The East is Burning Red: A Shanghai Otaku Story

A great way to stave off industrial decay.

While most of NHRV attended Anime Expo, I was halfway across the world. I stepped out of my air-conditioned taxi into the sweltering heat of Shanghai’s exburbs. Facing me was a dusty old factory, recently converted into a small convention hall. A dozen or so itasha were parked outside the hall’s entrance. A few dozen fujoshi were lined up outside, complaining about wait times. I cut right in front of all of them, and flash a VIP pass. “Welcome to Comic Fantasia 1,” the PA announced. “We have received reports that the two people cosplaying as mother and child are actually thieves. Con-goers, please watch your belongings.

Cons, Cars and the CCP

This was the surrealist nightmare in which I now found myself. Braving the heat and the pickpockets, I browsed rows upon rows of doujinshi. There were few things worth looking at, and even the ones that had nice, beautiful covers were often significantly shoddier on the inside. Sure, there were artists there with real talent, but their doujin were exhorbitantly expensive, usually going over 100 RMB, a hefty sum in a country where lunch can be had for 5. To make matters worse, the books themselves lacked polish. A lack of good printing equipment was to blame. Colors were off, pages were askew and other printing errors marred the work of even the most talented of artists. Nevertheless, I have to credit Chinese otakus for their enthusiasm. More than 100 circles attended the market, and most of them were drawing material from the newest shows— Hanasaku Iroha and Madoka being fairly prevalent. Still, the quality of work on the show floor was generally low, and I had to keep both hands in my pockets for fear of cosplaying pickpockets.

Luckily, my solo expedition soon ended. I met up with two friends of mine, H and Q, who would serve as my guides into the strange world of the Chinese Otaku. As we walked through rows and rows of doujin circles, I saw a booth I hadn’t expected— Pixiv. Strangely, it was almost completely deserted. I thought people would have rushed to get their hands on Japanese goods.

“Heh, look at that,” Q quipped. “There’s only four people in line there. Pixiv’s probably going to be mad at us.”

“Oh yeah,” H said, “I heard we lied to them to get them here in the first place.” He then explained to me, “This con is happening for the first time, right? The organizers tried to get Pixiv to come, but they wouldn’t come without some proof of the con’s quality. So, the con organizers just took photos from another, more popular convention, and sent them over to Pixiv. They pretty much tricked Pixiv into coming.”

And now, no one was even lining up.

Passing the Pixiv booth, we walked outside into the sweltering summer heat to inspect some of the itasha parked outside. “This is a hobby for the wealthy,” said H. “There’s no way that normal people can afford cars, much less dress them up like this. That’s why you don’t see itasha clubs popping up in China yet.”

As he spoke, a small black Honda pulled up to us. It had Umineko decals on its hood, and Beatrice was painted on the doors. Apparently, the owner of the car was a friend of Q’s. We climbed into the car, escaping the brutal heat.

Inside, Q said to us, “Hey, I overheard a government official talking on the phone just now. He was saying, ‘These events are really nice! We don’t do this nearly often enough. I say we have one every week.'” Everyone groaned.

“Damn, once the government gets their hands on this, it’s all over,” said Q’s friend. “Every week? You shitting me?”

“It’s not good,” said Q. “All they care about is making money off of entrance fees. If we really did have a con every week, everyone would stop going. What about the doujin artists? They’d work themselves to death or lose motivation.”

“Why not just make these cons free? That way there’s no more incentive for the government to interfere.” I asked.

Q laughed. “This is China. If you tell people that there’s a free convention going on, everyone’s gonna come. People don’t give a shit what the convention’s about… so long as it’s free, they’ll be there. Can you imagine this hall filled with 20,000 randos milling about? How miserable would that be?”

I pictured 20,000 people, most of them not even remotely interested in anime, packed into a hall filled with doujinshi and other paraphernalia. That would be miserable.

“Are cons always this bad? I heard some announcement about cosplaying thieves when I walked in…” I said.

“Oh yeah,” said H. “I had a friend in a doujin circle who sold more than 2,300 RMB worth of stuff at a con… or so he thought.”

“What happened?”

“Turns out he was handed twenty-three fakes that day. Counterfeit currency. Didn’t make shit.”

Some of the goods... appropriately blurry.

Burger King Blues

Later that day, Q, H and I met our friend C at People’s Square, in downtown Shanghai. Being otaku, we all decided to get indoors as soon as possible and stay in one location as long as possible. We spotted a Burger King off Nanjing Rd. and decided to duck in to avoid the heat.

I was there to learn about the state of Chinese Otakudom, so I asked the three of them to tell me the most ridiculous story they had.

Q didn’t even hesitate. “You know how eroge and anime in Japan come with first-edition goodies? You know, fabric goods like dakimakura or bedsheets?”

“Yeah, go on?”

“Well, most Japanese companies are outsourcing those tasks to Chinese factories.” The image of an old Chinese factory owner handling dakimakura covers popped into my head. I laughed.

“Wait, that’s not all,” continued Q. “These Chinese factory inevitably tells the Japanese eroge companies that ‘one batch of goods didn’t pass quality inspection,’ and then keep that batch of perfectly usable goods for themselves.”

“And then?”

“And then they ebay them. Even before these goods are available in Japan. I knew a guy who got the Little Busters! bedsheet an entire month before the game even came out. Totally legit goods, too, not some pirated shit.”

Holy crap.

“But the best part is, these factory owners have no idea what any of this stuff is. If you look for a description of these items on ebay, they’re inevitably something like ‘Moe Blond Anime Girl Bedsheet’, or like ‘Cute Anime Girls Pillow Cover.’ So no one actually finds this stuff, and it goes for incredibly cheaply… like 9-20 RMB or so.”

This was huge. Dakimakura frequently go for around 50 dollars in the States.

“But wait,” I said, “Surely someone catches on to the cost difference?”

“Oh yeah,” laughed Q, “Get this. One of the factory owners hired some otaku as a ‘consultant.’ So now, all the characters on bedsheets and stuff are identified correctly, they get to make more money off of their illegally acquired goods, and we all suffer.”

C shook his head. “The anime scene in China’s awful. No one’s doing it out of love for the work anymore. They’re all just in it for cheap thrills.”

“How do you mean?”

“People just kind of look at the newest fad and hop on board. Look at Touhou. There aren’t many people in it anymore that actually like the series. Everyone just does it because it’s convenient.”

I knew how C felt. He was one of the most accomplished Touhou players in China. A real, old-school veteran.

“Plus,” he continued, “No one really’s in it for the long term. It’s make a book, fuck around, goodbye. It’s not sustainable. Doesn’t bring real talent or dedication.”

From the way these guys talked, it seemed the Chinese fandom wasn’t headed to a good place.

“Oh yeah,” H said, jumping in. “It’s so bad that Touhou fans aren’t even aware of Touhou, the actual series. They just cosplay whatever they find cute. If you ask them who they’re cosplaying, they generally have no idea.”

“Is there anyone left who does good work? What about translators?”

“Translators?” said Q. “Well, they’re fast… but most of the eroge translations we get here are just edited machine translations. Lots of mistakes. We’re not even talking about literary merit… we’re too far away from that stage.”

“See?” said C. “There you have it. The core of the problem is one of patience. No one’s patient anymore. Not the subbers, not the translators, not the fans themselves. Everyone just wants their stuff right now.”

“That’s why no one’s thinking about better ways to make doujin. No one really cares about that. They just want to get their name out there. Do something that’s popular or trendy. No one loves the work anymore. Why do you think there’s only 4 or 5 “professional” doujin artists in a country of 1.3 billion? People don’t care about that. They just want to hop onto the bandwagon as soon as they can.”

“Besides,” added Q, “what are fans going to do, anyways? Everyone who’s hardcore enough just ships their stuff in from Japan. Those that aren’t hardcore can’t tell the difference between good and bad. ‘You want to complain about translation quality? Fine. Don’t use translations, then. If you’re such a badass, go learn Japanese.’ That’s the kind of attitude that sub groups have.”

“And to make all of this worse,” said H, “There’s still the spectre of government censorship looming over everything. Japanese companies aren’t gonna come here so long as that’s around. You wanna buy ero doujin? You have to do it under the table.”

As silence fell upon the four of us, I looked up to see a group of Touhou cosplayers exiting Burger King. No doubt, they had just come from the same convention that we’d attended earlier in the day.

“Hey, look,” I overheard a couple saying. “The Shanghai Psychiatric Hospital’s taking a field trip.”

Damn it, at least they tried. At least someone’s trying. It’s better than nothing. It’s always better than nothing.

Still, China, you’ve got a long way to go.

8 Responses to “The East is Burning Red: A Shanghai Otaku Story”

  1. /eating popcorn furiously

    Go on…

  2. Your shit’s old. Go to Japan and anyone will tell you that the stuff’s been outsourced to China for ages. There’s also a huge reason why you can find tons of fake PVC figures in Hong Kong being sold for US$10; they all come from China.

    I’d say the problem isn’t about being an otaku in China — everything in China is like you’ve outlined below. My dad works there, and it’s all about the money, the business. That’s what everyone’s gone crazy for.

    At the same time, if you look back at history, like industrializing England, you’ll see a lot of frauds and the like. Basically, what’s happening in China is that the moral, legal, and social framework hasn’t caught up with the rapidly expanding economic sector.

    But of course you know this. Here’s something newer to discuss: How big is the market for animation and video sharing in China? It’s fucking huge. The Chinese are really looking toward using animation as a way to build internet business. The only problem is that the common person has no outside exposure yet in China: there’s still a lot of individuals who have misconceptions about the outside world. Take a look at education in China compared to Japan or South Korea.

