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    The ‘Naughty Grandma’ Competing for Likes on TikTok

    Chen Sujun has found fame on the viral video platform by refusing to act her age.

    This article is the third in a three-part series on some of China’s most venerable internet celebrities. The first and second stories in the series can be read here.

    CHONGQING, Southwest China — Chen Sujun is easy to spot among the early-morning commuters. With her silver hair and suitcase stuffed with clothes, the 68-year-old cuts a striking figure as she waits to catch the bus to her latest video shoot.

    After nearly two decades in retirement, Chen took a job with a social media company last May. Since then, she has reinvented herself as “Naughty Grandma Chen” — a vivacious presenter on the short-video app TikTok.

    At least once per week, Chen travels 16 kilometers across Chongqing to record a series of clips that have been carefully planned by her three-person management team — an agent, director, and videographer. Chen’s playful on-screen persona has struck a chord with Chinese netizens, and she has amassed more than 2 million followers.

    The social media firm Chen works for has more than 50 stars on its books, but she’s proven to be one of its top assets. “The elderly can come off as rigid or unwilling to accept new things, but Grandma Chen tries everything and interacts with these young people,” says Qi Hangyu, Chen’s agent, who also manages a young male dance troupe.

    In a trendy apartment the company has rented for the day, the shoot begins with Grandma Chen performing a popular “gesture dance,” a set of rapid hand gestures done in time to music. Despite rehearsing the moves the night before, however, the sexagenarian struggles with the dance.

    After multiple failed takes, she lies down on the bed and takes a break, while her colleagues adjust the speed of the music. Chen says she took the job because she enjoys performing and wanted to earn some extra money, but she often finds the filming sessions draining. She normally has to shoot a dozen videos each day, which takes around 10 hours. “Sometimes I feel tired and consider quitting,” Chen tells Sixth Tone.

    But for now, at least, Chen is tied into a one-year contract that she agreed with the company in late 2018 and is unable to escape from the camera — or from her millions of followers. Each time a new clip of hers goes live, she rushes to watch the video, read the comments, and check how many fans she has gained or lost.

    Even for a niche performer like Chen, life on TikTok can be unpredictable and brutally competitive. She says she often feels frustrated when her number of followers suddenly drops because of an algorithm change or her employer failing to release a video quickly enough.

    “Since I’ve agreed and signed the contract, I must take full responsibility and see it through,” says Chen. But when asked whether she plans to renew the contract for another year, she responds with a firm “no.”

    Editor: Dominic Morgan.

    (Header image: Chen Sujun (right) awaits the directors’ instructions at a rental apartment in Chongqing, August 2019. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone)