China's hit music shows come back for brand new boy bands
Xu Xinchen

Two Chinese reality shows focusing on the country's boy bands have entered their latest seasons. They have changed their format and adopted new trends. First, this year's boy band is very likely to become global.

International contestants seek opportunities in China amid COVID-19

While COVID-19 rampaged across the globe, shattering people's normal lives and stalling the global economy, the pandemic also made one young man feel further than he should be from his dream.

"I was really eager to go back on stage. Because I haven't performed for so long during the whole period of COVID-19. I really want to go back on stage because I was training all the time," said Mika Hashizume, a trainee in this season's CHUANG2021.

He is a member of a Japanese-American boys' group called Intersection. Yet, because of COVID-19, Mika hasn't been on stage much. He got his chance once again, however, by competing in a musical survival reality show in China.

Mika is not the only young artist from outside China to seek opportunities here.

"I wanna become an artist who is good at every side – singing, dancing, performing, and acting. And the boys' group and girls' group that have come out of here are very professional. So if I wanna take the risk, I wanna do it by the best," said Patrick Nattawat Finkler from Thailand, also competing in CHUANG.

The risk the young man was referring to is turning his back on his acting career in Thailand.

For the past four years, two group survival reality shows - Youth with You (also known as Idol Producer) and Tencent's Chuang have brought forth a slew of aspiring young artists alternating each season between boy and girl-bands eager to win big.

In 2021, its boy bands once again.

But there's a twist this season – more international contestants. 25 percent of the 90 contestants in CHUANG – or CHUANG2021, as it's called this season – are not Chinese.

The addition of international contestants has meant a huge boost in viewership, even with its overseas debut. This season's first episode saw double the international viewers this year.

Yet, for those who flew in from other countries to compete, they've had to endure some hurdles.

They had to spend three weeks in quarantine – and a language barrier. But they think it's worth it.

"Before my agency told me about this, I know of this show and if I had the chance to be on the show and it gives me the chance to show a bigger audience – the type of music I enjoy singing and I enjoy making, I think it would definitely help me in a long run," said Mika.

The higher number of foreign contestants entering China's talent shows reflects the huge size of the country's entertainment market and shows how to open Chinese society has become to foreign celebrities and culture.

"China's ability to gain control over the pandemic has led to a strong sense of pride among Chinese people for their country. But this hasn't stopped Chinese people from being curious about and open to foreign culture," said Wu Geng, the head of Kantar's CelebrityZ Research.

Data from Kantar shows that Chinese people grew more curious about different cultures in 2020, up 78 percent in the year's fourth quarter from 58 percent in the second quarter. And behind the new trend, there is deeper cultural exchange fueling the internationalization of China's entertainment industry.

"By putting foreign and Chinese contestants together, it makes something fresh. There's no pressure if there are only domestic contestants to go up against," said Duo Xiaomeng, producer of CHUANG2021.

This means tougher competition and a lot of sweat and tears.


Online influencers seek bigger stage via reality competition shows

The competition also became more fierce with an increasing appearance of mega internet sensations.

Han Meijuan, with over 12 million followers online, is an internet celebrities in China. And in fact, it is a he.

By cross-dressing as a woman, Han brings to life funny skits that have generated over 150 million likes since his first video was uploaded back in summer 2019.

And in 2021, he removed all his makeup and joined one of China's largest musical group survival reality shows as Han Peiquan – his real identity.
As he said during the show, he is redefining himself.

"I feel conflicted myself. I love Han Meijuan. Because she can make me more confident than ever. And during the filming of the show, I sometimes call her with my heart to help me. But in real life, I also want to be myself," said Han.

His first stage performance dropped jaws. As there weren't many, who knew he could sing.

"Every show and every opportunity is a chance for you to express yourself. They have put their messages and energy into their performances," said Chinese singer Zhou Shen.

The singer gave his approval to those who dare to escape the internet and get on a real stage.

Han is not the only mega internet sensation to get on stage to compete this year. Both Youth with You and CHUANG came back for another season to cobble together a boyband out of someone hundred trainees or contestants.

While Han joined CHUANG, the other show got a hold of internet influencers like Aikelili – an online persona created by another young man, which has generated over 9 million followers.

Some question the merits of bringing on a slew of internet influencers – regarding their increasing appearances as a downturn for China's entertainment industry.

However, is there a hard boundary between celebrities and internet celebrities, 20-year-old Liu Yu doesn't think so.

"First, you're able to gain a following on the internet. So many people know you. How is it different from being a normal celebrity?" said Liu.

Liu first shot to online stardom by posting short clips of his traditional Chinese dancing skills online. He enjoys the thrill of putting his performances on a real stage.

However, at the end of the day, it's still the skills that will help them achieve what they're looking for.


The future of online musical contests

Every year, hundreds of thousands of dream chasers audition for reality talent shows in China. They are looking for a bigger stage to complete their ambitions.

"You need to be seen first before knowing if people like you," said Zhou Shen.

Yet, the exposure does not necessarily translate to a jump start in a career. This is 28-year-old Boyuan's second try in a musical group reality show.

In 2018, he took part in a similar show but did not make it into the final round. After that, life wasn't easy.

"In the first half of 2020, I didn't have any income," said Boyuan.

Boyuan temporarily worked as a vocal trainer when he ran into a 16-year-old busboy who sought his help to learn how to sing. The encounter encouraged him to compete again – at an age relatively old to be in a boy band.

"If a day comes when someone tells me I can't perform anymore. I wouldn't know what to do," said 19-year-old Lin Mo. He has spent almost a decade training to become an idol.

These young men taking part in the show have to spend three months living, training, and competing with each other. It's almost like a boot camp.

These young people with different backgrounds are all the hard work for one purpose, to become an idol.

China's two largest group survival reality shows, Youth with You and CHUANG, debuted back in 2018. Since then, they've garnered a huge following.

And this year, both shows earned the top two spots for online produced variety shows. For the shows' producers, it hasn't been easy getting there.

"In my opinion, for a variety show to stay afloat, it needs to find a way to incorporate current societal values and help viewers find a solution to any adverse situations they might currently be facing," said CHUANG2021 producer Duo.

And for artists seeking a bigger stage to shine, it comes back to how to wow these viewers.

Young dreamers are working hard to get a fanbase. And its viewers' votes that help them realize their dreams. But behind it all, there's also a lot of profit. China's entertainment industry is estimated at some $331 million. And it's still expanding at a rate of over five percent.

Yet, show producers say they're concerned. While the market is good, how young viewers take in the spectacle and take everything in is another thing to watch out for.

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