Backstage With China’s Smooth-Talking Event Emcees
SHANGHAI — At a high-end club a stone’s throw from the Bund, a party by Motorola is underway. From long tanks lining the entry, steely-eyed sharks watch as company employees and guests mill about chatting, deciding among canapés, and enjoying the sight of dancers gyrating under branded neon lights.
Suddenly, on the other side of the venue, a handsome young man dressed in a trim blue suit makes his entrance. As the loud music and sporadic applause subside, the host speaks familiar words with a smile. “Esteemed guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome! Or should I say, ‘Hello, Moto,’” he intones, before introducing himself as Eros, named after the Greek god of love.
Yi Han — Eros’ Chinese name — is a bilingual commercial event host. Every day across China, thousands of these charismatic facilitators run events of every kind, from business summits and forums to training activities and even weddings.
For the most talented, hosting can open doors to wealth, fame, and the chance to present at widely viewed televised events like CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala, the annual Chinese New Year countdown show with an audience of over 700 million. At age 22, Yi already makes 120,000 to 150,000 yuan (around $18,000 to $22,700) a month — a far cry from the 5,000-yuan average monthly salary for new graduates in Shanghai — presenting alongside A-list celebrities such as actress Angelababy and American basketball star Derrick Rose. Previous clients include global brands Porsche, Gucci, and Rolex.
Yi has yet to reach celebrity status, but his experience and bilingualism command a high price, allowing him to make significant investments in one of his most fundamental assets: his appearance. Prized purchases have included a teeth-whitening procedure in Thailand, a 48,000-yuan Tom Ford tuxedo, and a matching 2,000-yuan bow tie. Luxury apparel can serve as useful leverage to raise hosting fees, Yi says, recalling one real estate company’s agreement to an ambitious asking price after he showed up to a meeting in over 100,000 yuan’s worth of clothing and accessories.
In China, hosting is highly regarded as a skill that fosters confidence and oratory prowess, spawning an entire industry of training academies, competitions, and books dedicated to educating China’s “little emperors” in the art of emceeing. Performing arts training school Shanghai Future Academy, for example, teaches speech delivery, pronunciation, and scriptwriting to children as young as 6 through 60-hour “speech and hosting” courses.
“Most kids are shy in this country,” Yi explains. “Parents want them to communicate with strangers and different people. They believe hosting will help [their kids] find better jobs and do better in the future.”
Yi himself is a case in point: His hosting career took off after he won a government-sponsored hosting contest at the age of 12 in his home city of Huangshi, in central China’s Hubei province. Soon afterward, he was scouted for a presenting role on a regional children’s TV program, which he says cemented his ambition to become a professional host. At the age of 17, Yi moved to Shanghai to pursue a four-year degree in broadcasting and hosting at Donghua University.
Broadcasting and hosting degrees, offered from the undergraduate to doctoral levels, have their roots in the medium of radio. After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party strived to unify a vast, multilingual nation. Scores of radio broadcasters were urgently needed to transmit central government policies in a common tongue: Mandarin Chinese. Training programs for broadcasting professionals in Beijing led to the creation of the Beijing Broadcasting College in 1958 and, subsequently, the establishment of broadcasting and hosting as an academic discipline.
During his schooling, Yi studied broadcast creation, TV hosting, news editing, vocal delivery, and enunciation. He recalls waking up at 5:30 every morning to go running, followed by half an hour of vocal exercises. Course graduates commonly go on to become radio and TV hosts, commercial event hosts like Yi, voice-dubbing professionals, wedding hosts, and tour guides.
To demonstrate the broadcaster voice he has mastered over the years, Yi produces a booming, exaggerated “Fuwuyuan!” — “waiter” in Chinese — during an interview at a Shanghai café. People around the room all look over at Yi, who, unflustered, proceeds to elaborate on the finer points of projection: “You use a different part of your body,” he says, referring to the diaphragm, “to make your voice sound stronger and louder, and spread wider.”
Five years after moving to Shanghai, Yi — who has delayed his graduation to focus on work — charges an average of 10,000 to 15,000 yuan per event. “It’s not a lot,” he insists, despite it being far higher than the industry average of 2,000 to 4,000 yuan. By comparison, celebrities and TV personalities can make upwards of 500,000 yuan per event.
The discrepancy is just as prevalent among TV hosts, who often do commercial events on the side. Shanghai-based TV presenter and film actor Steven Weathers, who started off making around 4,000 yuan per gig, was surprised when he was suddenly offered 30,000 yuan to co-host a show with a well-known host from Hunan TV, one of China’s most successful regional TV stations. Prior to the event, he witnessed the Hunan TV host being handed 120,000 yuan in cash, euphemistically referred to as “travel expenses.”
“It was huge! Her envelope was stuffed,” Weathers recalls. “I was shocked to know that anyone could get 120,000 [yuan] in one event.” Nowadays, he charges a minimum of 100,000 yuan per booking.
Despite these tales of success, Yi calls event hosting a “fading industry.” As people in China are increasingly turning to the internet for their social, retail, and entertainment needs, companies are choosing to spend more on digital marketing and opting to hold only a few high-impact events rather than many small-scale occasions.
Shanghai-based events manager Hu Di has witnessed this trend and says that companies now prefer to pay more for celebrities to create web-friendly content, harnessing a star’s social media presence to further raise brand awareness. “There is less demand for hosts overall, and the requirements for hosts are increasing,” Hu says. “Bilingual ability is now extremely important because big events often have foreign guests and superstars. Appearance is also highly important.”
Yi says many of his friends have already given up on show hosting. In several years’ time, he predicts that only the top hosts — meaning famous, experienced, or multilingual talents who speak as many as four languages — will remain in the industry.
“Before, how you talked was more important; you needed to use ‘the voice,’” says Yi, putting on an exaggerated announcer’s voice. “Now, there’s no need; if you can be funny, people will listen to you, and you can have your own program,” he says, pointing to China’s livestreaming multitudes, the most successful of whom can make upwards of 1 million yuan per month in virtual gifts from their adoring fans. A recent survey of over 4,500 livestreamers found that only 18 percent had undergraduate or higher degrees.
Despite managing to stay ahead of the game thus far, Yi now hopes to move into acting and music. “I’m a bit bored of hosting. I can do it with my eyes closed — just give me the script, give me the rundown,” he says. He has recently taken up DJing and started hosting at events in which he takes a personal interest, such as music festivals.
“When you host, you put all your attention on the boss, the superstar, but when you’re an emcee or DJ at a music festival, you are the main topic,” says Yi. “It’s nicer — it’s about me.”
Editor: Owen Churchill.
(Header image: Yi Han hosts an event in Shanghai, July 20, 2017. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone)