S01 Episode 1: China’s First Listeners / Rich Kids English Police
A new type of China Tinder Guy appears + meme page alignment charts + dongbei humblebrag
[In the house this week: Caiwei, Tianyu, Yan, Yi-Ling, Krish, Jaime, Ting, Henry, and Simon]
Krish: Hi! Welcome to the very first episode of Chaoyang Trap.
We're a newsletter about everyday life on the Chinese internet, with an interest in marginal subcultures, tiny obsessions, and unexpected connections. You can read more about why we started this here.
Tianyu: Our subscriber count shot past any of our wildest predictions. To everyone who signed up, shared, and left feedback—thank you!
Krish: In this episode, we look at how two popular mediums are creating curious subcultures at their fringes.
Caiwei finds the “first listeners” gathering at the edges of China’s podcast scene, and Tianyu learns about the “tree hollows” sprouting unexpected communities around popular Instagram meme pages like Rich Kids English Police.
We start, in character, by talking about types of Tinder Guys.
By Caiwei Chen
Caiwei: Podcasting is having a moment in China. In 2021, it’s not unusual to find “podcast lover” as a profile tag on Beijing Tinder—a result of the medium’s recent popularity. “Podcast lover” has now entered the hallowed lexicon of China Tinder Guys, joining such legends as “travel enthusiast,” “gym fanatic,” “crypto nerd,” and “cat owner.”
I was an avid Chinese-language podcast listener for three years before I started my own. In early 2018, a few sharp and witty women I followed on Weibo started Loud Murmurs (小声喧哗), a show that later introduced me to a whole new world. There was a strong “pirate radio” vibe to these early Chinese podcasts: emo philosophy guru Li Houchen’s FlipRadio(翻转电台), foreign correspondents Du Chen and Xu Tao’s East to West (声东击西), and tech writer Lawrence Li’s Yitian Shijie(一天世界) . At the time, podcasts were a “supplementary” medium—a niche to park your more experimental ideas in.
Calling yourself a Chinese-language “podcast lover” would not have made sense in 2018. There just wasn’t enough out there. But last year’s lockdown saw a huge surge in both creators and listeners.
Yan: In addition to the ones Caiwei has mentioned, there’s the popular Gushi FM (故事FM) and BB Park (日谈公园) podcasts that blew up starting 2018. Parallel to the lockdown podcasting boom in 2020, a show called Surplus Value (剩余价值) got taken down for an episode discussing the pandemic. They then rebranded as Stochastic Volatility (随机波动) and gained a huge following.
Tianyu: A precursor—the program that introduced me to the podcast world—was the tech podcast Youdeliao (友的聊播客), which started as an online radio station about BlackBerry phones in 2011.
Caiwei: I launched my podcast on the first day of 2021. When my trailer episode went online, I remember anxiously switching between every podcasting app to check for feedback. I lingered on Xiaoyuzhou FM (小宇宙), known as the most newbie-friendly podcasting app because of its sense of community. In the comments section, I saw one familiar name pop up: 七个梦 (qi ge meng, “Se7enDreams''). “I’m here for support,” he commented in Chinese, just a few hours after the episode dropped. He became one of my first subscribers.
I don’t know Se7enDreams personally, but he’s instantly recognizable in China’s podcasting scene. On Weibo, he’s known for his “podcasting notes,” which contain daily short reviews of recent podcast episodes. A living encyclopedia of Chinese podcasts, he calls himself an “omnivore podcast lover,” because there’s almost no genre that he does not listen to.
Investment advice, wuxia deep-dives, marketing insights, urban love stories—nothing escapes Se7enDream’s notice. From established prestige shows to emerging ones, he follows over 1,000 podcasts and has clocked over 3,500 hours on Xiaoyuzhou FM alone, an app launched barely a year ago. He is also one of the first advocates of the “podfaster lifestyle,” i.e. listening to each show at 1.5x playback speed (or higher).
“Listening to podcasts is like drawing blind from a box,” goes a recent Se7enDreams Weibo post. To a hardcore listener like him who leads a #PodcastLife, the Chinese podcasting world is indeed a box of chocolates, you just never know what you are gonna get. The box also keeps becoming larger, with a richer variety of chocolates in all shapes and sizes.
Krish: Podcasting Any% noskip? The only other genre of cultural consumption I can compare this to is video game speedrunning.
Ting: I’m also thinking about how it’s common for people on the Chinese internet to call themselves “美剧爱好者” (American TV show lover). What leads to a medium (versus a genre of content) being the basis of identity?
Henry: For some, what we’d consider “mediums” ARE genres in the narrow sense, like being into “k-dramas” without differentiating between romance and historical dramas.
Caiwei: When my second episode dropped, he appeared again. “来了,” he commented (“omw”), only minutes after the episode was online. He leaves a stream of feedback as he listens, marking time stamps in his post. He has another important mission: cuigeng (催更), a term used by avid fans to urge the creators of their favorite shows to put out new content.
For any content creator, having an attentive audience, generous with their feedback, is a blessing. And thanks to Se7enDreams, I became part of this lucky bunch. “First listeners'' like him are now a central part of what keeps Chinese podcasting moving. Through Weibo's hashtag “podcast recommendations” (播客推荐) and a namesake WeChat group, hundreds of podcast lovers (and some creators) practice a similar routine. They rush to the podcasts they love to show support. They scramble to new podcasts to “mark” their presence. They keep a log of their listening history to share in the community. They cuigeng creators for new content. They tend to the blooming podcasting scene with infinite tenderness, patience and care.
I was struck by the originality and vitality in these communities. In the WeChat group, anyone can share their favorite new episodes with a simple message, then a voluntary coordinator congregates entries into a daily, public Weibo post. On Jike (即刻, roughly a Reddit-Facebook hybrid), the kindness and heartfelt compliments are amplified through the popular hashtag #一起听播客 (“let’s listen to podcasts together”).
Although relatively mainstream, there’s a unique indie spirit in podcasting that is rare in other Chinese-language media formats.
A lot of podcasters pride themselves on their deviation from traditional media. Chen Hengyi, curator of the newsletter 推播助栏 The Podcast Pick and a die-hard podcast lover himself, told me, “Podcasts are a different format because of the intimacy they cultivate.” Thanks to the conversational and critique-heavy tradition some pioneer shows established, most Chinese podcasts skew informational and intellectually stimulating rather than “hang-out chatty.” “Over time,” Chen says, “it is just natural to develop feelings and special love for this format that seems to belong to you.”
I think I understand the first listeners. They are witness to a fading sense of individuality in Chinese media, and they’re intervening. They are doing their part to create a more diverse opinion sphere, tending a garden that can bloom full of surprising encounters.
So maybe, after all, placing Tinder and podcasting side by side makes sense: both are about finding birds of the same feather and flocking together, about wanting to express, connect and belong.
Yan: In a highly controlled media environment, podcasts can feel more direct. Unmediated.
A journalist and filmmaker called Ashley Jiang started OutChina Radio, a podcast about LGBTQ culture in China, in April 2020. In her first episode, she said she listened to a lot of podcasts during lockdown. "Like many people, the pandemic has severely affected my mental health... and I found podcasts a format that's intimate and offers more companionship than video."
Yi-Ling: Why does audio as a medium cultivate intimacy? Why might that particular form of intimacy be even more rare and fragile in China? I can’t help but think of the short-lived heyday of Clubhouse—how the human voice somehow created a sense of safety and belonging, even if participants were not as cocooned from the outside world as they imagined.
Simon: I think podcasts can oddly be like sitcoms in a way. They can project this sense of friends coming together to have the funniest conversation ever. The pace of life in big Chinese cities makes it hard enough to see friends, and though many of the pandemic restrictions have eased, the craving for this sense of connection isn’t going away anytime soon.
Krish: That theme of "belonging" within a medium extends to our second story this week, which asks: “What if memes were therapy?”
By Tianyu Fang
Tianyu: @richkids_english_police started as a private meme stash in late 2016.
