For those living in Beijing, the gradual disappearance of the city’s various street foods has become painfully visible. Areas that once were the go-to place for quick morning snacks or nightly munchies, such as Xidan, Sanlitun backstreets, central Wudaokou or Xicheng hutongs are now devoid of street vendors. People selling nightly spicy soup or early fried eggs have become hard to find on the city’s central streets.
The area of Beijing’s famous Wangfujing is one of the remaining oases of street food in Beijing. The narrow streets behind the main shopping area has become a place where tourists can try a variety of snacks and where you can get an overview of all street snacks the central city once had to offer.
Although the capital’s city center has become devoid of outside snack stalls, street food vendors are still very common in the suburbs and outer districts of the capital, as those zones are not regulated as much as the inner city.
Street food in the inner city of Beijing has largely disappeared over the last two years due to municipal government crackdowns. Under the umbrella of “civilized Beijing”, much has changed in the city, which includes the gradual exodus of street vendors. Street food is often seen as an indication of underdevelopment by Beijing government officials who might not think of the city’s street food in the pleasant and nostalgic way most do. Pollution caused by street barbecues and food safety issues are also said to be reasons for the recent crackdowns.
From Street Food Stalls to Large Chain Stores
Less than half a decade ago you could find everyday street food on practically every corner of Beijing, where people would set up their mobile food stall to sell people a variety of snacks.
In the mornings, particularly jidan guangbing (鸡蛋光饼) and jianbing (煎饼) are the breakfast hot sellers. The first are eggs in a biscuit kind of pancake, the second is also known as ‘street crepe’ – a fried pancake wrap with deep-fried dough stick and chopped green onion, cumin and sesame (see image below).
Plain fried dough sticks (油条 youtiao or 焦圈 jiaoquan) and warm soy milk are also popular breakfast items. In the evenings, areas as Sanlitun would generally have a malatang (麻辣烫, officially translated as ‘hot spicy soup’) stall on multiple places besides the road, which has now become quite rare – although some of the back alleys will still have a stall (see image).
As street food is getting more rare in the city center, larger chain stores are profiting from their disappearance.
One of the chains that has been successful over the past year is Huang Taiji (黄太吉). The 33-year-old founder of the chain compares it to Starbucks, but then for Chinese traditional snacks. “Chinese fast food for the WeChat generation”, is how Chinese media have described the flourishing chain. Huang Taiji is indeed popular amongst the social-media-loving generations, as the company is known for its guerrilla marketing campaigns on Weibo and Wechat.
The chain Huang Taiji has taken the original recipe of the jianbing – which originally just had a crispy cracker in the middle and a savory crepe wrapped around it with some sauce, coriander leafs and spring onions – and they have taken that concept and upped its quality. It is still Beijing ‘fast food’, but you can now put meat inside it and a lot of things that you were not able to get with the street food.
The jianbing version by the Huang Taiji chain, image by SCMP.
Many chains in Beijing are replicating the Huang Taiji success. You can find them in shopping centers and the Beijing Soho complexes. Compared to the original street snacks, prices have gone up dramatically. A few years ago, a jianbing would be about 3 RMB (0.45 US$) on the street, and then, before street vendors were moving away from the city center to less regulated areas, it went up to 5 or 6 RMB (0.70-0.90 US$). At a chain you now pay up to 25 RMB (3.8 US$).
A Taste of Beijing Street Food
By Chinese standards, typical Beijing street snacks are actually not considered the most delicious in China. Beijingers are known to commonly like intestents and salty flavors. Its flavors are not as strong as most Chinese like them; not as sour as central Chinese cuisine, not as sweet as the coastal areas, nor as spicy as the dishes from the central south. Still, Beijing street food is quite well-known, as it also brings together some of the country’s most popular snacks.
Wangfujing is one of the area’s of Beijing where you can still find many street snacks, although the place is very touristy and hardly authentic. Still, the snack street offers a great variety of street foods, which would be otherwise very hard to find in one place.
Sound fragment: Ryan Myers walks through the snack street in Wangfujing.
One thing that is sold a lot on the Wangfujing market, is the popular ‘chuanr’ (串儿) or skewered meat. The name basically refers to any type of meat (or even octopus) cut into pieces and roasted on skewers.
