When I first arrived at McGill, I was eager to make friends and answer all perfunctory introductory questions—what I study, where I come from, and what residence I live in. However, there was one fact I was always afraid to confess: I was a huge fan of TFBoys, the most popular idol group in China, for two years.
In Asian culture, the term ‘idol’ has evolved beyond the Western understanding of the word. Trained by talent agencies, idols are young celebrities who sing, dance, or act but don’t necessarily have any natural talent in any of these areas. Rather, they are commonly reduced to ‘fresh meat’ with pretty faces.
I became a fan of TFBoys during my final year of high school. With my university entrance exams approaching, I was stressed out and spending countless hours studying. One day, I decided to relax and logged onto Weibo, the largest Chinese social media platform, where I often wasted my time. I noticed a video with thousands of comments: It was a self-produced web series starring Karry Wang and Roy Wang from TFBoys, and I was intrigued.
I didn’t fall for TFBoys immediately. At first, I saw no difference between them and the other idols, who I considered shallow and talentless. That was until I found ‘Karroy,’ a portmanteau created by fans that ship the duo, in the top trending list. Driven by curiosity, I clicked on the link, and a whole new world opened up to me. I started to follow everything about the idol group, who had just made their debut. I was captivated by the songs they covered even though their music wasn’t even that good. Their interactions in blooper reels made my heart flutter and believe that their ‘bromance’ was real. Their unvarnished performances and everyday clothes gave me the false impression that they were not distant stars but my close friends. They were ‘fostered idols,’ meaning that their fans witnessed and engaged heavily in their growth and success. Obsessed with the sense of achievement that fans often feel in helping their idols ascend to fame, I felt increasingly dissatisfied with the limited content on their official accounts and joined the fandom.
Fandoms on Weibo are the most developed, sophisticated, and, yet, eccentric online communities that I have ever encountered. The TFBoys’s fandom was similar to a disciplined army—hierarchical, with proper divisions of labour. The Weibo fandom comprised an entire marketing and production team; some voted for them in various choice awards, others compulsively replayed the group’s songs in hopes of increasing their rankings on major record charts, and many produced fan art. Some of them went as far as creating alternate accounts to up-vote positive comments on TFBoys’s videos, while others kept retweeting their posts to boost their popularity. Fans devoted themselves to supporting their idols like it was their full-time job—without pay. Although I enjoyed the sense of belonging, I did not devote myself to any of these activities, as I was afraid that they would quickly wear down my passion. Still, I read fan-fiction, watched fan-made video clips, and ‘wasted’ my time on my seemingly-useless affection instead of studying.
After my exams were finally over, I got a chance to meet TFBoys before leaving for my undergraduate studies in Canada. I was seated in the front row of a variety show, certainly the climax of my fangirl career. Surprisingly, over the course of my time at university, I found that the magic surrounding them faded away. Perhaps, it was because the idols had offered an escape from reality, whereas my daily life in university was fulfilling. But, their numerous followers on social media are clear evidence that they remain mesmerizing for many. Thanks to TFBoys, I learned video-editing skills and formed lifelong friendships that continue even now that our admiration worn away. And I’m not ashamed to admit my past identity as their fangirl anymore.