    Anyway, back to the question I just asked. Japanese companies want in on the Chinese market. Even the “contents” oriented companies. The only problem is that no one knows what the hell they’re selling in China, partially because mainland Chinese are still relatively adverse to Japanese things. Hell, Japanese food just recently became popular in China, compared to its rise two decades ago in America. It’s mostly a matter of waiting for a new generation of more outward-looking Chinese. Give it one more generation, I say.

    That being said, Hong Kong otaku (whom I’ve met a lot of) are a completely different beast, along with Taiwanese. Entirely different story and background though.

  3. My Chinese Otaku can’t be this lonely

  4. Fascinating read. I just don’t know what to say other than “man, that sucks”. As Kylaran says though, things will hopefully get better with time.

  5. Honestly, it’s not even just anifandom… China is pretty messed up in general at the moment. It really needs to take a decade or so to settle down and piece its culture back together.

    But that was an interesting read. I’ve never managed to find a major otaku group on my visits back— only managed to find one decent store, and the owner pretty much agreed with your points.

  6. Yeah, for one, there’s still a bunch of anti-Japanese sentiment going around, even with people as relatively young as my parents. Look at any Chinese war film, and the Japanese are probably an enemy (actually, there are only three categories of Chinese war films: ancient China fighting China, WWII China fighting Japan, and People’s Republic of China fighting those guys).

    I’d say stuff but I only really have one thing to say – China’s not ready for this. China’s still developing. China doesn’t have the time or luxury to afford being otaku and weeaboo. Japan does, they’re completely industrialized now. We do, we’re completely industrialized. China isn’t. They still have a lot more to worry about before they can start having otaku.

    That said, as soon as China does start to have otaku… well, better start learning Chinese, cause I don’t think America has a sixth of the world’s population living in it :v

  7. Thanks for your comments. I understand that this is a pretty niche topic, so I’m glad to have found at least some readers.

    @Ky:

    The difference here (regarding fake PVC figurines) is that these goods are not fake. They’re the real thing.

    In terms of the market for animation and video sharing, I’d argue that it’s huge, but largely inaccessible for now. If you look at successful homegrown Chinese animation, most of it is still simplistic and flash-based. There’s not a huge demand for flashier animation, precisely because, like you pointed out, there are lots of individuals who have no exposure of the outside world.

    I wouldn’t say that mainland Chinese are adverse to Japanese things. It’s true that the flames of anti-Japanese fervor can be fanned every once in a while, but I’d say that the average Chinese, especially the urban youth (think first-tier cities, such as Shanghai, Tianjin, Beijing and Guangzhou), are very receptive to Japanese forms of entertainment. The new urban middle class is certainly more outward-looking than the last. As for “not knowing what the hell they’re selling in China,” I blame that on the business necessity of treating China as a singular market. If companies can segment and target specific demographics, and not just “the Chinese”, I’d bet that they would have much more success in pushing their goods, even with government censorship in place.

    @Aorii:

    China is indeed moving fast. However, because of that, people need entertainment even more. When you work every day from 9:30 to 7:30 with nearly no break (as I do), you’re pretty starved for something to take your mind off of work every day. I think that here is where anime, or any other form of entertainment, is necessary as a form of stress relief. It’s just unfortunate that this need for relief has been coupled with the extreme desire to acquire wealth quickly, which leads to a “one-shot to fame” mentality. This is clearly unsustainable, and needs to be changed ASAP.

    @Mushyrulez:
    Please look at my comment for Aorii; I respond to your claim that China “doesn’t have time to be otaku” there. As for your claims of anti-Japanese sentiment, I won’t deny that it’s still a fairly big part of “Chinese” culture, we must also be careful not to speak of China as a monolithic mass. After all, 1/5th of the world’s population can’t all hate Japan with equal intensity. You can look at my comment addressing Kylaran’s points for some more of my thoughts on anti-Japanese sentiments in China.

  8. Not to come across as overly enthusiastic in supporting China or something, but I don’t think we should judge a nation’s anime industry by one of its corrupt, greedy factories. China’s young citizens are gradually moving away from the anti-Japanese sentiments of the old post-WWII bloc of citizens.

    Something interesting about China’s anime industry is that they tend to have entire levels of shopping malls devoted to them. However, I must agree that there are plenty of people looking to make a quick buck. Several companies release their own ‘official goods’ , which are of lower quality than the originals. Others make counterfeits. Yet fan-made items can be found in bulkloads. Stuffs like doujins, et cetera. They also heavily translate many manga and artbooks.

    I understand that many people think that China is ‘messed up in general’. But, I believe that when people are able to examine China from multiple viewpoints, the future doesn’t seem quite as bleak.

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