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Nov 16, 2016

Everything about the room I’m sitting in is an assault on the senses: the bright blue-and-white felt walls, the incandescent white lighting, the golden dragon carving on the far wall. But at this very moment, it’s the computer screen in front of me and the world it represents that are most alien to me. 

I see myself in the middle of the screen, sitting next to a stranger who is parked at a computer somewhere else in northeastern China. I can hear his scattergun voice coming through the earpiece at a piercing volume as he jokes around. A comically deep and disembodied voice can be heard, too, but I have no idea where it’s coming from.   

As I struggle to decipher the cacophony of sounds, my eyes are bombarded with messages and symbols from viewers that flash around the edges of the screen at a dizzying pace. This is what it feels like to live-stream to an audience of over 200,000 people, and there’s only one thing going through my head as I struggle to understand my co-hosts’ northeastern accents and exaggerated speech: Wow, this is awkward. 

“He’s feeling embarrassed,” says the man sitting to my left, as he shimmies over to take control of the situation. That man is Yu Li, also known as MC Brother Li to the more than 9 million fans he has on live-streaming platform YY LIVE. Yu slips effortlessly back into live-stream mode, and I feel an enormous sense of relief as I quietly slither off screen.

A look inside the world of Yu Li’s multi-million yuan live-streaming operation.

Now 30, Yu belongs to a new generation from China’s northeast who have risen from poverty to make their fortune out of live-streaming. He earns an astonishing 1 to 1.5 million yuan (around $146,000 to $218,000) per month, mostly in the form of virtual gifts that Yu’s fans send during his streams. 

The live-streaming business model has proven incredibly successful around the country in the last five years. In 2015 there were close to 200 live-streaming platforms in China, and Yu estimates that the number has reached around 300 this year. Across all platforms, live-streamers broadcast anything and everything you could imagine, from eating inanimate objects, to snorting fake cocaine, to utter banality. But stars like Yu and his peers, who all use the YY LIVE platform, have made their names and money with content that draws from an entertainment culture native to China’s northeastern region. 

It’s the same as bar or nightclub performances, but in the virtual world.

Most of the top live-streamers on YY LIVE are male, and their aliases start with the letters “MC,” which stands for “microphone controllers.” Originally, the performance style of these Chinese MC live-streamers was called “hanmai” — literally “microphone shouting.” MCs record themselves rapping over high-energy dance music that sounds like it’s been lifted straight from the region’s nightclubs. Occasionally they’ll slow things down and rap over soft ballads, while other times they’ll do away with all musicality and let loose on a subject without paying attention to the beat. 

Earlier this year, drama-school educated Shanghainese woman Papi Jiang made headlines after her live-streaming content received millions of yuan in investment, but Yu and his peers come from a different world entirely. “At the age of 15 I stopped going to school, and at 16 I left my home for this city, to come and be a mechanic,” says Yu of Gongzhuling, the small city in China’s northeastern Jilin province where he now lives. His parents divorced when he was 6, and Yu spent the rest of his childhood living with his mother and his stepfather, both corn farmers. Yu’s mother passed away when he was just 17.

But Yu appears to have found himself a family of sorts here in Gongzhuling. The city has lost a lot of people to the nearby provincial capital, Changchun, but for Yu, who only needs an internet connection to make a living, it’s as good a place as any. It was here, when he was still working as a mechanic back in 2009, that Yu first came into contact with live-streaming. His first video stream was to five friends. Today, his streams draw hundreds of thousands of viewers, and his success has led him to launch Wudi Media, an incubator where fledgling broadcasters can sign up to be instructed in the fine art of captivating audiences and loosening wallets.

Gifts from his fans adorn the inside of Yu Li’s office in Gongzhuling, Jilin province, Nov. 9, 2016. Yin Yijun/Sixth Tone

Juggling the company and his own live-streaming pursuits is an exhausting job. “I start broadcasting at 10 p.m. and finish at 1 a.m. every day,” Yu says. “Sometimes if there’s a delay, I won’t sleep until 5 or 6 in the morning.” Yu’s shows combine singing, hanmai rapping, and talk-show-style sketches that take inspiration from errenzhuan — a form of live comedy skit popular in northeastern China.

On YY LIVE, users are split into different membership levels according to their spending habits. On the lowest rung are the youke, or tourists, who enjoy the shows but don’t spend much, while at the top are the tuhao, or nouveau riche, who throw money at broadcasters by the bucketload. On the night of my uncomfortable foray into Yu’s broadcast, he received a reward of 30,000 yuan early on in the stream from a tuhao YY LIVE member, but gifts are sometimes much higher in value: Yu says he was once awarded 8 million yuan in one transaction. In return, Yu looks after his patrons with live shoutouts and even face-to-face meetings. “Basically I can become friends with [the tuhao],” Yu says. 

We are monitored when we stream, and as soon as you say anything that breaks the rules, you will be fined or face repercussions.

“It’s the same as bar or nightclub performances, but in the virtual world,” says fellow MC live-streamer and Li’s apprentice Wang Baocai, drawing a comparison to the habit of customers in many of China’s entertainment venues to shower performers with gifts and cash. “Within the live broadcast platform, they can find the same enjoyment. The difference between swiping 10,000 and 1,000 yuan is the amount of face it gives you,” he says, a nod to the concept of preserving dignity in social situations that is embedded in Chinese culture.

Teng Wei, director for the Center of Contemporary Cultural Studies at South China Normal University, believes there is more to the phenomenon than the concept of face. “Sometimes it’s a kind of brand consciousness,” she says. “Let’s say I’m in [famous YY live-streamer] MC Tianyou’s live-stream room and every day I give him virtual gifts like roses or cars, and I’m always the most generous. If one day, someone surpasses me with gifts, then all the money I spent before is wasted because I haven’t maintained my brand as the supreme.” Teng also believes the highest-spending tuhao feel territorial about their favorite MCs’ live streams. “It’s as if the live-stream room belongs to me. Whatever I say goes: It’s my world,” she says.

Whatever the motivation, the amounts of money that are being spent on live-stream platforms can be baffling, not least for the families of popular MC live-streamers. Wang, who has gone from working as a chef to earning a living through regular broadcasts to his 1 million fans, says that when he first started making money on YY LIVE, his mother couldn’t understand how something virtual could produce real cash. She suspected he was doing something illegal. “It wasn’t until I went with her to the bank and withdrew it that she believed me,” he says.

Yu Li stands by his Range Rover in Gongzhuling, Jilin province, Nov. 10, 2016. Yin Yijun/Sixth Tone

MC live-streaming may have brought Yu and Wang some fame and a lot of fortune, but the working-class culture they represent irritates others. Nowhere was this more evident than in the blowback to an October article in GQ’s Chinese edition that profiled MC Tianyou, a poster boy for the hanmai style and currently YY LIVE’s most popular user, with over 17 million fans. “GQ even interviews this kind of person?!” reads the first comment on the article. The second simply says, “Disgusting.” The third comment: “Damn, you’re making someone shady sound pure.”

They’ve had no opportunity to get a higher education, and they don’t come from rich or educated families.

For Teng, this characterization is unfair. “From an art perspective, you could say it’s crude,” she says. “But we shouldn’t judge it without conscience.” Teng believes the gutting of industry in China’s northeastern region in the 1980s has shaped the culture in which today’s MC live-streamers have grown up. “In the ’80s, all of the northeastern region was on the decline,” she says. “Factories were being sold off, and people’s parents were being laid off without pay.” The result was that opportunities for advancement for people like Yu and his peers have been very limited. “They’ve had no opportunity to get a higher education, and they don’t come from rich or educated families,” says Teng. 

As for Yu, he isn’t concerned about the criticism — by his account, the standing of live-streamers like him is on an upward trend, pointing to the government’s ever-tightening efforts to clean up the content of broadcasts. “We are monitored when we stream,” says Yu, “and as soon as you say anything that breaks the rules, you will be fined or face repercussions.” 

New nationwide regulations on live-streaming were announced at the beginning of November as an attempt to crack down on lewd content. It’s still unclear what impact these policies will have on the industry, but YY LIVE’s strict approach means it is better prepared than many other platforms. Yu welcomes the new rules. “The more standardized [the industry] gets, the better,” he says. He also has more selfish reasons for supporting the crackdown: Every live-streamer taken offline means vying with one fewer person for his fans’ money. 

A Wudi Media employee sits in one of the company’s live-streaming studios, Gongzhuling, Jilin province, Nov. 10, 2016. Yin Yijun/Sixth Tone

But just in case the live-streaming industry collapses, Yu and his employees at Wudi Media are already working on diversifying their income sources. In addition to running an e-commerce venture to sell clothes and merchandise, they are moving into online films. “I’ve already shot eight or nine online movies this year,” Yu says. His most recent production — “Fight in Causeway Bay 2,” a gangster comedy set in Hong Kong — has over 20 million views on pay-per-view Netflix-like video site iQIYI. 

The size of the audience that the film has garnered is all the more impressive given — by his own admission — the woodenness of Yu’s performance. Comments under the movie feature a number of criticisms of his acting skills, and Yu isn’t in denial. “I have never studied performance,” he says, “I’m just an ordinary, common person.” But as the size of his live-streaming pay check shows, for the right audience, ordinariness pays well.

Yu comes from humble beginnings and keeps himself grounded with a simple goal. “All I want to do is look after the dreams of my crew and help them move forward,” he says. “Everyone at the company depends on me, and that forces me to keep going.” 

Additional reporting by Yin Yijun.

(Header image: Yu Li broadcasts from his office in Gongzhuling, Jilin province, Nov. 9, 2016. Yin Yijun/Sixth Tone)