They’re paid £11,000 a month to film themselves eating and chatting, while millions tune in. Introducing the phenomenon of China's live-streaming stars
Words by Yuan Ren
Xiao Qiao, a 20-year-old dancer and model from Hubei province in China, live-streams herself singing and dancing from her bedroom six to eight hours a day. She has over 1 million followers on YY.com, one of the biggest live-streaming platforms in China – a billion-dollar entertainment industry. Qiao’s main vocation is dancing, but her show is actually a mix of content. ‘Viewers can pick the songs they like and I’ll dance once an hour,’ she says. ‘The rest of the time, I talk to them on my computer.’
Live ‘shows’, such as the one that Qiao puts on from home, have become huge in China. So much so that they’ve been hailed as ‘the future of TV’. Women make up about 80 per cent of live streamers, or ‘hosts’‚ whereas 70 per cent of viewers are male, mainly aged between 22 and 32. ‘Many of them have a lot of money, but feel hollow. They just want someone to have a chat with,’ says Qiao.
From singing and dancing to scorpion eating, an array of content is available across over 150 live-streaming platforms in China. Some are specifically dedicated to ‘pretty women’, where all the hosts are predictably female. Similar sites with young men – or ‘fresh flesh’– also exist, but aren’t as popular. There’s no age limit for hosting, but with more than 300 million registered users and thousands going ‘live’ at any one time, China’s censors are keeping a tight grip. Last year, they even banned the consumption of bananas on air, such was the popularity of girls suggestively eating the fruit.
But there’s a lot more to the craze than just watching a show. Host-viewer interaction is integral. While hosts are on air, viewers’ messages flood in through live chats and are responded to in real time. Fans can also send virtual gifts (like cruise ships or planes) bought with e-coins, some costing hundreds of pounds. For many popular hosts, these provide a good income, along with brands that pay for them to wear and talk about their products. Qiao, who live streams herself eating, walking around her home and chatting about everyday things, earns around 100,000 yuan (about £11,800) a month through e-gifts: ‘Older guys spend more,’ she reveals. ‘Younger men less, but they might send a higher number of presents.’
Qiao says she is friends with many fans on social media. But her family worry about her safety, as some viewers can verge on the inappropriate, so she rarely tells those outside her friendship circle about her job.
Fellow streamer Nana English, 28, is similarly cautious. Since launching as a host teaching English in January 2016, she has gained over 250,000 followers with a simple set-up: her and a white board. Her expenses are low, but what she makes from viewers gives her a comfortable life. Some of her ‘English lessons’ attract 50,000 viewers. Nana English is not a conventional teacher, though. Her lessons are delivered in a provocative, coquettish voice and are a huge hit with male university students. ‘They want to improve their English, but often think lessons are too expensive,’ she says. While English doesn’t charge anything, many students send her e-gifts to ‘pay their fees’. It’s not unusual for her to be given a few thousand yuan (a few hundred pounds) in one go.
Admittedly, not everyone who watches her live-streaming show is interested in learning, and she’s OK with that. ‘I get daily love letters,’ she says. ‘But it’s not about that. I’m smart, offering a service and being paid. I work from home doing a job I love. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.’