Tea Leaf Nation

Vanity Fail

Look past their funky threads and outlandish hairdos. China's alienated young migrants are here to stay. 

On Nov. 5, a Chinese blogger posted three photos of a young man in spiky hair for his 1.6 million followers on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter. "Caught a live shamate on the street today," he wrote gleefully, adding that their hairstyles "look like the molecular structure of some virus." Meanwhile, a music video called "Shamate Meets Wash-Cut-Blowdry," a reference to the group's often-maligned hairstyles, featuring leggy girls gyrating to the tune of Korean pop-singer Psy's song "Gentleman," has received more than 2.4 million views on Youku, China's YouTube. (Predictably, comments to the video poked fun.) These shamate are the young migrants lost in China's great urbanization push, a subculture whose numbers are unknown, but surely growing.

To hip Chinese sensibilities, shamate -- named after a deliberately nonsensical transliteration of the English word "smart" -- are anything but. Baidu Baike, China's Wikipedia, describes a shamate as a young urban migrant from one of the tens of thousands of podunk towns scattered across China. These men and women are in their late teens or early 20s, often with middle-school educations and few marketable skills, working low-paying jobs in the big cities, like a barber, security guard, deliveryman, or waitress.

A shamate's single most distinguishing (and derided) feature is his or her exaggerated hairstyle: curly perms, shaggy blow-outs, or spiky do's, all held together with considerable abuse of hair coloring or wax. Clothing bought from a street market, some body piercing, and an off-brand cell phone often completes the look. Shamates usually linger in the social purgatory of small hair salons, smoky Internet cafes, or street market stalls in China's big cities, not quite fitting into the world of shiny office buildings and expensive department stores that surrounds them.  

Shamate's outré fashion choices reflect something much deeper: collective alienation, a byproduct of China's massive urban migration push and the country's widening class divide. While roughly half of China's 1.4 billion people live in cities, the consultancy McKinsey projects the number of urban residents to grow by more than 350 million in 2025; more than 240 million of those new additions will be migrants.

Following the Third Plenum, the latest Communist Party conclave, Chinese leaders indicated plans to address the enormous pressure such mass movement is expected to place on public services. But policy measures are unlikely to end the acute social displacement urban migrants experience. Unlike diaosi, Internet slang that roughly means "loser" but which China's middle class has re-appropriated as a self-deprecating joke, shamate is still an insult. The shamate fashion sense is not considered avant-garde or hipster, but rather cheap and kitsch, a sartorial representation of the group's awkward lives on the fringes of China's cities.

Of course, it's nothing new for a subculture to shock the general public with its unconventional fashion sense -- think Goths in the United States or Shibuya girls in Japan. Indeed, the shamate trend reportedly began as early as 1999 as a half-baked imitation of unorthodox getups donned by certain Japanese youth. But shamates face special challenges in China. Not only is conformity expected and education highly prized, but young migrants in cities are less likely to have the parental supervision or community support that would enable them to exit the underclass. That's partly why China's urban yuppies and educated elite -- overrepresented in popular micro-blogging platforms like Sina Weibo, film and book discussion communities like Douban, and social networks like Renren -- feel safe in mercilessly mocking shamate. 

In one viral blog post, a writer with the web handle Evil Cat Y describes spending a year "undercover" as a shamate. The post depicts a "highly organized" coterie where longtime members are given titles like "technology director" or "CEO." Serious shamate often try to outdo each other with thick makeup that might resemble a U.S. punk rocker, living by their noms de guerre like Ghost Monster or Leftover Tears. According to Evil Cat Y, women outnumber men, and often look for mates in online shamate groups.

The shamate phenomenon has grown large enough that its boundaries have blurred. For some members of the subculture, being a shamate is a part-time gig, an eccentric skin that can be willingly shed for job interviews or other formal occasions. But most casual observers are unlikely to make the fine distinction between a consummate shamate like Ghost Monster and a delivery boy with dyed hair -- they are both called shamate because they are both young migrants perceived to occupy a low rung on the social ladder.

The end result of this cumulative disdain is the widespread online shunning and jeering of shamate, remarkable in a country where Internet life has traditionally provided a haven for outcasts. Evil Cat Y observed that, because of cyber-bullying, serious shamate have "retreated" from China's major online communities to QQ Space, a social networking site comprising private groups popular in small cities, and have even imposed waiting periods or approval processes before admitting new members in order to sniff out harassers. As a result of their mockery and resultant seclusion, Shamate have become a silent group in China's normally noisy Internet discourse.

As China continues its relentless urbanization, alienation and displacement will continue to plague its growing migrant population. If these big-city migrants further disengage from mainstream society -- or fail to find meaningful ways to integrate -- the shamates' spiky hair and body piercings may no longer be a laughing matter to their neighbors. 

