Wang Yuan: A Young Man’s Odyssey
Li Yongfang does not quite understand the way the new generation support their idols. When she was a girl, her friends including herself all adored the idol group “Xiao Hu Dui” very much. But liking idols then, was merely filling up teenage dreams with handsome boys from a distant world. They would buy posters and cassettes, and there were no aggressive behaviors.
(“Xiao Hu Dui”: also known as the Little Tigers, was a successful Taiwanese boy group in the late 1980s and early 1990s.)
However, Wang Yuan lives in a world where camera phones are prevalent, diminishing the line and bridging the distance between fans and idols. Such proximity brings teen idols unrivaled popularity, but also takes away the tranquil, simple and worriless personal life that Wang Yuan yearns for.
After getting into junior high school, for convenience sake his whole family moved to a block near Nankai Secondary School. It was just a stone’s throw away from the school, with a walking distance of five minutes.
(Nankai Secondary School encompasses of both junior high and senior high schools. Wang Yuan attends Nankai for both.)
However, such a short walk was far tougher than the one and half-hours’ bus ride from before. Fans waited for Wang Yuan at his school and quickly found out where he lived. They camped around the school, and started to strip the remnants of freedom from a 14-year-old boy.
Wang Yuan’s junior high school form teacher Liu Binbin recalled a funny occasion. It happened when Wang Yuan returned to Chongqing and came to school for nighttime self-studies to make up for missed classes. Although Nankai was renowned for its open campus, to maintain order while Wang Yuan was in school, the school had to restrict outsiders from entering. Nonetheless, a fan still managed to get into the school and approached Liu with a packet of dinner for Wang Yuan. Liu was at loss whether to cry or laugh. He knew the fan meant well, but a stranger who suddenly stuffed him food? He dared not to pass it on to Wang Yuan.
Being watched by a crowd is common. Two years ago, Wang Yuan was already surrounded by more than 10, sometimes more than 20 fans a head taller than him. Liu could only watch and thought that it was rather miserable being a superstar.
Sometimes he would help Wang Yuan to “escape”. Nevertheless, the campus space was limited and there were not many places to hide.
Wang Yuan greatly treasures the time he has in school. Liu finds that this student of his was born with an indifference to fame. He may on occasion jokingly brag to you, “Bro, let me tell you, now when I return to Chongqing, people line the streets to welcome me!” But inwardly, once back in school, he behaves like a student. Curious fans constantly stalk him. To get rid of them, Wang Yuan has to behave like a fugitive sometimes - true story. At such times what did he do? He kept running and running for fear of being stalked and cornered by such fans. You know what? He has even climbed over walls to escape.
After he moved from Chongqing to Beijing, some crazed fans’ behaviors became even more aggravated - they would search for delivery packaging in the residence rubbish bins, make harassment phone calls, and stick their ears onto the door to eavesdrop… Wang Yuan and the other two members of the group cannot do anything about it. They can neither lose their temper, nor make an appearance. Instead they can only shut their doors and windows tight, turn the volume of music to its loudest, and eventually they installed security cameras. Other than these, they have run out of ideas.
The disappearance of this border troubles Wang Yuan - he can be recognized at any moment, and can be stalked anytime. On the day he was appointed as United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Special Advocate for Education, at the company’s car garage, there were fans blocking the way, aiming hand phones and professional cameras continuously at him. After Wang Yuan got on the car, these people followed him in cars all the way to the United Nations Embassy. When he got off the car, another ‘photograph taking session’ continued.
Before the event had even begun, there were already “coming across Wang Yuan” photographs circulating on Weibo. Wang Yuan understands very clearly that he lives in an era where prying eyes are omnipresent, but he still hopes for times when he can be away from crowds. “As long as public figures are outside they are in fact completely exposed, there’s not much freedom, and I have accepted this. But in my private space, I feel that this line cannot be crossed.”
「靠」| “ Damn!”
It is not easy to find a proper balance between the virtual world and the real world. For Wang Yuan, it’s impossible to seek ordinary peace and quietness in the real world, let alone friendliness in the virtual world.
Along with their huge success, TFBOYS faced strong criticism on their way to fame. In terms of singing skills, looks and the path they took to stardom, the three boys have been doubted from head to toe. Additionally, they took the blame for the crazy behaviors of some fans. While they are celebrated with flowers and applause, they must bear the harsh criticism that came with it.
“Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches”, what makes Li feels most frustrated is, the problems Wang Yuan meets in his daily life are far beyond her own experience.
Li always teaches Wang Yuan to be kind and patient. However, when the brutal cyber world overlaps with the snobbish show business world, Li ponders often, whether the character she has taught to her son will make him suffer.
A few years ago, overwhelming abuse online made Wang Yuan very sad. For a good boy, it was impossible to understand these groundless malice coming from the Internet. Li said to Wang Yuan, “you can’t sway their opinion and they do not know the real you, so just be yourself.”
But in private, Li still feels aggrieved for her son. Her son has always been well-behaved since young, barely causes his parents to worry, and is always good-mannered to elders. He never fights with other kids nor does anything out of line.
Wang Yuan had no idea where the malice came from. Sometimes when he walked down the streets, there were cold stares aimed at him. The whispering behind him left him all at sea. Finally, with no other choice, he fostered a new skill: “No matter what others say, even curse, I just keep walking while looking straight ahead, as if I did not see them. Even if he walks towards me, I will walk away as if he were air.”
When he first started to use smart phones, Wang Yuan was heated and got mad. He hid inside his quilt browsing his phone, when he came across comments dissing him, he responded by shouting “damn!” in his quilt.
“Anything else?” faced with this question from Portrait’s journalist, Wang Yuan blinked a few times and smiled without answering. This habit has continued till now. When asked about his way of solving problems in life, Wang Yuan answered, “Just one word, I usually only say this word, ‘KAO’ (damn!), and then try to digest it and let it go.”
Indeed Wang Yuan has no other way to release his anger. Years earlier, he would call up a few good friends and eat hot pot together when he had more free time in Chongqing. “Every day at noon I asked friends out to have hot pot together, and then we would all have diarrheas. My pressure was relieved that way. Happy.”
However, with the increase of his workload, he left home and moved to Beijing, sharing an apartment with the other two TFBOYS members. He has less and less time in Chongqing. On the day of this interview, Wang Yuan combed through his memory to recall when his last time leaving Chongqing was, but till the end he still could not remember. His adolescence has been sliced into many pieces, but only a tiny piece remained for himself.
孤单 | Loneliness
In the virtual world, the burden of praise or slander can only be carried by oneself. Wang Yuan has no one to talk to. When it comes to media interviews, people always want to hear how hard it is to be a trainee from his mouth, however, to Wang Yuan, “Those days were less lonely because I had my classmates in school and friends in the company. On the contrary, it was better then.”
The true loneliness came after he became popular and left Chongqing for Beijing. The three members of TFBOYS had relatively more time together at the beginning of their debut. However, as their work started to differ, each member went about on their own business, so this companionship which began since trainee days had gradually disappeared.
In 2017, Wang Yuan’s work focus changed remarkably. He began to engage in public welfare activities more consciously. As a youth representative, he went to the United Nations to make a speech in English and later was appointed UNICEF Special Advocate for Education. He began to use his influence to call attention to education in rural areas.
[2017年2月1日凌晨，受邀赴纽约联合国总部出席联合国经济和社会理事会2017青年论坛，在演讲中，王源向世界展示了联合国在中国倡导的「畅想2030」活动取得的成果，并号召更多中国年轻人热心世界公益事务，表达中国青年为世界可持续发展和美好未来奋斗的决心。 图｜@TFBOYS组合 | At the dawn of February 1, 2017, Wang Yuan was invited to attend the 2017 United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. During the speech, Wang Yuan demonstrated to the world the results of the United Nations’ championed "Imagine 2030" campaign in China. He called on more Chinese youths to partake in global public welfare matters, and expressed the determination of Chinese youth to strive for sustainable development and a better future around the world.]
In the public eye, Wang Yuan is no longer that little boy trying to please people by dancing “Left hand, right hand, one slow motion.” As opposed to the ignorance and shyness when he first started, although just 4 years has passed, he seems to have come a long way from his 13-year-old self.
At work, Wang Yuan begins to have his own opinion. His Promotional Staff felt keenly the changes to Wang Yuan over the past year, describing that it was as though he grew up overnight, despite him looking like a child at their first meeting. But this year, it is obvious that he starts to have many of his own ideas: Is it possible to dress like this? Will it look better styling this way? He was no longer content being an idol packaged by others. "He has the brains and his own ideas."
However, the farther you go, the harder it is to return. As you become more like a duck to water at work, it will be multiple times lonelier once reverting to normal life. After the senior high school entrance examinations, many classmates enjoyed the hard-won holiday and used it to reinforce the friendship between old friends because of the coming separation. But Wang Yuan did not have this chance since he had to fall back into work quickly. Since senior high school, he appeared on campus even less than before. When he finally came back to school, his former classmates from junior high school were scattered into different classes and had their new lives already. Wang Yuan wanted to spend time with them in the way he used to, but slowly found that he could not fit in anymore.
“One of my classmates, who was the first one I knew in junior high school, had lived in the same dormitory and had been getting along well with me. After I entered senior high I went for a few days of classes, out of all my new classmates he was the only person from my previous class, and he sat right behind me. So I only played with him in those few days. But subsequently, when I asked him out for a meal, just with a few old classmates, he refused to come, no matter what.”
Later, this classmate's mother called Li and said that her child felt that Wang Yuan and these friends came from more affluent families and did not want to hang out with them anymore. Friendship in adolescence is fragile and sensitive. Wang Yuan had neither got the opportunity nor time to tell his friends, that he makes friends never because of money. He does not have many friends, and those who are true and sincere are even few. He wanted to prove he was still the past Wang Yuan and did not want to lose any friends. But such efforts were weak in the face of fate which guided former buddies in different directions.
Fortunately, Wang Yuan as a trainee had understood partings much earlier than the average child. As a lot of children trained together, they shared each other’s company and encouragement; they did the same exercises in the same class; everyone was equal. But by the law of survival of the fittest, if a child did not come for consecutive days, he knew that this little buddy had been eliminated and he had lost another friend. He did not know then to exchange contact information, so many buddies whom he spent years with, vanished into the crowd.
There was a member of TF Family by the name of Liu Zhihong. In July last year, Liu suddenly announced through Weibo that he preferred an ordinary and free life, and decided to bid farewell to the show business. This event affected Wang Yuan. A journey which set off with a lot of people, gradually reduced in number, further to the end, you found that it was just you remaining to keep yourself company. "
琐碎 | Little Things
The lonelier you are, the more you will crave friendliness in life. His assistant Xiao Qiang became the most important friend in Wang Yuan's life. Wang Yuan emphasized to the journalist, “Qiang-ge is not my assistant. He is my most important friend."
(“Qiang-ge”: Literally Qiang-brother. This term Wang Yuan used to call Xiao Qiang demonstrates their closeness and Wang Yuan’s respect for Qiang who is his senior.)
Speaking of the reason, Wang Yuan told us a very small incident, “Qiang has a boat, a small speedboat. He was very funny. He only has one life jacket on his boat. When I was going to board the boat, he said ‘Hurry up, hurry up and put on your life jacket’, to get me to quickly put on the life jacket. He said that, ‘If your life jacket was not properly worn, I will not let you board.’”
Wang Yuan said that while in Chongqing, Qiang went fishing in the river and brought the fish he caught to Wang Yuan’s home before he himself even got a chance to taste it. He always thinks of Wang Yuan first. Wang Yuan keeps in mind the good things others have done for him. All these are not part of Qiang’s job scope. But even outside of work he is still thinking for Wang Yuan. Wang Yuan cares about these little things in life.
Wang Yuan left his parents’ side at a young age, then he was surrounded by adults who were eager for his success. What's more, people have constantly exited from Wang Yuan’s life over the years. Qiang, as a friend, is of great importance to him.
Wang Yuan’s life changed greatly from time to time during his trainee days. But he said he was rather reluctant to experience changes. If someone in the company left suddenly or someone new joined, he would take a long time to get used to it.
In the interview, the journalist from Portrait asked Wang Yuan, "What will you do if Qiang suddenly says he quits?" Wang Yuan answered playfully, “I will block him outside his home. Knock on his door. Poke his boat and break it.”
Wang Yuan is really afraid of changes. His teacher Liu said that every time he came back to school, he always enthusiastically invited classmates for meals and movies. He wanted time to stop at where he and everyone were still good friends.
Because of the constant harassment from fans, Liu suggested when Wang Yuan was in junior high school to create a special passage for him, by opening a small door in the canteen leading to his house. However, the proposal was turned down by Wang Yuan. He would rather go into and out of the school like a normal student than enjoying such privileges.
Wang Yuan was born in a big and happy family. When he was young, his whole family would get together to celebrate his birthday every year. However, after he became famous, such opportunities were almost gone. When Li came to watch the performance for TFBOYS 3rd Anniversary with her husband in Beijing, the stage was dazzling and the fans were crazy. But after she returned to the hotel, she waited for a long time yet her son did not come. Her husband said to her, "I feel as though my son were not mine anymore."
Because of this heartache, now Wang Yuan’s every homecoming turns into birthdays or festivals. The big family will get together to eat hot pot, to try to compensate him of the family life taken away by his superstar status. Li wants her son to understand that, no matter what happens, family will never change.
When recording the program Ace vs Ace in March and April this year, Wang Yuan who is always upbeat and sunny in front of the camera, broke down and cried. In Li's memory, the last time she saw her son cry was almost 10 years ago. In the program, the reason for Wang Yuan’s tears was a dish of ‘Hot Toffee Sweet Potatoes’, a dish that his grandmother always cooked for him in his childhood. The baby Wang Yuan always complained that his grandma added so little sugar the toffee could not drizzle when he picked up the sweet potato. But because Wang Yuan entered the entertainment industry, it has been 7 or 8 years since he ate this dish prepared by his grandmother.
Last year, Wang Yuan bought a house for his family. The whole family was happy, not because it was large or luxurious, but because the new neighbors were very friendly. Everyone there did not regard Wang Yuan as a star. Sometimes when Wang Yuan returns home, one of the neighbors will call in the corridor, "Baby, come to my house for dinner."
If any of the neighbors on his floor cook, the rest of the families will go to that home for dinner. Li is grateful to her neighbors for keeping such hard to come by homeliness for Wang Yuan, giving him the opportunity to feel authentic warmth among people, outside of the stage, the lights, the cheering, and the screaming.
But most of the time, Wang Yuan does not have the chance to feel all these. These years, the longest period he has stayed at home was no more than 20 days. Friends have all disappeared so he cycles to play near the riverbank. Sometimes with Qiang, but most of the time alone.
「红」与运气 | Popularity and Luck
To a teenager, the show business dominated by adults is also at an unreachable distance away. Liu often receives phone calls from unknown numbers. Since Wang Yuan’s phone number is often unearthed by fans, he changes them frequently. Successively, Liu gave up saving his number.
Last year, Wang Yuan told Liu over the phone that at times certain artistes who are of-age would organize drinking parties when program recordings ended after midnight; or take a smoke break when they are tired. To an adult, these are typical ways to de-stress. But at such times, Wang Yuan will stay away, “I know I can’t do that (smoke and drink) so that I will make a conscious effort to avoid those. For example, sometimes they’d invite me out for dinner, I wouldn’t go as well.”
Sometimes, Liu has the same worries as Wang Yuan’s mother; his personal experience is insufficient to teach his student how to resolve the problems he meets in life. Although Wang Yuan is a senior high school student now, the three years spent together in junior high school has made him and Liu become personal friends. Liu thinks Wang Yuan is so young, but he has to face the various temptations present in show business. Without parents and teachers by his side, ultimately it depends on his own discipline.
Wang Yuan was born with a sense of propriety. When he first entered the industry, he often felt dazed seeing artistes like Huang Xiaoming and Xue Zhiqian, “Aren’t they superstars? After I recovered from my surprise, I was already in the same circles as them.”
At the beginning, Wang Yuan never took the initiative to add other artistes on Wechat for fear of causing others trouble. Later on, due to longer interactions while recording Ace Vs Ace, Wang Yuan started to add them on Wechat. “I’ve added a lot of my seniors, but I have my principle - I won’t do it the first time we meet, but only on the second collaboration. I believe in the proverb ‘first time strangers, second time friends’. It can be awkward adding each other the first time we meet. But the second time we’d be more familiar, so I would say ‘Laoshi, let’s add each other on Wechat’. During festivals I will send them festive greetings.”
(‘Laoshi’: an honorific to address a teacher, here referring to Wang Yuan’s seniors in the industry)
Wang Yuan has always dreamed of becoming an accomplished singer-songwriter. When he got closer to Xue, Xue told him repeatedly, “If you want to learn about writing songs, you can come to me. I can teach you everything.”
However, he never went to Xue. Wang Yuan knows Xue is sincere and will definitely teach him, but, “I think he’s very busy, because he is so popular. Right? Super popular.”
Wang Yuan is probably very clear how busy a super star can be, so he is afraid of causing trouble for others. Hence, he plans to learn the basics and build a strong foundation before seeking opportunities to consult Xue.
What Xue has experienced in his life pursuing music provoked thought in Wang Yuan. He has not spoken to Xue about it, but thought for himself, “He experienced ups and downs from being popular to unpopular, then popular again. He maintains a positive attitude, that is, no matter what happens, he will still persist in doing his own music. He is genuine to his fans, to music, and not frivolous. I think it’s a fantastic mindset.”
At 17, without major setbacks in life, Wang Yuan can only draw lessons through observing others. He clearly understands that his capability is incongruent with his popularity now. When asked about the key to his success, the first word which slipped out of his mouth was “luck”, “I really got lucky!” What he can do now is to keep working hard, and hopefully one day, through his endeavors, he can narrow the gap between his popularity and capability.
出口 | Outlet
The more well-behaved and mature Wang Yuan is in public, the more worried and grieved Wang Yuan’s mother feels. At the age when he should be taken care of and spoiled, Wang Yuan started to work in show business, a complicated and capricious world. His mother sometimes thinks that boys at the same age may feel better after crying and screaming. However, how can Wang Yuan, who does not cry and scream, expresses his grievances and stress?
Wang Yuan’s parents do not have much chance to take care of him. Sometimes they fly to see their son, which is not easy and direct as he is pretty busy even though they have already arrived. Li does not know how long she has to wait for Wang Yuan’s call since his phone is required to be turned off during some program recordings.
Li seldom discusses show business matters with Wang Yuan, but repeatedly reminds him to take care of his health and studies.
Like in most mother-child relationships, confronted with his mother’s worries, Wang Yuan always tries to relieve Li’s pressure, using “I’m good, I’m fine”, holding back unpleasant information all the time. Wherever he goes and no matter how busy he is, he still picks presents for family attentively.
Li dreams a lot. Her dreams are full of Wang Yuan in childhood. She desires for a chance to make up for the time she lost as her son grew up. Her phone album consists of baby Wang Yuan, rather than photographs from the recent two years, of him in delicate makeup and stylish clothes. She hopes to keep his looks of daily life instead of on stage or in magazines, because those belongs to his fans and the entertainment world, which is too distant from her.
Wang Yuan has to accept the truth that most of the time in his life he is alone, regardless whether he is willing or not, and no matter how many eyes focus on him behind.
Wang Yuan knew at a very young age of the fact that people come and go. He brought up the bus he had taken for more than two years during his trainee days, “I clearly remember when I got on the bus there were very few people, and then gradually more and more people would get on, quite a lot of people. Then many would get off at the station four miles in the journey, and later all would get off at Nan Pin Station. Till today I can still recall vividly, all kinds of people coming and going.”
Wang Yuan may feel bored and lonely when he is alone, but he thinks it is bearable. “Why should I have the same life as others? Having unique experiences is nothing bad.”
Alone in Beijing, Wang Yuan likes riding bicycles. He will cycle rapidly, ignoring the world going past on his two sides, till the wind howls in his ears.
His favorite sports is skiing. People cannot tell that it is him while he is in skiwear, cap and sunglasses. Rushing down from high ground, speeding in the vast snow field all alone. Wonderful!
The happiest time took place in a Hebei-based ski resort. He skied into a wild snow area, twisting and turning among the trees, deviously, slowly and comfortably with nobody around. He remembers clearly that no one had been to that area before; the snow was fresh. He left a track behind him wherever he passed, forming a path.
By request of the interviewees, Li Yongfang and Liu Binbin were pseudonyms.
Interns Zhai Jin, Wei Xiaohan, Li Shiyun, Chen Kexin assisted with the article.
End of Part 2