Chuanr in Beijing are most commonly prepared with lamb, and are usually seasoned with cumin and chilli powder. Depending on your own taste, you could tell them to make it extra la (辣 spicy) or not.
The Wangfujing snack street also offers something which is more like a tourist attraction: the skewered scorpions – still alive with the legs wiggling around. Not a lot of people actually eat them Beijing – except for the visitors who then put the picture on social media.
Here, you can also find the roasted silkworm pupae. You won’t often see the silkworm pupae (as pictured below on the right, image via Flickr) in everyday Beijing, but they are readily available here. They don’t have a very outspoken taste – it’s the texture that makes them special: crunchy at first, and more spongy in the middle.
Traditionally, things like the silkworm pupae or the deep fried starfish have medicinal purposed in Chinese medicine.
Other snacks here include the tanghulu (糖葫芦), a traditional Chinese/Beijing snack of candied fruit. Its recipe is quite simple. Basically it starts with warm oil mixed with sugar, that is then used to dip in skewered fruits. This makes the fruits crunchy on the outside, and soft on the inside.
One of our favorite classics is kaorou (烤肉), which is like Turkish traditional kebab. It is usually lamb, but it can sometimes also be pork in China. This was commonly sold around subway stations before, like at Xidan and Wudaokou, but they have now disappeared. A kaorou sandwich, with minced meat, red peppers and small pieces of cucumber would usually cost around 5 RMB (0.7US$).
Sweet skewered roast corn is also popular for breakfast, and used to be sold in many places, just like roasted chestnuts, which are very typical for Beijing.
Available all over China is stinky tofu (臭豆腐), a fermented tofu with a very strong smell. Comparable to the durian fruit, its odor is unique and might make you run if it is the first time smelling it. It really does stink: the fermentation process brings out bacteria that gives it the special smell.
Donkey burgers(驴肉火烧) are pieces of bread with meat – kind of like an actual hamburger. The bread is quite thin, with roasted donkey meat in the middle – a popular snack in Beijing.
Donkey burger, image by Daqing55.
For cow stomach, fried pork liver or noodles with fermented soy beans, Wangfujing is also the place. Not all of its snacks may be very popular or generally available anymore, but they can still be tasted and smelled in this oasis of Beijing street food. Nothing against Wangfujing’s street food galore, but ideally, Beijing’s street food should be where it belongs: on the streets of Beijing.
– By Manya Koetse & Ryan Myers
All photo’s in this article are by Manya Koetse, unless stated otherwise.
©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Was Trending in China in 2018: The 18 Biggest Weibo Hashtags of the Year
What’s trending in Western media when it comes to China is not necessarily what is trending on Chinese social media, too. While topics such as the Xinjiang ‘re-education centers’, China’s nascent Social Credit System, #MeToo in China, or the allegedly “banned” Winnie the Pooh movie were some of the biggest China-related topics on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook this year, Chinese internet users were discussing other things – some issues trending in the Western media were not as big within the PRC due to censorship, but some also simply weren’t as big because of a seeming lack of public interest.
What’s on Weibo has selected the 18 biggest hashtags that were trending on Weibo in 2018, mostly based on their total views, but also based on the impact they had on the meme machine, and the overall discussions that flooded Wechat.
This list has been fully compiled by What’s on Weibo.1 Please note that we have left some topics and hashtags out. One such example is the World Cup. While the World Cup hashtag (#世界杯#) has received a staggering 31 billion views on Weibo alone, this is a more general hashtag that has also been used before 2018; we have attempted to make a selection of topics that were the biggest of this year and 2018 alone.
Due to the scope of this article, some major topics such as the arrest of Richard Liu, the Changchun vaccine scandal, or the online success of the two vlogging farmers and their bamboo rats, did not make the cut, simply because other hashtags garnered more views.
Here we go –
#1 The Didi Murders
This year Didi Chuxing, China’s most popular car-hailing app, faced huge public backlash on Weibo, where netizens threatened to boycott the company amid safety concerns. Over the past years, Didi has seen dozens of cases where female passengers were assaulted by their drivers. The terrible murders of two young women in 2018 sparked national outrage.
In May of this year, the murder of a 21-year-old flight attendant by her Didi driver became a major topic of discussion on Weibo. The young woman, Li Mingzhu, was killed in the early morning when she was on her way home from Zhengzhou airport. The body of the driver who killed Li was later found in a nearby river. In August, the 20-year-old passenger Xiao Zhao was raped and stabbed to death by her Didi driver on her way to a birthday party on a Friday afternoon. Hours later, the driver was arrested.
What contributed to the major impact this topic had on social media was the fact that several people came forward on WeChat and Weibo to tell how Didi was warned beforehand: Xiao’s friend immediately contacted Didi after her friend had called out for help during that fatal ride, but she was told to wait and no immediate action was taken. Another female claimed she had already reported the driver to Didi for indecent behavior earlier that week.
In a rapidly changing society where companies such as Didi play an increasingly important role in how people travel and navigate their lives, the Didi murders not only showed the enormous responsibility these companies have in creating a safe environment for passengers, but also showed that the public expects these companies to provide these secure conditions.
After the August murder, Didi suspended its Hitch service, which pairs drivers and passengers traveling the same route (the young women were killed while using Hitch), and added several new safety features to make Didi safer for passengers and to quickly assist customers with any problems they might have.
#2 Flaunt Wealth Challenge
Hashtag “Flaunt Your Wealth Challenge” (#炫富挑战#) – 2,3 billion views
The ‘Flaunt Your Wealth’ or ‘Falling Stars’ hype, in which people post staged photos of themselves ‘falling’ out of their vehicles surrounded by luxury items, first spread on social media in Russia in the summer of 2018, and then made its way to other countries. In China, it became one of the biggest social media hypes of this year.
But besides those photos of seemingly rich Chinese ‘falling’ out of their super expensive cars surrounded by Gucci bags and Chanel make-up, there was also an anti-movement that became hugely popular. It showed how people were mocking the challenge by laying on the floor surrounded by their diplomas, military credential, or study books – defying superficial ideas on the meaning of ‘wealth’ and what it actually looks like.
#3 The Traveling Frog Craze
Hashtag “Traveling Frog” (#旅行青蛙#) – 2,1 billion views
1997 was the year of Tamagotchi, 2018 was the year of the Traveling Frog. The mobile game, designed by a Japanese company, took Chinese social media by storm this year, with thousands of people sharing their struggles in taking care of their virtual frog, which often goes traveling.
The game is characterized by its rather uneventful nature. While at home, the frog sits around and eats or reads, and while away, the player can’t do anything but take care of the garden and wait for their virtual friend to send them a postcard before finally returning.
There are various theories explaining the success of the game. Some say the uneventful app is appealing for young Chinese with stressful lives since it has a calming effect, others might suggest it offers a sense of ‘home’ in a society where fewer people feel at home where they live, and there were even some voices in state media ascribing the success to China’s low birth rates.
#4 Jin Yong Passes Away
The passing of Chinese wuxia novelist Jin Yong (查良鏞), also known as Louis Cha, became big news on Chinese social media this fall. Wuxia (武俠) is a genre of Chinese fiction that focuses on the adventures of martial artists in ancient China, and Jin Yong is regarded as one of the best – if not the top – authors within the genre. Many of his works, of which over 300 million copies were sold worldwide, have been turned into tv series and films.
Jin’s passing set off waves of nostalgia on Weibo, where thousands of netizens shared their favorite works and scenes, thanked the author for all he did, and praised his contributions to Chinese popular culture.
Another person who passed away in November of 2018 is the renowned Hong Kong actress Yammie Lam (藍潔瑛). News of her death also received millions of views on Chinese social media.
#5 Gene-modified Babies
Hashtag “First Case of Gene-Edited HIV Immune Babies” (#首例免疫艾滋病基因编辑婴儿#) – 1,9 billion Weibo views
News that a Chinese researcher from Shenzen has helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies made international headlines in November of this year. He Jiankui (贺建奎) claimed that together with his research team, he succeeded in altering the DNA of embryos, making them resistant to HIV. The twin girls were born earlier this year.
On social media, the topic received many mixed reactions, with many condemning the researcher’s work, and others praising it. Chinese authorities launched an investigation into the research shortly after news came out, and He Jiankui has not been heard of since. Many people on Weibo are now wondering about his whereabouts, what will happen to him, and how this will further impact the lives of the two girls whose genes were edited.
#6 Golden Horse Ceremony’s ‘Taiwan’ Speech
Hashtag “Gong Li Refuses to Confer Award” (#巩俐拒绝颁奖#) – 1,9 billion views on Weibo
The annual Golden Horse Film Awards in Taipei turned out to be a painful confrontation between mainland actors and Taiwanese pro-independence supporters this year. Although Ang Lee, chairman of the Golden Horse committee, had probably hoped to keep politics out of the film festival, the atmosphere of the live-streamed event changed when award-winning director Fu Yue expressed her hopes for an independent Taiwan during her acceptance speech. Later on in the show, actor Tu Men from mainland China struck back on stage by saying he was honored to present an award in “China, Taiwan.”
Things got more polarized and political when famous Chinese actress Gong Li, at the end of the show, refused to get on stage with Ang Lee to present the award for Best Feature Film. The evening officially seemed ruined when, at the end of the night, it turned out that most mainland actors and producers declined taking part in the celebratory award dinner and went straight back to the mainland instead.
This was not the only topic this year that showed that the current and future status of Taiwan is still an incredibly sensitive topic that can set off waves of angry nationalism on social media. A brief visit to Taiwanese bakery 85°C by ROC President Tsai Ing-wen and the surfacing of an old video of actress Vivian Sung in which she called Taiwan her “favorite country” also triggered major discussions on cross-Straits relations.
#7 Chongqing Bus Plunges Into River
Hashtag “Why Chongqing Bus Plunged in the River” (#重庆公交车坠江原因#) – 1,4 billion Weibo views
In late October of this year, an incident in which a public bus plunged off a bridge into the Yangtze river, causing all 15 passengers to die, became a huge topic on Chinese social media. The security camera footage from inside the bus later showed how a passenger who apparently had missed her stop gets angry with the driver and starts hitting him with her mobile phone. The driver then abruptly turns the steering wheel, hitting oncoming traffic, crashes through the safety fence, and plunges into the river.
The incident caused major concerns over aggression in Chinese public transport, with other videos of similar incidents also making their rounds on social media. The city of Nanjing soon introduced security partitions on buses, and the existence of special “grievance awards” for bus drivers who do not respond to angry passengers also became a topic of debate. Many people on Weibo called for bus cards to be linked to one’s identity so that troublemakers will be able to be blacklisted from buses in the future.
#8 The Kunshan Stabbing Case
Hashtag (#追砍电动车主遭反杀#) – 1,25 billion views on Weibo
A bizarre road-rage incident in which a muscular and tattooed BMW driver attacked an innocent cyclist with a big knife, but then ended up dead himself, was the biggest story on Chinese social media this summer, triggering countless of memes.
The entire scene was caught on security cameras. In the night of August 27, a BMW switched from the car lane to the bicycle lane in the city of Kunshan (Jiangsu), colliding with a man driving his bike, who seemingly refused to give way. Two men then step out of their BMW vehicle to confront the cyclist, with one man going back to his vehicle, suddenly pulling out a long knife and going after the cyclist, stabbing him. During the fight, however, the BMW driver suddenly lets the knife slip out of his hands, after which the bike owner quickly picks it up. With the knife in his hands, he now starts attacking the BMW driver, who eventually dies of his injuries.
One of the main reasons for the mass focus on this incident was that there was an ethical question involved, namely: to what extent could this be regarded as legitimate self-defense? It did not take long for the answer to come out, as authorities ruled it self-defense in September. For many, the news was proof that justice had prevailed.
#9 The Dolce and Gabbana Controversy
Although 2018 was supposed to be a great China year for Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana, things unexpectedly spiraled out of control in November of this year, while the brand’s “D&G Loves China” campaign was in full swing.
It started with criticism on a video that was launched by the fashion brand to promote its upcoming Shanghai show. The video, that shows a Chinese model failing to eat Italian food with her chopsticks, was deemed sexist and insulting by many. Things started going downhill real fast after screenshots of comments attributed to fashion designer Stefano Gabbana, in which he scolds China and makes derogatory remarks about Chinese, went viral. It soon led to the cancellation of the big D&G show in Shanghai.
Despite apologies issued by the D&G founders, many netizens called for a boycott of the brand. It is yet unclear to what extent the marketing disaster has affected the brand, but one thing this incident shows is that cultural insensitivities in marketing campaigns can soon lead to a public relations mess.
