China Books

Duncan Hewitt's Getting Rich First

American cover; courtesy of Duncan Hewitt

Just released in the US as a paperback by Pegasus Books, with a new foreword, under the title China - Getting Rich First: A modern social history, the book draws on Hewitt’s experience as a student in China in the 1980s, and as a journalist in Beijing and Shanghai for the BBC and Newsweek since the 1990s. Its varied themes include the upheavals caused by breakneck urbanization and welfare reforms, the modernization of China’s media, the growing pains of civil society and the problems faced by farmers and migrant workers. Interviewees range from a seven year old girl by the name of Ikea to a 90 year old Catholic bishop, via lifestyle designers, laid-off workers, gay activists and internet pioneers.

But its particular focus is on China’s young generation and the way in which they are changing the country. Hewitt talks to everyone from overworked students to avant-garde artists and teenage fans of Korean pop music, to provide an insight into how young people feel about the education system, social values, religion and ideology, the internet, family relationships and the sexual revolution. The extract selected here is from a chapter on young people called “The ‘me’ Generation,” and details the strange obsession of many young people in China with Cosplay, a Japanese-inspired youth cult which involves acting out stories from cartoons, computer games and other forms of animation…

The book can be purchased through Amazon. The UK edition of the book is also available on Amazon.

Getting Rich First extract; The 'me' generation

by Duncan Hewitt
British cover; courtesy of Duncan Hewitt

In the summer of 2005, while China’s leaders were busy promoting a campaign to remind people of the Communist Party’s leading role in society, fifteen-year-old Luna was sitting at a trestle table in a Shanghai exhibition hall, with a pair of furry rabbit ears attached to her head. Spread out in front of her was a selection of pictures of Japanese cartoon characters which she had drawn. A teenage boy in a bright pink wig and black eyeliner was leafing through them. Not far away Alan, a finance student, was presiding over a stall piled up with alarmingly real-looking metal swords. ‘Don’t worry, they’re not sharp,’ he said, reassuringly. Dramatic music swirled around the room. On a stage at the end of the hall a boy dressed all in black, with a cartoon-like spiky hairstyle, was waving a cardboard sickle above his head. In front of him, a woman in a leather catsuit and a red wig was doing battle with a white-faced young man with long grey hair. As she plunged her sword into his chest, the watching crowd sighed with admiration.

It was the third annual Shanghai Cartoon and Animation Expo, and more than a thousand young people had come, some from far away, to indulge their love not only of cartoons, but of Cosplay (‘costume play’), a type of performance invented in Japan, in which people dress up and act out stories involving their favourite characters from cartoons or computer games. Cosplay had first arrived in China a few years earlier, and was now sweeping through many of the big cities. Most of the stories were fantasies: romantic tales, gothic melodramas, science fiction. And like many of the teenagers taking part, Luna was an expert. ‘We all grew up with these things,’ she said; in fact, she added, she was the head of the animation society at her high school, and was hoping to go into film directing. Did she think many of the others here shared such ambitions, I wondered. ‘Definitely,’ she said, ‘lots of them want to be famous!’

Certainly many of the participants seemed keen to attract attention. There were luminous wigs and weapons of all kinds; girls in wedding dresses; broomsticks and surfboards; miniskirts and platform heels. There were vampish-looking women, and coy girls with cute blonde curls, wearing childlike clothes, who were known as ‘Lolitas’. One couple in their early twenties were dressed as a sinister-looking doctor and nurse, armed with a giant syringe and a metal claw hand. Many were waiting their turn to go onstage. It was a competitive business – the leaflet handed out to all participants in the event asked them to refrain from ‘loudly criticising other people just because they’re acting one of your favourite characters and you don’t like the way they’ve done their make-up’.

