Election for Chinese idol group SNH48, spin-off of Japan’s AKB48, draws record numbers as owners eye expansion across the country

Having controversially split from their Japanese founding partners, the Chinese management of SNH48, BEJ48, GNZ48, SHY48 – and soon CKG48 – seem set on creating a lucrative idol universe of epic proportions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 August, 2017, 8:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 August, 2017, 10:30am

A key election took place in Shanghai last weekend – at least as far as Mandopop fans are concerned.

SNH48, mainland China’s first “idol group”, and its three sister units held their fourth annual election to decide the top-ranking idols. The process saw nearly 300 girls from across the country perform for baying fans at Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena as part of a marathon six-hour event on July 29.

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In the end, the top three positions in the massive popularity contest went to the same three girls who finished top of the pile last year. But there was still plenty of melodrama along the way, while the concert confirms the growing confidence of the Star48 Group, which manages all four idol units, since a controversial split from its Japanese founders.

SNH48 started in 2012 as an official spin-off from the Japanese “idols you can meet” group AKB48, who were founded in Tokyo’s Akihabara district with 48 members in 2005. But last year, the Chinese and Japanese management teams became embroiled in a public spat when the Chinese company, buoyed by SNH48’s rampant success, decided to roll out the brand to more cities by creating groups in Beijing (BEJ48) and Guangzhou (GNZ48) without the Japanese side’s permission.

AKB48’s management subsequently removed all advertising for the Shanghai sister outfit from its website and stated that the Chinese management would need to be changed if SNH48 were to maintain their affiliation. The Chinese side ploughed ahead regardless, declaring themselves independent and adding yet another group, Shenyang’s SHY48, at the start of this year.

One year after the fallout, fans at the Shanghai election event are nonplussed by the severed corporate ties. “I’m here for the idols, not for the international connections,” says one young fan who had taken a 24-hour train ride from the northern province of Heilongjiang to be at the election.

SNH48 is now established enough to foster its own idol worship, with no need for associations with Tokyo. The election event was testament to the fervent enthusiasm of the group’s fans; even performers from the Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenyang satellite groups were seen taking selfies in front of banners of their favourite SNH48 stars backstage – idols worshipping idols, as it were.

Emboldened by such fervent popularity, Star48 Group, the media company that owns the China franchise, is moving the project away from its Japanese roots. Many of AKB48’s characteristics – in particular its fetishisation of schoolgirl imagery and an apparent focus on a meek conception of femininity – remain core to SNH48. But Japanese names for idols have been dropped for new members, and the group claim to be forging their own model of “online to offline” promotion. Idol culture with Chinese characteristics, perhaps.

The split doesn’t seem to have had any adverse impact on the Chinese groups’ popularity, with fans from across Asia filling the Mercedes-Benz Arena on Saturday. Organisers announced that the total number of votes received for this year’s election exceeded those for all previous idol competitions, with the ultimate winner, 23-year-old Ju Jingyi, gathering more than 277,000 votes. Pointedly, the organisers added that the figures broke “worldwide” records.

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The election is open to all of the members of the four existing city groups and decides the 66 top-ranking “idols”. Final positions dictate how prominent a role each member will play in their respective group, as well as in activities held by the SNH48 Group in the coming year.

The upper 16 – the “Starlight Group” – will perform on SNH48’s next single. This year it will be produced by Glen Ballard, whose résumé includes credits on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album and Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. The 17th-32nd placed members then appear on the first B-side track, the 33rd-48th on the second B-side track and the 49th-66th on the third B-side track.

The overall winner, meanwhile, not only becomes the central figure of the Starlight Group, but also gets the opportunity to make a solo record, potentially bolstering her individual popularity.

It’s definitely getting harder each year … The group is getting bigger and bigger and there’s a lot more competition – it’s really tough
Zhang Yuge

To decide the rankings, fans had to list their three favourite idols from all four groups. They did this on voting forms that came with the purchase of SNH48’s Summer Pirates EP, for which the lead music video felt both like a cynical excuse to have lots of girls frolicking in bikinis and a blatant advertisement for a prominently featured soft drink. The EP sold for at least 78 yuan.

