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2021-04-26 10:05:24 Voices

By the time director Li Yifan released his latest documentary “We Were Smart” late last year, the shamate subculture he had been immersed in for years was long past its prime. Fans of shamate — a transliteration of the English word “smart” — were best known for their gravity-defying, over-the-top hairstyles; use of brightly colored hair dyes; exaggerated goth getups; and intensely emotional posts on early social media sites. Most were born in the 1990s, and as the children of China’s rapid urbanization drive and internet rise, they were among the earliest adopters of social media and chat apps in the ’00s, sharing photos and expressing their individuality on social networking sites like Qzone.

As a middle school student in the mid-2000s, I, like many others my age, was a nascent, though keen follower of shamate aesthetics. At the time, I didn’t realize just how different my life was from theirs. Enrolled in a formal educational institution in a prosperous city in eastern China, I was one of the lucky ones. The youngsters in the photos I adored may have been my age, but most of them had already dropped out of school and migrated to the cities for work. Toiling under harsh, dehumanizing conditions, they consolidated China’s position as the “world’s factory.” Yet they were dismissed by urban locals as “uncultured” and “low-quality.”

Simultaneously marginalized and exposed to a steady influx of Japanese, Korean, and Western pop culture, some young migrants opted not to shrink into the background. Rather, they embraced their outsider status and built a community for themselves in the form of a tight-knit shamate subculture.

Then, around 2010, the government launched a campaign against three types of lowbrow cultural content: the vulgar, the cheap, and the tasteless. This, combined with online cyberbullying directed at shamate youngsters a couple of years later, essentially disappeared shamate from the Chinese internet. The term shamate still exists, but mostly as a synonym for “tacky” and “tasteless.”

That makes “We Were Smart” all the more valuable. Li has said he approached the project less as a storyteller and more as an editor. He reached out to migrant workers who were once part of shamate culture in search of videos, photos, and personal stories from the group’s golden age. Composed of interviews with 78 migrant workers and clips from their jobs in factories and everyday lives, the documentary reconstructs shamate in a way ethnographers would appreciate. If there’s a message, it’s that these youngsters’ embrace of over-the-top fashion wasn’t simply an aesthetic choice, but an attempt to find a sense of belonging and protect themselves from the scorn, discrimination, and bullying they faced in the cities.

“When I was making the film, I never imagined I was creating a history of shamate; I was simply filming the personal histories of 78 migrant workers,” Li explained at one post-screening event. Perhaps it is this focus on individual stories that has helped “We Were Smart” win over viewers. On the notoriously picky review site Douban, “We Were Smart” has received an average rating of 8.7 out of 10 from more than 15,000 reviews. The number of reviews is all the more remarkable given that the film hasn’t been released in theaters or on streaming platforms.

A still from the 2020 documentary “We Were Smart.”

A still from the 2020 documentary “We Were Smart.”

Much of the film’s audience is composed of young urban professionals like me. At a time when shamate kids were dropping out of school and getting factory jobs, we were on the standard middle-class trajectory, fighting to get into a good university and find a job. We have since graduated, and the more successful among us have entered the urban middle class. Yet it feels like we have more in common with the shamate icons of our youth than ever before. The tech companies that shaped our young lives have grown from agile startups to giants with tens of thousands of employees. Referred to online as China’s new “big factories,” these behemoths have replaced traditional state-owned enterprises and even banks as the most sought-after positions for new graduates: symbols of a well-paid, globalized future.

Yet this optimistic vision hasn’t panned out. Since 2019, employees at a number of prominent internet companies have publicly protested their inhumane overtime cultures. Last year, the academic term “involution” became a popular byword for a feeling common among many Chinese that they are stuck in a highly competitive, low-innovation model of production. Also in 2020, the literary magazine Yaowen Jiaozi chose “laborer” as one of its words of the year. The term, long used to refer to manual laborers, had been adopted ironically by China’s “big factory”-bound urban middle class to poke fun of their monotonous, depressing work lives.

This growing sense of self-doubt has played a key role in urban audiences’ embrace of “We Were Smart.” On podcasts and social media popular among the middle class and college students, discussion of the documentary has frequently centered around the idea that “We are all shamate.” Li himself has been quoted as saying the repression faced by shamate migrant workers and their contemporary urban white-collar counterparts is very similar. Online, there has been a dramatic shift in the way shamate culture and the migrant workers who built it are viewed, as users — some of whom likely once ridiculed the subculture — now claim to feel empathy for its followers.

Online, there has been a dramatic shift in the way ‘shamate’ culture and the migrant workers who built it are viewed.

At one post-screening discussion, an audience member said: “I feel a lot like these shamate. For a time, I also didn’t know who I was outside of my job, and I didn’t know how to express myself as a sexual minority, so I dyed my hair purple and pink.”

But are we really all shamate? The young city dwellers struggling in the “big factories” of the tech industry are, after all, much better off economically and socially than the average shamate youth. Although shamate are no longer automatically assumed to be “vulgar” or “low-quality,” they are still othered: They are subjects upon which the middle class can project its own imaginaries, case studies for radical intellectuals, or urban underclass individuals in need of media attention. But they are never fully realized as human beings deserving to have their voices heard. The gaze they were subjected to never went away; it just changed perspectives. “I really feel for the plight of these migrant workers,” an art teacher said at another post-screening event. “But I wonder, what could have caused their ‘twisted’ sense of aesthetics?” What followed was a heated audience discussion about how the aesthetics of migrant workers could be improved.

Luo Fuxing poses for a photo inside his now-closed hair salon in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Dec. 22, 2017. Ge Yufei/People Visual

Luo Fuxing poses for a photo inside his now-closed hair salon in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Dec. 22, 2017. Ge Yufei/People Visual

Such condescending responses to shamate are hardly what Li originally intended when making his documentary. When he was looking for interview subjects, he started by asking Luo Fuxing — a man known as the “godfather of shamate.” Luo rallied his former fans and encouraged them to support the documentary, assuring them that, “This time is different from when people would bad-mouth us; this time it’s us talking about ourselves.”

It was this faith, combined with Li’s editorial approach, that eventually allowed him to win over the wary shamate community and give viewers such an intimate window into the lives of each of the 78 migrant workers he profiled. We aren’t all “smart” — much less shamate — but if we can break down the artificial prejudices that separate white- and blue-collar “laborers,” perhaps we can build real, rather than imagined, solidarity with this marginalized group.

Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: A promotional image for the 2020 documentary “We Were Smart,” reedited by Sixth Tone.)