, Germany, Denmark, Italy, and the UK.
The results of the study might resonate with what many experience in Europe and the US, but also with the societal changes they have seen in China over the past decade – although the reasons for these developments are different between these places.
These are transformations that do not only become clear from the trends on Chinese social media, but, for me personally, also from the lives of friends and social circles in Beijing and Shanghai, and the rapid pace in which I have seen them moving from residence to residence, from neighborhood to neighborhood, and sometimes even from city to city, often with seemingly little emotional attachment to the houses where they have lived for years as urban dwellers. Where is that place called ‘home’?
Going “Home” in China
“‘Home’ is much more than the place where people sleep at night: it is there where the (grand)mother cooks.”
Every year at the time of China’s Spring Festival, there is one hashtag that always goes trending on Chinese social media platform Weibo: “Return Home”, #回家, Huíjiā.
For many people, the Spring Festival is the only time of the year they can return to their hometowns to celebrate the new year with their family and friends. As many now know, the travel season leading up to the Festival, the chūnyùn (春运), is the biggest annual mass migration of the world. Many of China’s urban areas become deserted as people return to their native provinces to be ‘home.’
The word for ‘home’ in Chinese, ‘家’ jiā, means both ‘home’ and ‘family.’ The character has a history of some 3000 years; first depicting a house with a pig inside, as this article explains, and then evolving into the character it is today (see image below). In its earliest meanings, the ‘home’ was simply there where pigs were raised and where family activities took place; there where the family house was situated.
This duality in the concept of jiā still plays an important role in how the meaning of ‘home’ is understood in China today. In a small-scale survey that was done for the dissertation research of Wei Zhao (2015), for example, participants had various answers to the simple question of “what is jiā?”, some describing it as a space or place, some seeing it as an abstract concept (representing, amongst others, ‘harmony’), with others understanding it as the (extended) family itself (Zhao 2015, 125).
A simple search for the words ‘going home’ (回家) on Chinese social media today comes up with dozens of photos of mostly food, with Weibo users describing ‘home’ as that place where they eat the traditional home cooking from their family, also suggesting that ‘home’ is much more than the place where people sleep at night: it is there where the (grand)mother cooks, it is there where the land is, it is there where the family residence might have been situated for decades.
According to Wei Zhao’s research, people from Yanxia, a town in the Zhejiang region of China, often associate ‘home’ with the various forms of land, both in the present and past, that is tied to where their families live or lived. It is a “place-bound relationship,” Zhao writes (2015, 123), “enriched with social meanings,” where the land incorporates those places that “support various kinds of daily activities, help construct social relations, and sustain cultural performances.”
Many people who have moved from outside their family homes or villages to far away places or cities are no longer physically connected with this concept of ‘home’, drastically impacting how people experience “feelings of home” and how it relates to the places where they actually reside.
Unhomeliness and the City
“36% of Chinese renters get a sense of “belonging” from other spaces outside their residential home.”
Due to many different factors, including the privatization of farmland, surplus of rural labor, and increased labor demands in the city, China is currently seeing the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history.
Rural residents who have lived in the same homes for decades are being relocated to new settlements, old houses are being demolished, and China’s so-called ‘ghost cities‘ are rapidly coming to life.
For the first time in Chinese history, more people are living in China’s cities than they do in the countryside. In 2020, it is expected that 60 percent of the Chinese population will be permanent urban residents (Xinhua 2018).
A significant percentage of China’s population is what is called a “floating population,” China’s internal migratory population; those who are living as temporary residents or ‘migrant workers’ in the cities (without changes in their ‘hukou‘ or household registration). According to data provided by Chinese state media, that number of people is expected to hit 291 million in 2020 (Xinhua 2015).
As described by Yang et al (2014) in their article in Transforming Chinese Cities, there is a gap in living conditions between household residents and the ‘floating’ population, with the latter holding an 11,4 square meter size residence per capita, compared to 27.1 square meter per capita for the household population. Besides size, the ‘floating’ population also has less access to the more basic necessities in a home such as a kitchen (more than 45% has no kitchen) or flushing toilet (nearly 75% have to do without) (Yang et al 2014, 71).
In cities such as Beijing, underground nuclear bunkers from the Cold War era still serve as a residence to many urban dwellers. According to some sources, there are still one million people living in this underground world in Beijing alone, often dealing with poor air circulation and tiny living spaces with no daylight.
Although the nuclear bunkers are an extreme example, the living conditions of many people in Chinese cities, whether they are migrant workers, students, or those who have restricted access to urban housing, are far from ideal; think of overcrowdedness and a lack of what many would consider basic conditions for comfortable housing.
So, without even considering the idea that the perfect concept of “home” might always be a place outside of one’s (urban) residence, it perhaps does not come as a surprise that many people do not always feel at home at all in their own house.
In China, the IKEA-commissioned study* found that 32% of those surveyed felt more at home outside their residential home, and that 36% of Chinese renters get a sense of “belonging” from other spaces than where they actually live (in other physical and/or virtual environments).* Since 89% of those surveyed lives in an urban location, these sentiments are especially telling about experiences of ‘home’ in the city.
A Sense of Belonging
“I felt that my house was the place I rented, but it was not my ‘home’.”
When residences are experienced as “unhomely,” it could mean many things. There might be a lack of comfort, a lacking sense of community, a feeling of security/privacy that is not there, or a missing feeling of ‘rootedness’ in the place where one lives.