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In the run-up to the election, each city’s idol group was split into teams to conduct campaign performances. Featuring speeches imploring fans to vote for them, the performances were held at the permanent theatres that form their hometown bases and where they undertake weekly shows. After two preliminary ranking announcements in late June and early July, last weekend’s event at the Mercedes-Benz Arena was the culmination of the annual contest, and took the form of a half-concert, half-results countdown show.

The first two and a half hours of the extravaganza see an almost constant conveyor belt of young girls take to the stage to perform synchronised dance moves to saccharine pop songs. Ju Jingyi, as reigning champion, is given a solo slot on the bill and receives a rapturous response.

For the second half of the show, each of the girls, dressed in variations on white frilly dresses, gives a low bow as their names are read out by an announcer. The fans echo their names back – some with considerably more gusto than others – and when all members are seated, the almost three-hour-long countdown for the key positions starts.

As the rankings are announced, the tension becomes increasingly visible. When things go well and members surpass their previous rankings, adjacent teammates swallow the rising star in congratulatory group hugs. When things go badly, some teammates cover their mouths in shock. Inevitably, numerous members are reduced to tears, a crushing sight even in the somewhat ridiculous context.

“Some members have risen in the rankings, some have fallen – I’ve fallen,” Zeng Yanfen, who dropped two places to sixth, says backstage after the event. “But this is a friendly competition. If we’re all doing better, then the whole group is better, which is a good thing. We can’t rest on our laurels. We have to always be trying our best otherwise we’ll be overtaken.”

Ju, wearing the crown and regal-like robes of first place for the second consecutive year, also talks of self-improvement. “I want to thank everyone who voted for me, for making me No. 1 again,” she says. “This is my fourth year in the competition and I think over that time in the eyes of my fans I’ve grown up, I understand things more clearly. Your feedback and praise makes me want to be better and to progress.”

Ju may have topped the rankings for the second year running, but as ever more members are added to the groups (each outfit now has more than the original 48 members that AKB48 and SNH48 started with), maintaining or improving positions inevitably gets more difficult.

For example, Zhang Yuge, a 21-year-old first-generation SNH48 member from Harbin, has seen her status fall. Having finished fifth in the first two elections, last year she fell to eighth. “It’s definitely getting harder each year,” she says backstage before the concert starts. “I still get nervous, even though it’s not my first time with this kind of show. The group is getting bigger and bigger and there’s a lot more competition – it’s really tough.”

On Saturday she fell down the rankings again, finishing ninth despite picking up over 20,000 more votes than in 2016. She will still be part of the hallowed Starlight Group this year, but looks decidedly glum when her name is read out. A large red downward arrow appears beside her name on the giant TV screens overhead, ramming home her diminished status as she walks to the main stage, where she struggles for composure when asked to say a few words.

Staring out at the sea of fans waving giant glowsticks, her voice is barely audible as she asks: “Do you still believe in me?” The crowd answers in the affirmative. “Then I’ll try harder next year.”

Backstage after the show, Zhang still appears downcast. “I said to myself that I couldn’t cry this year, because at last year’s election I cried and all year I’ve had people say to me, ‘Hey Yuge, I saw the video of you bawling.’ I felt I controlled it a bit better this time, and next year I’ll push on.”

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But next year will be harder still. Membership applications for a new Chongqing-based outfit – CKG48 – close this week and the group will be active by the time of the next election, further swelling the ranks of competitors. The addition of even more cities in the next 18 months would come as little surprise.

After the show, some of the fans clustering around the backstage exit for a glimpse of their idols wonder aloud whether 2018’s election show will have to go on for six hours. And even for the most dedicated followers, distinguishing between the idols is becoming increasingly difficult as their ranks continue to swell. As buses pull past ferrying exhausted, but still smiling, idols away from the venue, the most common refrain from the fans amassed at the gates seems to be: “Who was that?”