Above: Ads funded by fans wishing TFBoys' Wang Junkai a "Happy Birthday" hang in a subway station in Seoul. Photo: Sina Weibo
Fan-funded birthday ads cover Chongqing's light rail train. Photo: IC
For many, last Wednesday was just another ordinary day, but for fans of Wang Junkai, the lead singer of the immensely popular Chinese boy group TFBoys, it was a day full of surprise events held around the world celebrating their idol's 17th birthday.
In Times Square in New York City, people walking past the huge digital billboards on the Thomson Reuters building found themselves face to face with a young black-haired boy they probably didn't recognize.
The big, glittering e-banners saying "Happy 17th birthday to Wang Junkai" that accompanied seven huge photos of the lad posing in suits and costumes from his latest TV series The Legend of Chusen on the building's billboards were but one part of a global campaign paid for by millions of Wang's fans to "tell 100 million people about your birthday."
According to a schedule of events released by the Wang Junkai Fan Club on Sina Weibo, one of the country's largest social media platforms, in addition to the Times Square billboards, the club is also showcasing birthday blessings for Wang on electronic billboards and LED screens at Beijing's Water Cube and crowded public areas in other major cities such as Taipei, Tokyo, Paris, Seoul and Iceland's Reykjavik.
Moreover, the group says it arranged to have a light rail train in Southwest China's Chongqing and a full page in Morgunblaðið, one of Iceland's largest newspapers, filled with the birthday ads. The event has even taken to the skies with an ad-decorated helicopter flying over Changsha, Central China's Hunan Province, and out over the water by renting a VIP suite 9210 (the first three numbers marking the date of Wang's birthday) for Wang on the luxury cruise ship Virgo, according to the group.
Judging from photos taken and shared by locals and fans in these places on social media, the group has been true to its word in making Wang's birthday a global event.
This is not the first time that TFBoys have received such exorbitant gifts from fans since their 2013 debut. On top of the craziest gift list is an asteroid named after band member Yi Yangqianxi and a NASA chip with Wang Junkai's name on it which will be carried to Mars on the Insight Mission.
Club or cult?
Many may think that these fans are a bit out of their minds, as they have gone above and beyond plastering their bedrooms with TFBoy posters or attending concerts. The fans club shows an almost appalling amount of unity by wearing the same blue-colored clothing, referring to Wang as their "only king" and holding organized and sometimes crazy campaigns.
"Pretty much like a cult," some Chinese netizens, who regard these acts as the behavior of the brainwashed and a waste of money, have chimed in.
Fans, however, prefer to refer to their actions as yingyuan (a term used by fans to refer to support to their idols).
Originating from Japanese word "oen," or "cheering," the word began being used by Japanese and South Korean pop culture fans to describe fan culture and support for their idols.
The influence of yingyuan in China has been looming in recent years as the country, especially teenagers and adults 20-39, has been gaining a taste for young stars (under 18), or "fresh meat" as they are often called, according to a survey by Sina Weibo in 2014.
Last year, Wang Junkai caught the attention of Western media for breaking the Guinness Record for the most reposts of a Weibo post, after a message he wrote on his birthday was reposted an astonishing 42,776,438 times on Sina Weibo.
Though promotional campaigns for TFBoys members have involved jaw-dropping figures, the amount spent by fans on the birthday events may have set a new record - the New York Times Square ads alone cost 10 million yuan ($1.5 million).
According to the fan club, money was donated by individual fans "within the bounds of their financial ability." In the fan club's eyes, these high-profile celebrations are a way to show "support and love for Kai and are a way to preserve his last days as a teenager." Additionally the places involved weren't chosen randomly, they are places Wang has either been to or mentioned in interviews.
While criticized as being "a waste of money," these campaigns are viewed by some as a way to "help export Chinese idols to the world." Some even joke about the possibility of replacing K-pop's (South Korean popular culture) place on the global stage with H-pop (popular culture of the Han majority ethnic group) through such efforts.
The other two TFBoys members, Wang Yuan and Yi Yangqianxi, will have their birthdays in the next two months, as such "more surprises are on the way," according to the fan club.