“Shamate don’t understand the world, nor does the outside world understand shamate,” says director Li Yifan of the subject of his new documentary, a wildly controversial subculture that emerged in China in the late ’00s. His film, We Were Smart (杀马特, 我爱你), gives a rare look into the life and struggles of this group of marginalized, often poor rural youths through their own accounts. It has helped reopen old wounds and spark conversations around class and conformity, over a decade on from the vicious takedown that marked the end of the shamate movement.
Focused largely around rural migrant workers who’d travelled to China’s cities to get in on, and help power, the country’s economic boom, shamate was largely identified by its outlandish fashion sense, makeup and hairstyles. Spreading through dedicated online forums, the subculture’s name came from the Chinese transliteration for the word “smart” — “sha-ma-te.”
Li spent two years collecting 915 first-hand video recordings from former shamate members, as well as conducting full-length interviews with 78 of them. According to the director, almost all shamate participants were second-generation migrant kids who were born in the ’90s and hailed from underserved villages and towns.
In the documentary, one trend that emerges is that many of these young people were “left-behind children,” kids whose parents had taken jobs in major urban areas, leaving their offspring with grandparents at home in the village. Many talk of only seeing their parents on occasion, such as during the national Spring Festival holiday. Many of the interviewees also relay how they dropped out of school at a very early age and went to look for work themselves, often heading to manufacturing hubs on the basis of a vague lead or tip from a fellow villager.
Once there, the young migrant workers found themselves in unfamiliar surroundings and often in intense, exploitative working arrangements. In search of an outlet for pent-up tensions and a sense of belonging, they formed their own identity: shamate.
Public parks and roller rinks near these manufacturing hubs quickly became shamate strongholds. Groups of young people would gather in tight T-shirts and low-waist jeans, sporting hairstyles with varying levels of flamboyant colors and electric curls sticking out at different angles.
Looking like a mix of elements from US or European glam rock and visual kei from Japan, shamate style was intended to stand out — and it certainly did that. But this also made them a target for the mainstream.
While We Were Smart understandably spends plenty of time looking at the styles that made shamate what it was, it also digs into deeper societal issues. The documentary sheds light on how China’s vast economic transformation has been made possible by huge amounts of cheap (at best) labor, while also addressing the rural-urban divide that continues to be relevant in China today.
“Coming out [of our hometowns], there is only one choice, to go to work at a factory. There are no other choices,” says one of the film’s interviewees.
The youngest shamate member featured in the documentary started working at the age of 11. Factory owners often turned a blind eye to fake IDs and would regularly resort to intimidation and exploitative working practices according to the accounts of the people Li spoke to.
“I think my salary was like more than 8,000RMB [1,225USD] in total. I obtained an advance for a thousand, so I was still owed 7,000RMB,” begins one particularly painful anecdote from a worker regarding payday. “I asked my girlfriend at that time to wait for me in a hotel room. I told her we would go to my home together after getting the salary. I was really happy that day […] But my boss at that time was so cruel, [he cited a number of made-up penalties so] I got only 29RMB [4USD]. I went back to my girlfriend and cried. I think that girl is married now.”
Other figures in the film tell of how factories would treat new recruits to parties and meals during the first few weeks after their arrival, encouraging them to message friends back in their home villages and explain what a great time they were having. Once a new influx of workers arrived, the parties and meals abruptly stopped and they were put to work in often dangerous, unfailingly monotonous conditions.
“[The work] could be very boring, so we needed to give ourselves other choices,” says one interviewee. “Hair was one of them.”
“When I first left home, I could only feel relief by styling my hair, or by dressing up,” says another.
“It feels like you’re living in a cage. You don’t know what’s outside, you don’t know anything,” one of the founders of shamate, Luo Fuxing, says in the documentary of the conditions they endured. “So you made yourself hard and sharp, like a porcupine.”
“I first got to know shamate when my friend introduced me to it around 2012, when the internet had already started to troll them and fight against their aesthetics,” says Li, whose previous films Before the Flood (淹没) and Village Archive: Longwangcun 2006 Video Files (乡村档案：龙王村2006影像文件) have also examined the state of the Chinese countryside. “My understanding of them was totally different at the time. I thought those groups of young people who had the lowest socioeconomic status in society were deliberately opposing the mainstream through this form of counterculture. But they were not really against the mainstream, they were using exaggerated fashion as a self-defensive mechanism.”
Shamate may not have been against the mainstream, but the mainstream was certainly against them. The film details how members of shamate communities were not just shunned by non-members, but how their safe spaces were actively invaded and its participants relentlessly targeted.
Labeled as “underclass style” and “vulgar,” shamate members were subjected to regular attacks. Thanks to their blue-collar status and underprivileged rural backgrounds, shamate were seen as socially unacceptable, and went from being the butt of jokes to being deeply despised.
“Shamate is not really a subculture,” says Li. “For average subcultures, you can at least read things about them. But there’s very little about what shamate and their lives were really like back then; people don’t want to understand them.”
Li also feels that “the lack of commercial values in shamate was one of the reasons that people didn’t like it,” highlighting the irony that many shamate members were responsible for helping drive the economic growth that benefitted the communities calling them out.
Fast forward to today, and the urban-rural tensions that shamate exposed still exist, and in some cases have even deepened. “I feel the elite culture from the city is becoming increasingly delicate, and more intolerant to stuff that is on the opposite side, such as things that are boorish,” says Li.
This may help explain why the release of We Were Smart has struck a chord. More than a decade on from the death of shamate, the term began trending again on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo in recent weeks, thanks to the film.
One user left a passionate comment, “As a former post-’90s migrant worker, I had mixed feelings after watching the film. The lives of lower-class workers that are without material and spiritual living, their fragility when facing all kinds of risks and hardship is quite dramatic. But for media whose main target audience is city dwellers, they are not newsworthy, nor are they being paid attention to or understood by the mainstream. They could only create this era together with us, in a quiet fashion.”
Li, who was raised on the outskirts of southwestern megapolis Chongqing and is now a teacher at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in the city, is happy to see the documentary bringing such debates into the mainstream. “I am very anxious. I have seen this divide and problem. I want others to see it as well,” he says. “I want people to know what Chinese society looks like. It is like the divide between coasts and mid-west in the US. The arguments nowadays are all centered on stands and attitudes. People are arguing over certain words. But do people actually know what Chinese society looks like?”
Ultimately, We Were Smart is a poignant, important look at an oft-overlooked section of the incredibly diverse mosaic that is Chinese society.
“Filming the topic of shamate not presents the rarely revealed spiritual world of migrant workers, but also brings forward the discussion of aesthetic freedom,” says Li.
And as shamate pioneer Luo says in the film, “Aesthetic freedom is the beginning of all freedom.”
WHERE TO WATCH We Were Smart will screen on RADII’s YouTube channel from 6PM on January 8 China time for 36 hours only.
All images courtesy Li Yifan.
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