Idol pursuits

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 January, 2011, 12:00am

Just as celebrities in the West were quick to jump on the Twitter bandwagon, Chinese celebrities have been swift to adopt the mainland equivalent, Sina Weibo. More than 35,000 of its subscribers are stars in business, politics and entertainment. Now that stellar glow is rubbing off on people around them, turning behind-the-scene experts into public figures with significant followings of their own.

Many Weibo celebrities are professionals in fashion and show business - stylists, talent agents and the like - who gained attention simply because they were posting about their own lives.

The director of Hong Kong salon Hair Culture, Billy Choi Yeung-wai, has 12,000 Weibo followers, and Paris-based stylist Titi Kwan counts more than 10,000. In the past, both were known only to fashion insiders, but that changed after they embraced Weibo. Fans of celebrities such as mainland actress Yao Chen and pop diva Faye Wong began tracking the stylists' Weibo posts following their online conversations with the stars and seeing photos of their idols.

The spotlight began shining on Choi, for example, after he posted backstage and after-party photos from Sammi Cheng Sau-man's concert tour last year. Kwan's posts about the costumes and concepts for Faye Wong's comeback shows in December also generated interest.

But the consequent publicity was unintended, Choi says.

'I don't have to do it deliberately. It'd be too much of a hard sell. Weibo is easy to use and many of my friends, celebrities and industry people are using it,' says Choi.

'For me, it's a platform to share my portfolio, what I do - I blog mostly about interesting hair styling or beauty information that I have come across.'

Kwan, who has long worked with Faye Wong, agrees. 'I share whatever I'm comfortable with, no strings attached. Those who are interested will read it. It's as simple as that.'

Still, the fame comes in handy. More people have found out about the Shanghai and Taipei branches of Choi's hair salon, for instance.

'Weibo can be a strong tool to build your personal brand,' he acknowledges. 'I've received a number of comments, mostly compliments about my work. Some of my fans are from Taiwan or the mainland. But my life hasn't changed that much because of it.'

Weibo prominence has had a greater impact for Beijing-based stylist Han Huohuo, who counts 220,000 followers: it brought an invitation to host a fashion programme on Beijing-based The Travel Channel this year.

A former project manager for Marie Claire China, the flamboyant 25-year-old came to the media's attention in 2009 after photographer Scott Schuman posted photos of him at the Milan and New York fashion weeks on

'People want to know what's behind fashion and all the glamour,' says Han, who counts singer-actress Miriam Yeung Chin-wah, lyricist Wyman Wong Wai-man and Hong Kong style leader Hilary Tsui Ho-ying among his fans.

'Weibo is an instant broadcast that's much faster than any traditional media. People want their news fresh and hot and that's what Weibo offers,' he says.

Text postings are restricted to a maximum of 140 Chinese characters, or words, but users can also upload photos, video clips and audio that others can access by clicking on thumbnails in their Weibo entry.

Han works hard to keep his Weibo fresh, frequently updating it with photos of the ensembles he favours - heels, padded leather jackets and studded bangles.

Han's tastes can have a significant effect on sales: when he posted images of outfits he bought from Zara and H&M last year, the styles quickly sold out.

Launched by Web portal in August 2009, Weibo has more than 50 million users, 600,000 of them from Hong Kong, making it the biggest micro-blogging service on the mainland.

Many hope to capitalise on the potential that a significant Weibo following can bring, among them veteran Hong Kong fashion editor and author, Janice Wong Lai-yee. She began posting about beauty and style on Weibo at a friend's suggestion six months ago and it's already having an effect on the sales of her book, My Memoir with Fashion Maestros. An edition using simplified Chinese characters will be published this year, but the Hong Kong version is already gaining popularity on mainland shopping sites.

'Before, it was available only at two online shops; after I started talking about my book on Weibo, more than a dozen online stores are selling it,' Wong says.

She has also been invited to give talks at the Today Art Museum in Beijing, which approached her via Weibo.

'There's no way for me to have anticipated opportunities like that. It's interesting how Weibo has broken down geographical barriers,' she says.

Despite being a novice, Wong set a clear identity for her postings.

'You have to concentrate on your area of expertise,' she says. 'You can't always get away with posting photos of your lunch or the wine you are drinking unless it's related to the theme or style of your Weibo.'

Although her following is a modest 3,000 so far, Wong has a receptive audience over the border.

'More people on the mainland now know me,' she says. 'They are quick to respond. Unlike Hongkongers, they are eager to find out and talk about the latest developments. Every time I post something, I receive comments right away and that's very encouraging.'

But it can be a double-edged sword, Wong says. 'It can make you and it can also make people hate you because there're no secrets on Weibo. You broadcast a standpoint and it's up to everyone else to judge what you've said.'

With the Twitter service blocked on the mainland, and other social media such as Facebook facing similar hurdles, Weibo is moving to reap the commercial potential of mainland micro-blogging. Last November, Sina Corp earmarked two billion yuan (HK$2.33 billion) to encourage the creation of more financial, social, entertainment and games apps for Weibo.

The service, which is estimated to control 51 per cent of the market, exercises self-censorship, so it's less likely to face a ban by the mainland authorities.

'If I have clients who want to tackle the mainland market, I will recommend the Weibo channel,' says Rudi Leung Chi-sing, a social media strategist for advertising agency Agenda Hong Kong.

'Even if the government were to reopen access to Twitter and other social websites, I would be hesitant to jump back in because you don't know when they'll be blocked again.'

Most of the Weibo buzz has revolved around show business, Leung says, eclipsing star corporate executives and other developments such as, an online bookstore that offers delivery within an hour of taking orders on Weibo.

But the service faces competition from other Web portals such as Sohu and Tencent QQ, which have joined the mainland micro-blog market, says Leung, who has more 20,000 followers for his Weibo posts about advertising and marketing.

'The newcomers have a long way to go but it'll be interesting to see the consequences.'