In her apartment in the southwestern city of Chengdu, singer Shen Man carefully applies a set of false eyelashes, gives her eyeliner a final touch-up, then sits in front of her webcam and mic.
“Good evening, everyone!” she says, sounding bubbly and energetic. “Have you eaten? Love you. Kiss kiss. Welcome to Showroom 2391.”
Between songs, Shen keeps up a rapid-fire patter in a two-hour show streamed to fans who are watching live from all over China on their mobile phones, paying to send her virtual rings, money, lollipops and other gifts. She splits this revenue with her host live-stream platform, reportedly earning about half a million dollars a year.
Shen is one of China’s new live-streaming stars who agreed to have their lives documented by techie-turned-filmmaker Hao Wu from 2014, just as the craze was taking off (paywall). The result is the documentary People’s Republic of Desire, which juxtaposes Wu’s footage of the live-streamers and fans offline with special effects to mimic the hyper-interactive feel of the comments and virtual gifts that continually pop up on the screen.
The film premiered at SXSW in Austin in March, and quickly drew comparison to the dark sci-fi series Black Mirror (Wu is a fan). It opens in US theaters today (Nov. 30). The industry it depicts now earns an estimated $4.4 billion in revenue across hundreds of live-streaming apps. Around 17% of all people in China (video) have watched a video on one.
Wu’s documentary explores the way in which hierarchies that have developed in the world of live-streaming—between the stars, their rich patrons, and the masses of diaosi or “loser” fans—mirror inequalities in China’s offline economy.
“I feel like live-streaming is a mirror to a lot of people desires that are unmet in real life,’ Wu says. “A lot of the poor diaosi, they have no status in real life… If they are willing to spend just a little bit of money people will notice them. The live-streamers will notice them and call out their names.”
The term diaosi has been around for several years, used by young Chinese to mock themselves for not achieving the traditional markers of success, like having a home, well-paying job, or good-looking partner. Critics of the term note that it’s sometimes used by relatively well-off urban young people—rendering invisible (pdf) the masses of people who power China’s economy without fully sharing in the wealth that has resulted.
In the movie, the diaosi fan is represented by young men (and sometimes young women) who sleep five or six to a room, work in factories, make deliveries, or do other difficult and low-paying jobs. Eighteen-year-old Xiao Yong is an admirer of Big Li, a male idol featured in the documentary who appeals to fans “who want a male buddy,” says Wu. “He plays the camaraderie card.”
Xiao splits a room lined with bunk beds with other workers, and earns $400 a month doing delivery jobs and serving drinks. He tells Wu his mother died when he was little, and his father remarried. “I was raised by my grandpa and grew up all alone,” says Xiao. “I feel very lonely.”
“Diaosis flock to live streaming because they are lonely, they want to connect with someone (even if only virtually), and they fantasize about wealth,” Wu wrote for Slate while he was still making the film. “There, they can watch their idols’ online shows for free, worship or lust after them, and chat with other like-minded lonely fans in real time.”
The connection with Big Li is also a way to participate vicariously in the enormous good fortune that has blessed someone who’s not so different from Xiao. As a young female fan of Shen’s, wearing a shirt with her idol’s face on it, tells Wu, “She can achieve everything I can’t. So awesome.”
Yet, while the diaosi fans are nobodies, they do have the power, as a group, to lift up stars out of obscurity—and bring them down again. And even though they don’t earn a lot, they still spend on their idols—though nowhere as much as a tuhao.
The term generally means “nouveau riche” but in the context of live-streaming refers to the rich patrons whose tips can make an idol really wealthy, while also drawing praise and attention from the army of run-of-the-mill fans.
Only one tuhao appears in the film, Songge, and he’s quite mysterious about what he does. Wu says that tuhao were the hardest participants to capture for the film. One reason for the caginess may be the source of their wealth: they are likely princelings of one kind or another, the children of wealthy entrepreneurs or of political officials. Wu suspects their families have no idea just how much they’re spending in live-streaming rooms on their favorite hosts.
Tuhao spend a lot—and expect a lot in return, for example, phone calls with Shen and dates. Wu estimates that tuhao fans account for 80% of a star’s earnings, while regular fans account for the other 20%.
Originally, Wu wanted to follow unknown people—diaosis themselves—on their way to stardom. “Very quickly I realized so many people are jumping in but very few of them will last long… this is a very competitive space,” says Wu. “I decided in two months, okay, I can’t be following some newcomers.”
He approached popular live-streaming platform YY.com, which was founded in 2005 as a gaming portal, and listed in the US in 2012, and began spending time with their more popular hosts (the portal now has more than 100 million monthly active users). Eventually, he was drawn to Big Li and Shen for the way their personal stories reflected the themes of China’s changing economy. He filmed them actively between June 2014 and December 2015, and then checked back in every few months during the two-year editing process.
Shen, for example, like so many young children, was left behind in her village when her parents went to the city to find work. Her mother never returned, a fact that haunts Shen. Before she became a live-streamer, she was a nurse, earning just 2,000 yuan a month (less than $300).
Meanwhile Bi Li, whom we first meet wearing a gold-sequined jacket, came to the city as a migrant at the age of 16, doing construction work with his father. He also worked as a security guard at a Beijing hotel before he transformed into a popular comedian and singer making $60,000 a month.
“Thanks for giving me everything in the last three years,” Big Li, who says he is 25 in the film, tells his fans at one point. “A car, a house, a kid, and a family.”
Shen, by 21, is the main earner for her family, an enormous source of stress, she admits. Her father lives with her, and claims to be okay that Shen is on the receiving end of a constant stream of insults from sexist trolls and sexual overtures from rich patrons. (At one point, she parries a joke about her figure by saying her breasts are in need of development help, “just like China’s real estate.”) His main worry, now, is that she not lose her perch and tumble back into obscurity.
That’s a fear that Wu illustrates for both stars in the film through an annual YY.com-hosted idol competition for the No. 1 spot, determined by how much fans spend. The competition provides some of the movie’s most haunting moments, because it becomes clear that even beloved idols have to live with the fear that luck and fans may desert them at any moment—and they too, can become diaosi again.