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    The Livestreamer Thriving in a Desolate Liaoning Coal Town

    A native of China’s northeast has found unlikely success with online videos broadcast from his desiccated hometown.

    LIAONING, Northeast China — On a sunny winter afternoon in the plastic lean-to attached to his farmhouse, Zhu Guanyu picks out a costume from piles of clothing dating back to the ’90s. Wearing a wig and lipstick, the 31-year-old livestreamer and content creator prepares to shoot a video for his nostalgic web series “Bygone Childhood,” in which he plays the mother of a young girl, portrayed by his wife, living in a rural area of northeastern China.

    But the apparent modesty of the couple’s production belies their success: More than a year after the series began, the two now have over 4.5 million followers on video-streaming platform Kuaishou.

    Born to a family of farmers in the city of Fushun, Zhu dropped out of school at an early age and began learning errenzhuan — a comedic performance art popular in northeastern China. Zhu toured the country as an errenzhuan performer for nearly a decade before deciding to move back to his hometown in 2014 to be near family.

    But in Fushun, years of extraction have left the former coal capital bereft of natural resources, slowing its once-booming economy to a crawl. A lack of employment options has led younger generations to abandon the city, resulting in 10 straight years of population decline.

    Zhu found the success that eluded so many in his languishing hometown by becoming an online content creator. Beginning with “Bygone Childhood” and later expanding to his lucrative livestreaming broadcasts, Zhu has been singing, dancing, and performing acrobatics for the thousands of viewers who watch live each day from across the country.

    “Since the advent of online platforms, we no longer need to travel elsewhere in search of opportunity,” says Zhu, who has since put his nomadic lifestyle behind him. And though he fears one day running out of the ideas needed to fuel his online content, Zhu says he’s not deterred by the challenge.

    “As long as this platform exists, we’ll keep making videos — no matter how hard it becomes.”

    Editor: Layne Flower.

    (Header image: Zhu Guanyu (center) and his colleagues take a photo for their livestreaming show in Fushun, Liaoning province, Feb. 13, 2019. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone)