Tea Leaf Nation

Vanity Fail

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

Fair Use/Shangdu.com
Fair Use/Shangdu.com

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, Sham
ate 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. 

 Twitter: @rachel_tln

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