Fair Use/Shangdu.com

Tea Leaf Nation

Meet China's Jack Kerouac

Adventure traveler Zhang Xinyu has found fame online, inspiring a growing number of Chinese "wage slaves" to hit the road.

The portly Chinese man strolled through an open-air market, holding an AK-47 to his chest, surrounded by six gun-toting security guards. Under a crystal-blue sky sat a nightmarish urban scene: walls ridden by bullet holes, piles of garbage strewn on dirt roads, a gunshot or two ringing in the air. A 36 year-old entrepreneur from Beijing, Zhang Xinyu had spent most of 2012 traveling with his fiancée, Liang Hong. Mogadishu, the capital of war-ravaged Somalia, was his idea of a tourist destination.  

Zhang and Liang are among a growing number of Chinese who want to escape the rat race and see the world. The intense pressure of trying to get into the best school or pursuing a lucrative career has left many young Chinese hungry for freedom, romance, and adventure. Chafing under social expectations to hold down a stable job and save up to buy an apartment, they fantasize about traveling to exotic places and leaving work or school far behind. Perhaps that's why On the Road, a 15-part documentary about Zhang and Liang released in 2013, has received more than 100 million views on Youku, China's Youtube, with thousands of comments expressing encouragement and admiration.

While the vast majority of Chinese will never wander through a Somali marketplace, stories like Zhang's have stirred a sense of collective wanderlust. A group on Chinese community discussion site Douban called "Quit & Travel" has more than 200,000 members, its own iPad magazine, promotional video clip, and even a theme song, which urges followers to find "another self on the road, a self that is relaxed, free, and tolerant." Several popular comment threads on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, discuss the trend of traveling after "naked resignation," a newly-coined term referring to the practice of quitting work without lining up another job: On Weibo, the term has been mentioned almost 600,000 times. According to an infographic published by Sohu, one of China's largest Internet portals, almost half of more than 3,000 respondents to an online survey wanted to tender a naked resignation and then go traveling.

The desire to take a travel sabbatical has become so prevalent among white-collar urban Chinese that it's almost cliché. According to a viral tweet on Weibo, there are now four typical yuppie dreams: "Opening up a café in the city, quitting one's job to travel in Tibet, running a small inn in Lijiang, and biking to Lhasa." (Lijiang is a tourist town in southwest China; Lhasa is the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, a popular destination for well-heeled Chinese, despite the region's severe ethnic tensions.) One Internet user posted photos in July 2013 purporting to show a traffic jam of expensive mountain bikes on the Chengdu-to-Lhasa section of Route 318, a 1,300-mile road through remote regions at altitudes as high as 16,400 feet. "It's crowded like a street market," the user claimed.

But to many young Chinese struggling to find a job or support their families, a sabbatical seems like a luxury that only the fu'erdai -- "rich second generation," which refers to the children of the wealthy and connected -- can afford. One user commented on Weibo, "I have parents to support. I can't do a 'naked resignation' without a rich daddy." Another user cautioned against such seeming indulgence: Quitting to travel, she wrote, "is wasting your best years on frivolous pursuits, not a good idea unless you are prepared to be single forever and have no family to support and be responsible for."

Some are incredulous that Zhang and Liang have the courage to step so far out of the daily grind of working to pay for mortgages, child care, and parental care that bedevils so many Chinese in their 20s and 30s. But Zhang is a self-made man, who says he never went to university and never held a desk job. Instead, after a stint in the late 1990s as a mechanic and cook in the People's Liberation Army, he worked as a kebab peddler, a street sweeper, and even the manager of a public bathroom. Zhang earned his first million renminbi (approximately $125,000) in 2002 by making tofu machines and selling them to tofu merchants.

By the mid-2000s, Zhang and Liang were running a moderately successful jewelry-store franchise. At that point, "what I thought about all day was making money, buying a house, making more money, and buying a bigger house," Zhang says in On the Road. The turning point came in May 2008, when Zhang and Liang visited Sichuan province, immediately after a Richter-scale 8.0 earthquake devastated the area. They said they were deeply touched by the ephemerality of life, and "decided to follow their dreams." In 2012, Zhang and Liang put their careers on hold and started traveling to places like Mogadishu, Chernobyl, Oymyakon in Siberia (one of the coldest places on Earth), and the Marum volcano in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. They plan to get married at the South Pole.

Zhang's story is not the only one that has fired up China's collective imagination. A family from Yanzhou, a small city in Shandong province, made headlines in Oct. 2012 after they sold their apartment and took their eight-year old daughter out of school to sail the world in a $55,000 boat. China's media has reported on many anecdotes of young urbanites leaving their jobs to travel: One woman received breathless local media coverage for traveling around China in an RV in the fall of 2012. "Sometimes if you don't do what you really want to do now," the woman told the local newspaper Ningbo Daily, "you probably won't have a chance to do it later in life."

Sure, Ningbo isn't Mogadishu. But it's a start. 

Fair Use/Youku