A few years ago, rumors of sightings of a white female ghost spread around Sanzhuang Village, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province. Stories told of people being frightened as they caught site of the apparition in the dark of night.
But one person suspected he knew exactly what was going on. “I thought to myself, they must be talking about me,” says 22-year-old Liu Kai.
Liu was no apparition; he was a shamate.
Shamate refers to a subculture that sprang up in China among young, mainly rural populations toward the end of the last decade. Key to shamate — a crude, nonsensical jumble of Chinese characters that sound vaguely similar to the English word “smart” — was the visual aesthetic: outrageous hairstyles, clothing, and makeup that took influences from glam rock, hair metal, and punk, without the wearers necessarily knowing what any of those things were.
Liu no longer belongs to the shamate subculture, and, from his appearance today, you would have no idea he ever did. A thin man, he sports a buzz cut which leaves the marks and blemishes on his face unobscured. A golf ball-sized lump sits under his buzzed hair near the front of his head. The scar came from a fight Liu got in to protect a former friend’s honor, he says. Scars from the fight also pepper his eyelids.
Liu also ended up with a big hospital bill, but his friend disappeared, shirking his duty to support Liu. “I don’t have any true friends now,” he says.
Liu sits inside a KFC in Changzhou, a city four hours south of Sanzhuang by car. It’s been three years since Liu, a fervent patriot, has set foot inside the American chain. But here in the city’s suburban university district, where he has worked in an electronics factory since January, KFC is the only place around in which to escape the oppressive 40-degree midday heat.
Like most shamate, Liu’s first contact with the lifestyle was on the internet. In 2009 he came across posts on Baidu Tieba, an online forum community often likened to reddit. Even though he had no idea what it was called, the attraction was immediate. “I just knew I wanted to look like that,” Liu says. With no shamate in his village, 15-year-old Liu only had pictures of other shamate on the internet for inspiration.
Liu Kai shows off his ‘shamate’ style at an internet café, Siyang, Jiangsu province. Courtesy of Liu Kai
To begin with, Liu would go out with a simple layer of white foundation, but soon his facial designs became much more creative. “Slowly my style became more and more garish, and my hair started growing longer,” he says. To get new clothes Liu would ask for money from his mother, who was — and still is — working away from the family home. His mom would sometimes threaten to withhold money unless he cut his long hair, but it didn’t work. “If I had cut my hair, it would have killed my dream,” says Liu.
The desire to be noticed drove Liu to extremes. In 2011 he went to get his lip pierced, but the employee at the store in rural Jiangsu had never pierced a lip before. Liu saw her hand shaking as she punctured his lip. The woman was too nervous to finish the job, so Liu forced the piercing through the rest of the way himself. “It hurt like hell,” he says.
Liu would frequently dress up in his wildest outfit and visit Siyang, a small city near Sanzhuang. Each time he had only one goal in mind: turning heads. “If you didn’t want to turn heads, what would be the point?” he says. Many people were shocked or even disgusted by the way he looked, but Liu didn’t care. “As long as people paid attention to me, I achieved my goal — I didn’t care what they thought about me.”
In honor of the myths that his fashion sense once spurned in his village, Liu gave himself the nickname “Chinese Ghost Girl.” He claims he became so well-known that the local TV station in Siyang even wanted to interview him. But there were rumors going around that Liu was dressing the way he did for fame. He screws up his face and waves off the accusation: “I don’t like showing off.” Liu refused the TV interview.
For most of his childhood Liu was brought up by his grandmother. When he was just a few years old, Liu’s parents moved to Beijing to look for work, after their farmland was requisitioned by the local government. When he graduated from primary school in 2006, Liu decided he was done with education. “I felt like going to school was a waste of money and no fun,” he says. “I was a bad kid.” Liu’s grandmother could do nothing to stop him.
Liu’s background is typical of shamate, according to Zhang Le, an associate professor who specializes in sociology at Shandong University, Weihai. “Shamate were marginalized and at the lower levels of society,” he says. “Like many young people, they wanted others to pay attention to them and accept them.” Although shamate were most prevalent in rural regions, many moved to cities where jobs styling hair in salons or delivering packages allowed them to keep their look.
For most shamate, acceptance came in the form of clans — a key part of the subculture. Clans would have core members who would screen new group members and assign jobs, like head of clan communications, or clan stylist. But Liu was never part of a clan. “I was always alone,” he says. “I didn’t have many friends, and I didn’t know anyone else who was a shamate.”
Instead, Liu took to the forums on Baidu, where large communities of shamate posted about their lives. But he didn’t find many friends there, either. His posts were constantly getting deleted, and he was even put on a blacklist, for reasons he does not understand to this day. To circumvent the issue, he opened multiple accounts, which he would use to post regularly to his own Chinese Ghost Girl thread. He also faced abuse on the forums from other users who found his habit of bragging about himself and his attempts to make friends annoying. “It was only online,” Liu says, shrugging it off. “It wasn’t as hurtful as in real life.”
Liu Kai shows off his ‘shamate’ style, Sanzhuang Village, Jiangsu province, 2011. Courtesy of Liu Kai
In the early years of this decade, shamate faced opposition online from a rival clique, the xiaoqingxin. Literally meaning “little, clean, new,” xiaoqingxin referred to mainly young, university-educated urbanites who venerated a fresh and simple style in pastel colors. Xiaoqingxin attacked shamate culture — which they saw as vulgar — by invading their rivals’ forums and hurling abuse at members.
By 2013, much of mainstream society, along with popular media, was expressing disdain for the shamate subculture. To seek refuge from the abuse and continue vetting new members, clans retreated to the safe haven of yet another social media domain: Qzone, a closed social network operated by internet giant QQ. Slowly, the shamate were driven further underground.
Zhang Le sees this conflict as indicative of the urban-rural divide in China. Xiaoqingxin were white-collar workers with higher salaries than their shamate counterparts. “You can see it from the point of view of the split between city and countryside, or mainstream society’s suppression of subcultures,” he says.
These days, shamate culture is mostly a thing of the past, even among the group of people among whom it was once most popular: salon workers.
Lan Cong is 21 and from Wenzhou, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. Speaking to Sixth Tone from his Shanghai-based salon, which he co-owns with some friends, Lan says: “There were a lot of shamate in my school. They were like the bad kids.” He adds that young people these days have turned away from internet forums and instead look to Japanese and Korean stars for style tips. “There are no shamate anymore,” he says.
Twenty-six-year-old Li Xu, also a migrant worker from China’s east coast who works at a hairstyling franchise in Shanghai, agrees. “Nowadays, people don’t ask for exaggerated hairstyles,” he says. “That era seems to have ended.”
Liu Kai poses at a supermarket in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, July 20, 2016. Yin Yijun/Sixth Tone
For some of the shamate, the endless criticism from mainstream society may have been what caused them to give up on their lifestyle. But for Liu, there’s a much simpler reason he is no longer a shamate.
“I grew up,” he says.
In search of work, Liu moved in 2011 to Fengxian, a district that lies on the periphery of Shanghai’s southern suburbs. He took up a job at a popular hot pot restaurant chain, a gig that required him to do away with his expansive, coiffured hairdo. Though back in Jiangsu province now, Liu has kept his hair short ever since.
Liu now distances himself from the way he used to dress, though vestiges of his attention-seeking past can be seen in his bold-patterned T-shirt and mauve slip-ons. “My look then was so girly,” he says. “I can’t stand the clothes I used to wear.”
Despite his reversal in tastes, however, Liu doesn’t wish to rewrite history.
“I don’t regret it,” he says. “I did what I wanted to do.”
Additional reporting by Yin Yijun.
(Header image: A man with a haircut in the ‘shamate’ style at Guiyang Railway Station, Guizhou province, Feb. 6, 2013. VCG)