Neo-neo tribes in an imaginary post-affluent China

Punks, fatsos, cellphone stickers and bourgeois bohemians. In Beijing.

Published April 1, 2006 1:13AM (EST)

Did you know that punk music fans in Beijing are known as spiritual "fatsos"? Or at least they were in 2003, based on a pun on the similar sounding Mandarin Chinese words for "fat guests" and "punk." But in the swirling world of East Asian youth culture fads change almost as quickly as they can be capitalized on (or created) by marketers. Who knows what the neo-neo tribes in Chengdu are up to right now? Certainly not me, sitting in front of a computer in San Francisco.

But I want to know, because I just spent the last couple of hours reading a couple of fascinating papers by M.I.T. professor Jing Wang: "Youth Culture, Music, and Cellphone Branding in China" and "Bourgeois Bohemians in China? Neo-Tribes and the Urban Imaginary." Suddenly I need to know more, a lot more, about China's "cellphone sticker culture" and "the frantic tribalization of new taste cultures" in the clubbing and music scenes of the Chinese metropolises.

And all I originally wanted to know was how many cellphone users there are in China (400 million, at last count!). But that's the trouble with Google. You search for "Chinese cellphone market" and you end up in the world of cultural studies, pondering sentences like "China's young generations are courting the safe cool, a party-going esprit unattended by the kind of soul-searching sought by the proponents of the new European post-subcultural movement bent on repoliticizing youth cultures with a carnivalesque twist."

In the context of globalization and offshoring, we are apt to think of China, as Andrew Ross does in his new book "Fast Boat to China: Corporate Flight and the Consequences of Free Trade: Lessons From Shanghai," due out next week, as the world's biggest cheap-labor exploiting factory. Workers around the world quail at the thought of the hundreds of millions of unemployed or underemployed Chinese still waiting for their chance to labor for next to nothing.

But there's another China, a consumer China, simultaneously coexisting with that one. One in which millions of cellphone using teenagers are being marketed to by the full power of postmodern capitalism, to the point, as Jing Wang notes in a tone of amused amazement, that urban China is "overcrowded with social trends that usually emerge in post-affluent societies in the West." China, somehow, is both poor and rural and hip and urban on equally monumental scales.

One definition of the term "urban imaginary" holds it to be the manner in which "urban spaces are lived and experienced by way of accompanying meanings, pictures, and symbols." In "Bourgeois Bohemians in China? Neo-Tribes and the Urban Imaginary," Jing Wang tells the tale of how David Brooks' "Bobos in Paradise" became a best-seller in China, and spawned a whole marketing-to-Chinese-bobos craze. But in a country where, according to Wang, only a fraction of the total population can be considered middle class, there aren't really that many genuine bobos to market to. So people are marketed to on the basis of their aspiration to be bourgeois bohemians. The contemporaneous social critique of this phenomenon apparently resulted in quite the firestorm in the early years of this century.

"Gaps between the post-affluent urban imaginary and the social real continued to widen as the fights between scoiety commentators and social critics stormed on. This is probably quite a fascinating spectacle for Western trend spotters. But for the majority of Chinese for whom social classes conflict rather than blur, the urban imaginary closing in upon them seems to be spinning out of control. But then one might say, when is China not in crisis?"

I'm not thinking about China in the same way after reading these two papers. But I still don't have a clue as to the significance of cellphone sticker culture in the Middle Kingdom.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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