Some of the audience, aged twelve or thirteen, were there simply to watch in awe – though many of them had attached furry animals to their heads too, just to look the part. There were a few parents as well, with even younger children, looking slightly bewildered. One young student said the parents probably did not really understand what was going on, but they realised their children needed an outlet for their imagination. ‘I think parents know that kids now have more stress than in their time,’ she said. ‘They have to learn English from kindergarten, they have so much homework, and they don’t have much time to play.’ She was in the middle of helping a friend who was arranging a Japanese-style kimono on a rather embarrassed-looking fifteen-year-old boy. ‘It’s a girl’s costume,’ giggled the student. ‘We wanted to make him walk around dressed like this – he looks pretty cute, right?’ It was a playful, relaxed scene – one which would have been hard to imagine in China even a few years earlier. And walking round the exhibition hall, with its stalls where young people were busy selling each other home-made wigs or fans decorated with their own paintings, or signing up new members for their animation societies, it felt as though they had created their own little world where they could define the rules of behaviour – and their own identities too.

There were others for whom Cosplay had become even more of a way of life. One of the performers in Shanghai that summer was a twenty-three-year-old known as ‘Easy’, who had brought his Cosplay group with him from Guangzhou for the occasion. With their long black hair, black eyeliner and velvet jackets, they looked a little like a Glam Rock band of the 1970s; one girl was wearing a punky tartan miniskirt and a T-shirt with the word ‘Spunk’ written across it. Easy had been one of the first Cosplay performers in Guangzhou, and had no intention of giving up as he got older. ‘It’s a chance to make the most of your imagination,’ he explained. ‘You can put all your daily life, your problems and pressures, to one side and forget about everything, transform yourself into a different image.’ He grinned. ‘I call it the “psychological suicide cure”. Sometimes I’m Spiderman, sometimes I act the part of a girl – you can really feel it releases the pressure!’

Easy believed Cosplay was ideally suited to the new generation. ‘Young people now all like to express themselves,’ he said. ‘They want to show their creativity, to perform. They feel they have talent, but they may not have a chance to express their artistic abilities at school or college.’ In Guangzhou in particular, he said, Cosplay had become so popular that some of the city’s many roadside tailors now specialised in making costumes for the performers. Of course, not everyone approved. That was one reason why his website carried a warning that anyone not comfortable with, for example, homosexuality, should not enter. ‘You really do need to say that,’ he explained earnestly. ‘There are still people in China who can’t really accept this! For example, if I wear women’s clothes, in some inland parts of the country there are people who’ll think, “a transvestite, how disgusting!”’ The fact that so much of the content was inspired by Japanese cartoons could also be controversial, he added. ‘Once we took part in a competition organised by a TV company and we won first prize – but in the end the programme was never shown,’ he said. ‘It was a traditional Japanese story, so our clothes were very Japanese style. And someone must have looked at it and said, “What’s this – a bunch of Japanese people winning the competition, how can that be acceptable?”’

Still, it seemed that even the authorities were starting to realise that Cosplay was here to stay. The next time I met Easy he was working in the offices of the Guangzhou Youth Cultural Palace, the city’s official activity centre for young people, organising a cartoon and animation festival which was to take place during the next school holidays; some 50,000 people were expected to attend. ‘Now the government has recognised the power of the animation industry,’ said Easy, ‘so they basically support it.’ The city was even building what was described as ‘Asia’s biggest animation-themed shopping-mall’ just round the corner. This wasn’t to say, though, that there were no restrictions on performances in the Cosplay competition. ‘Pornographic or violent things are forbidden,’ said Easy, ‘so you’re not allowed to see any blood. We used to like using tomato ketchup,’ he added, ‘but the parents didn’t approve.’ It didn’t seem to have cramped his style too much, though. On my way out of the Youth Cultural Palace I passed a poster of the previous year’s Cosplay competition, which featured photographs of Easy and his group in action: Black-clad snipers in combat gear took aim from the stage with semi-automatic weapons, while Easy himself sprawled on the seat of a giant motorbike...

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