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    In China, Young Fans Are Swapping Merch For Self-Made ‘Freebies’

    At live music performances and comic conventions, young Chinese are finding creative ways to express support for their favorite acts, simultaneously fostering community.

    HANGZHOU — Hours before Doudou, a hit band from Beijing, was set to perform in the eastern city of Hangzhou on Jan. 5, dozens of fans were already congregated outside the performance venue. They were not there to get a better view of the stage once the doors opened, but rather to exchange all the merchandise they had spent hours creating in the previous days and weeks.

    From hair clips to guitar picks to stickers, all emblazoned with the band’s name and faces of its members, the fans buzzed around deciding which bag of goodies was worth dispensing with their own goodies for.

    China’s fandom culture has been the subject of public scrutiny in recent years, as high-profile incidents of fans stalking celebrities, hoarding food, and attacking rival celebrities have sparked outrage. Unruly fan behavior has been a theme of live music performances in the past year, including fights between rival fan groups and clashes with security.

    In 2021, China’s top internet watchdog issued a raft of measures to clamp down on fandom culture.

    But the practice of exchanging wuliao, or “freebies,” is a far cry from the toxicity that many now associate with fandom culture. The term, meaning “free of charge,” is adopted from “ACG” culture, where fans of Japanese-influenced anime, comics, and games have been exchanging such free merchandise for many years.

    The swapping of freebies is now a common sight at live performances and comic cons in China. On lifestyle apps Xiaohongshu and Lofter, two of the most popular platforms for freebie enthusiasts to gather, tags related to freebies often start trending in the run-up to major concerts and ACG events.

    “With freebies, my love for this band can be delivered to another person,” said Huang Zhen, a 29-year-old dentist who arrived at the venue five hours before Doudou’s Hangzhou show.

    Huang first started creating freebies around four years ago after attending a live show of “Super-Vocal,” a hit Chinese TV talent show focused on classical music, and being amazed by all the freebies on offer.

    In the weeks before Doudou’s show in Hangzhou, Huang would often work until 2 a.m. preparing the 27 hair clips she would bring to the show to exchange, each carefully handcrafted with the band’s name or lyrics affixed.  

    The hair clips must be perfect, Huang explains, as fairness in exchange is a major component of the wuliao community: only then can a real community of enthusiasts be fostered.

    “The process of exchanging these items amplifies the meaning of these live performances. They connect me with strangers and help me remember the experience in a tangible way,” said Huang.

    At the performance, Huang exchanged his hair clip for a bracelet, candy, and a handwritten note explaining that the candy was safe to eat from Qi Yiqiao, a 22-year-old dance teacher from the northern Hebei province.

    While free exchange is still a major feature of the community, some members have become so well-known for their high-quality creations that they have begun selling a selection of their best items online.

    Meng Kui, a 24-year-old engineer in Shanghai, spends up to eight hours a day designing illustrations of her favorite fictional characters, from Spiderman and Iron Man to characters from the British fantasy comedy hit “Good Omens.”

    Since she began creating these designs 10 years ago in high school, Meng has gained a small following online, with thousands of fans on the microblogging platform Weibo. She has brought almost a hundred of her self-made keychains and framed drawings to ACG events, some free and others sold for a small fee.

    At a comic book exhibition in Shanghai last May, a fan came to her stand and bought all her creations, leaving just a lengthy handwritten letter.

    “The letter expressed her gratitude for my illustrations over the years, saying that some have given her mental support,” said Meng.

    “I just like making things, and it brings me happiness when others like what I draw.”

    (Header image: Key chains made by Meng. Courtesy of Meng)