#10 Wang Baoqiang’s Divorce Drama Continues
Hashtag “Wang Baoqiang Beats up Ma Rong” #王宝强殴打马蓉#) received some 520 million views before it was taken offline
Will there be another year when the 2016 split between Chinese celebrities Wang Baoqiang (王宝强) and ex-wife Ma Rong (马蓉) does not make into the top-trending lists?! Ever since the dramatic divorce of the two became one of the top hashtags of 2016, their fights have continued to be a major topic on Chinese social media.
This time, Chinese actress Ma Rong claimed that her ex-husband attacked her when she came to pick up her children at his house in early December. Dramatic photos and hospital footage soon made their rounds on Weibo, but when news came out that the ‘attack’ might have been staged, and that Ma Rong had caused a scene at her ex’s house, netizens condemned the actress for her actions.
The incident became a major source of inspiration for the Weibo meme machine, where others imitated the dramatic Ma Rong photo and photo-shopped it into gossip magazines.
#11 The High-Speed Train Tyrants
The two train tyrants of 2018 will probably go down in China’s social media history for their meme-worthy and bizarre behavior, that triggered a storm of criticism online. Both of their bad behaviors on high-speed trains were caught on video.
In August of this year, one rude man from Shandong, who refused to give up the seat he took from another passenger, became known as the “High-Speed Train Tyrant” (高铁霸座男 gāotiě bà zuò nán) on Chinese social media. A video showing the man’s rude behavior went viral, and netizens were especially angry because the man pretended he could not get up from the stolen seat and needed a wheelchair – although he did not need one when boarding the train.
In September of 2018, a woman from Hunan, who was dubbed ‘High-Speed Train Tyrant Woman’ (高铁霸座女 gāotiě bà zuò nǚ) by Weibo netizens, had also taken a seat assigned to another passenger while riding the train from Yongzhou to Shenzhen. Despite the conductor’s reasoning, she refused to get up from her window seat to return to her own seat.
Netizens soon linked the two ‘Train Tyrants,’ creating dozens of memes that showed the two as lovebirds getting married. The incidents also showed public support of China’s nascent Social Credit System, with many calling for a system that would allow these kinds of misbehaving people to be blacklisted from public transport in general.
#12 Invictus Gaming: The E-Sports Craze in China
Hashtag “The Meaning of IG Championship” #IG夺冠的意义# – 540 million views on Weibo
People were going absolutely crazy over the success of China’s e-sports when ‘Invictus Gaming’ (IG) became the first Chinese team to win the League of Legends World Championship. Students were hanging banners from their dorm rooms, videos of cheering crowds in school canteens flooded Weibo, and dozens of new memes surfaced on Chinese social media. One of them showed two monkeys with a big “Congratulations IG” above them and one wondering “What is IG?!”, and the other telling him just to follow the rest in congratulating them anyway, signaling that many people had never heard of ‘Invictus Gaming’ before, and were clueless about the top trending lists being filled up with this new topic.
China’s e-sports craze also made one Weibo post the most popular of all time, when billionaire Wang Sicong announced he would be giving away more than $160,000 to Weibo users to celebrate the victory of the Chinese team.
#13 The Boy who was Duped at the Hair Salon
Hashtag “Hairline-boy expressions” (#发际线男孩表情包#) – viewed 470 million times on Weibo
What was supposed to be a quick visit to the hairdresser turned into a disaster when the 18-year-old Wu Zhengqiang (吴正强) was presented with a 40,000 yuan ($5750) bill and a bad haircut. Although the teenager eventually could pay a much lower amount of money to the salon, Wu turned to local media to tell about his unfortunate haircut, and shared that he was not just sad about losing the money, but that he was also unhappy with his new hairstyle and hairline.
The story soon went viral and triggered the creation of dozens of new memes across Chinese social media, turning the duped boy into one of the biggest internet sensations of 2018.
#14 Meng Wanzhou WeChat Moments Post
The December 1st arrest of Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟), the financial officer of Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technology – which happens to have been founded by her father, Ren Zhengfei (任正非), – became huge news in China and across the world.