The findings of IKEA’s study in China perhaps makes more sense when one considers the study’s results that found that 62% of those surveyed believe that community is an extension of the residential home. This strengthens the idea that ‘home’ is not the four walls one lives in, but an emotional landscape that is influenced by all kinds of factors.
An interesting 2013 study by scholar Xiaobo Su argues that ideas of ‘home’ are made through social and emotional relationships, and that ‘houses’ in China are often perceived as exchangeable commodities to which one does not necessarily have these emotional connections, whereas ‘home’ is a sphere where one feels free and at ease.
People, therefore, go looking for that ‘experience of home’ through other ways; it might be through friends and social events, through (digital) communities, or through tourism: traveling to those places where people do get that sense of home. Su (2013) suggests that Chinese domestic tourists consume the idea of ‘home’ by visiting (heritage) tourist sites that embody that image for them.
Earlier this year, the huge success of the mobile ‘Travelling Frog’ game in China became a media hype. The game revolves around the travels of a little frog who lives in a stone cave and goes on frequent trips. Although perhaps far-fetched, some Chinese media tied the success of this game to a need for belonging and family, saying that higher house prices, intensive jobs, and the collapse of the pyramid family structure had led to a decline in young people starting their own family and homes; and started looking to these type of games or digital communities to fill the gap. “Has your frog returned home yet?” even became somewhat of a common question among young people in January of 2018.
Besides the rise of various online communities, the rapid digitalization of China has also made it easier for families and friends to stay in touch through social media and messaging apps. This also brought about that physical proximity to relatives has become less of a priority now than in earlier (nondigital) times (Tao et al 2014, 197).
A China Merchants Bank commercial that went viral in late 2017 titled ‘The world is no bigger than a fried tomato omelette’ (“世界再大，大不过一盘番茄炒蛋”) shows how a mother helps her son to cook a home-made dish via mobile video while he is studying abroad. The viral campaign hit home for many exchange students.
Despite the fact that the dwellings of many people in present-day China lack space, privacy, or comfort, it does not necessarily mean that those living in these houses are dissatisfied. An interesting study by Li Tao et al (2014) on residential satisfaction of migrant workers in China found that kinship, family, friendship, and mobility, all play a significant role in how people feel about how they live. Additionally, instead of a focus on the sizes of their houses or the privacy they have, there is also a heightened focus on the low costs and transportation convenience of where one lives.
The fact that ‘home’ is an ever-changing and hot topic also becomes evident from the many posts on Chinese social media dedicated to this issue. As said, food is a recurring topic in these posts. On October 9, one Weibo netizen named Zhang Xizi (@张西子) wrote:
“What do you think is ‘home’? For me, at one time, I felt that my house was the place I rented, but it was not my ‘home’. If I was hungry, I would just order something, and I hardly touched my stove at all. But then I started feeling that although I rent my home, it is still my life. Home should be a place with character. And then I started to enjoy cooking, especially when other people enjoy the food with me, is when I feel happy. So feel welcome to come to my home.”
Another Weibo user nicknamed ‘I love rabbits’ (@我爱兔子) writes:
“What is home? It’s a person’s most private space. What is happiness? It is the warmth one feels with every dish at the dining table after returning home.”
A person named Sofo concludes: “What home is? If the people I love are there, then even a tent on the beach could be my home.”
Interested to read more relating to this topic?
* Viral Merchants Bank Commercial Hits Close to Home for Chinese Students Abroad
* Chinese Ghost Cities Coming to Life
* Chinese Media Ascribe ‘Traveling Frog’ Game Hype to China’s Low Birth Rates
* “I Am Fan Yusu” – Beijing Migrant Worker’s Writing Takes Chinese Internet by Storm
Find the IKEA Life at Home report here.
* Note that not all of the market specific results have been publicly issued by IKEA. What’s on Weibo author has access to the market-specific results. Please email us if you have further questions about this data and the report’s findings or contact IKEA.
* The report says that “36% of renters look to other physical spaces or even virtual environments for a sense of belonging”; for Chinese home-owners, this is 22%.
IKEA. 2018. Beyond Four Walls: Life at Home Report 2018. October. https://lifeathome.ikea.com/home/ [9.10.18].
Su, Xiaobo. 2014. “Tourism, Modernity and the Consumption of Home in China.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39(1): 50-61.
Tao, Li, Francis K.W. Wong, Eddie C.M. Hui. 2014. “Residential Satisfaction of Migrant Workers in China: A Case Study of Shenzhen.” Habitat International 42:193–202
Xinhua. 2015. “China’s floating population to hit 291 million in 2020: report.” China Daily, Nov 12. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2015-11/12/content_22438127.htm [9.10.18].
Xinhua. 2018. “Urbanization rate of China’s agricultural province exceeds 50 pct.” Xinhua, March 5. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-03/05/c_137017957.htm [9.10.18].
Yang, Shangguan, Chunlan Wang and Mark Y. Wang.2014.”Synergistic Evolution of Shanghai Urban Economic Development Transition and Social Spatial Structure.” In Transforming Chinese Cities, Mark Y. Wang, Pookong Kee, and Jia Gao (eds). London: Routledge.
Zhao, Wei. 2015. “Home Beyond the House: The Meaning of Home for People Living in Yanxia Village, Zhejiang Province, China.” Dissertation / Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Architecture, Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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