The Nanjing native Xiao Hong—not his real name—was a history student in the United States when he opened the popular Instagram page that now has 163,000 followers. It is dedicated to exposing funny, awkward English (or Chinglish) mistranslations. If you’ve never heard of it, here’s what their posts look like:
“My friends at New York University often showed me the social media pages of their friends, who were international students living lives of debauchery,” Xiao Hong tells me. “These posts often included pretentious photos combined with [grammatically incorrect or mistranslated] English text.” One July 2017 post is a screenshot of an Instagram update. A late-night selfie, face lit by a smartphone screen. Caption reads: “I was courting sheep all night.”
Xiao Hong would sometimes joke about these posts (mostly from WeChat Moments and Instagram) in private, but eventually he’d collected so many of them that he could post daily for years.
Krish: The classic “dank stash” to “based page” pipeline.
Yi-Ling: Reminds me of “Versailles Literature” (凡尔赛文学) - the rise of the online flex and humblebrag—and richkids_english_police is the Robespierre out to axe all the Marie Antoinettes of rich Chinese students.
Tianyu: Instagram was the perfect place for it. In the U.S., teenage Instagrammers have made reposting memes a profitable industry, though Instagram has been trying to take them down.
You have to be literate in both Chinese- and English-language internet cultures to understand the humor of @richkids_english_police. Instagram is blocked in the People’s Republic, so its Chinese user base is mostly bilingual, bicultural youths living overseas. “Chinese people who are not familiar with foreign contexts may not get what is so awkward about these people’s imitations,” Xiao Hong says.
In the early days, he gained fame on Weibo, where influencers shared screenshots of his posts—which in turn boosted his follower count from a few thousand to 50,000. Its content is crowdsourced: tag the handle for a repost, or just slide quietly into their DMs. Though some of his content originally comes from Chinese social media platforms, many are (crowdsourced) “originals” which get shared back to Weibo or Douban as screenshots.
Other Chinese meme accounts emerged during the pandemic. There’s @dongbeicantbefuckedwith (31.9k followers), which (among other things) jokes about northeastern Chinese culture (hence the dongbei in the handle; it’s where you’d find the hometown of the owner, a film student in the U.S.).
Krish: Also Tianyu’s hometown, fyi.
Tianyu: It’s true. I, too, cannot be fucked with.
Yi-Ling: To add to the stereotype: dongbei is also the center of tu (土)—an aesthetic of tacky, rustic excess. The runt of Chinese provinces, in contrast to its booming southern siblings. The "Rust Belt" of China. People are characterized as loud, uncouth and wonderfully, refreshingly frank. (Source: my dongbei father.)
Tianyu: Inspired by @richkids_english_police and @dongbeicantbefuckedwith, W, a college student in the U.S., started @dailydoseofmemesforyall (11.5k followers) sometime between March and April of 2020. At first, W casually shared memes she found elsewhere and wasn’t expecting many followers.
Those followers, mostly Chinese expatriates, began to message W to share stories—some happy, others tragic. W tells me that some followers took her account as a shudong (树洞) or “tree hollow,” referring to Weibo accounts where depressed Chinese youths whisper secrets to the warm digital embrace of strangers. “Many people would DM me, telling me I’m their source of happiness,” W says. It motivated her to continue maintaining the page.
Xiao Hong also uses Instagram’s Q&A function, inviting followers to share their stories. One couldn’t get a ticket home on the passing of a family member in China during the pandemic; another had to break up with their partner living in a different country. Many talked about racial violence they’ve experienced in the West and the homesickness of living abroad.
In a way, the walls of this space—built out of alienation abroad and censorship at home—have fostered a safe environment for a community of young, globalized Chinese. But I couldn’t help but notice that, while satirizing super-rich fu’erdai showing off their extravagant, kitsch lives in Manhattan’s high rises, these bicultural meme pages on Instagram at times deride those without a Western education or middle-class comfort. Among those featured (and mocked) are assembly line workers in Guangdong wearing shanzhai Louis Vuitton shirts, migrant workers in the service industry blundering English pronunciations, and others struggling to survive the cruelties of China’s globalization.
Tianyu: I’m often amused by the cringeworthy Tinder profiles, machine-translation failures, and political satire, but I cannot deny my sense of discomfort at some of the content. These meme pages also poke fun at videos on Chinese platforms—the wanghong wannabes from underprivileged backgrounds, English teachers with an accent, or tu (earthy) Kuaishou skits that many in China actually enjoy, appreciate, and relate to.
Many of the people I grew up with never had the resources to become fluent in another language or culture, and when I first moved to America I struggled with the language, too. The occasional elitism and condescension towards “underclass” cultures—and the casual appropriation thereof—have made the titters less charitable.
Rural or urban, migrant or local, “earthy” or international; subcultures, at the end of the day, emerge from these deepening chasms of contemporary China, the ever increasing divides between Kuaishou and Instagram.
Krish: I resonate so much with this “discomfort” because I’m reminded of r/IndianPeopleFacebook (one of the engines that drove the viral “friendship ended” meme), which I obsessed over when it was first popular, then distressed over once its form settled into consistent class-shaming and punch-down humour. I think a lot about what kind of subculture can emerge from this genre of ironic absurdism, and India’s recent history of meme pages offers a dark answer: only extremist, voyeuristic, fractured ones.
Caiwei: There is a fine line between revealing the absurdity of unnecessary English use in everyday Chinese life and perpetuating a hegemony where being able to discern the “right way” to use English gets people on their high horse (#NormalizeChinglish). There’s just something tragic about the constant cringe-worthy misuse of English on the Chinese web: people still feel only English “counts” in so many situations, leading to the language being reduced while falsely inflated at the same time.
Henry: If things go the same way as Japanese, Chinglish terms could “assimilate” and become pseudo-anglicisms, which are perfectly acceptable/standard, though unintelligible to anglophones.
Krish: It’s interesting to think of these meme pages as a kind of pre-emptive “gentrification” of China Instagram. There was a similar dynamic with the shamate subculture in southern China. These were migrant workers that found solace from their brutal work life by adopting elaborate, colorful hair styles. They were mercilessly mocked … muscled out of their social media havens by urban elites sneering at their styles, making them objects of scorn and parody.
Yan: To build on Krish’s shamate example, when @richkids_english_police makes punch-down jokes, they are not too different from the live-streamers who picked on shamate styles purely for clicks and profit on Kuaishou. The difference here is that the people being mocked cannot even see it.
Tianyu: That’s it for episode 1! If you enjoyed this, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription, or forward it to a friend by hitting the shiny button below! Every fourth episode will be for paying subscribers only, and all of our revenue will go towards paying contributors on time and supporting writers. We also welcome feedback, story ideas, and cute animal GIFs via email (chaoyangtraphouse [at] gmail.com) or Twitter (@ChaoyangTrap).
Krish: Next time: “advanced lesbianism,” and the story behind this escalation:
Outro music this week is the gritty Beijing blues of Eight Immortals Restaurant (八仙饭店). This song is from their Jan 2021 debut EP, the fittingly named Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
Tianyu Fang is a writer who grew up in Beijing. He spends most of his free time eating Lanzhou beef noodles and subtweeting.
Krish Raghav is a comic-book artist in Beijing. He was once the mod for a big Final Fantasy VII forum. He has never played Final Fantasy VII.
Jaime (bot) is a critic and translator in Beijing who lives in Dongcheng and works in Chaoyang. She is also a contributing editor at Spike.
Caiwei Chen is a writer, journalist and podcaster. She cooks with boxed ingredients but tries to finish all her dishes with a gourmet touch.
Ting Lin is a Beijing-based writer from Guangzhou. She believes in Nanyue supremacy.
Simon Frank is a writer, translator, and musician in Beijing. He is embarrassed to say he is a DJ, but is, in fact, also a DJ.
Yi-Ling Liu is a writer in Beijing. She likes to wall-dance—both online and at the climbing gym.
Henry Zhang is a writer and translator who has often crashed his scooter in Chaoyang.