Meng was detained during a transit at the Vancouver airport at the request of United States officials. She is accused of fraud for violating US sanctions on Iran. Meng allegedly helped Huawei get around these sanctions by misleading financial institutions into believing that subsidiary company ‘Skycom’ was a separate company in order to conduct business in Iran. Chinese officials, demanding Meng’s release, have called the arrest “a violation of a person’s human rights.”
Meng was released on bail on December 11th. She then shared an update on her Wechat ‘Moments’ page, which received mass attention on Weibo. It showed the feet of a ballet dancer along with a quote saying that “there is suffering behind greatness” (伟大的背后都是苦难). Meng also thanked people for their support, and in doing so, once again received thousands of supportive messages on social media.
#15 The Tang Lanlan Case
The news story of a decade-old abuse case caused an uproar on Chinese social media in late January of 2018, when many netizens on Weibo believed that reporters of the story were biased and were harming the privacy of Tang Lanlan, the alleged victim in the case.
In 2008, a then 14-year-old girl named Tang Lanlan (汤兰兰, pseudonym) accused her father, grandfather, uncles, teachers, the rural director and neighbors of sexually abusing her since the age of seven. It later led to the prosecution of 11 people for rape and forced prostitution of a minor – including Tang’s own parents. As some of those people, including Tang’s mother, had since been released after serving their sentence, they sought the attention of the media in claiming that Tang, now 23 years old, had fabricated the story and that they were searching for her.
Netizens harshly criticized Chinese media outlets such as The Paper for featuring the story and giving away details about the identity of Tang, saying they should protect the victim instead of choosing the side of those convicted. The outrage was so huge that some reporters were even doxxed by netizens, and that articles and hashtags were removed, making the Tang Lan Lang case the greatest clash between Chinese media and netizens in 2018.
#16 Foreigners’ “Preferential Treatment”
Hashtag “Pretend to be foreign and Ofo gives back deposit right away” (#假装外国人ofo秒退押金#) – 250 million views.
There have been many topics over the past year that involved national pride and Chinese social media users feeling insulted or discriminated against. One such topic is the recent collective anger directed at bike sharing platform Ofo for allegedly helping foreigners much quicker than Chinese nationals.
A Weibo user who did not feel like waiting for hours on the phone to get his Ofo deposit back decided to pose as a foreigner to see if it would help. He sent an email in English via Gmail to Ofo, requesting his deposit back. It worked. He posted about it on Weibo, and millions of people responded with anger. Earlier in 2018, there was also outrage when a short movie went viral on Chinese social media that exposed the big differences between the dorm conditions of Chinese students and of foreigners studying in China.
#17 The Sweden Controversy
The alleged maltreatment of a Chinese family in Stockholm ignited major discussions on Chinese social media this September when footage showed how a Chinese man was dragged out of a hotel lobby by Swedish police, while his elderly parents were crying on the sidewalk. The dramatic footage was shot after the tourists arrived at their hotel long before check-in time, and were refused permission to stay overnight in the lobby. When they refused to leave, police got involved.
Chinese media greatly criticized Swedish authorities for how they handled the incident, and it even led to the Chinese embassy in Sweden issuing a safety alert. Not long after, a satirical Swedish TV show made fun of Chinese people through a sketch that listed a number of do’s and don’ts for Chinese tourists, including “not taking a poo outside of historical places.” The TV show added fuel to the fire and was condemned by Chinese social media users. The Chinese embassy in Sweden denounced the satirical Swedish TV show for “maliciously attacking” China. The entire ordeal did not do any good for the relations between Sweden and China, that have already been tense due to the imprisonment of Swedish-Chinese author Gui Minhai.
#18 Fugitives on the Loose
Hashtag “Two Fugitives on the Loose” (#两名重刑犯逃脱#) – 170 million views
It was almost like a movie: two criminals spectacularly escaped from a Liaoning prison and the entire country went on a manhunt, with authorities giving out a big reward for those who’d catch them and setting out drones to catch the two.
Social media played an important role in the search for the fugitives, that took place in early October of this year. Ten thousands of people closely followed the ordeal, as security footage from a local store was posted online only hours after their escape, showing the two criminals buying some food and cigarettes. Within 50 hours of their escape, the fugitives were captured by the police through the help of local villagers.
While you’re here, also check out the top 30 best books to understand China we published earlier this year!
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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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