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Meet China’s most exciting boyband – who are all girls

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FFC-Acrush’s story involves football, androgyny and inter-dimensional storylines – we meet them in their training complex in Jinhua

Jinhua is a city in China’s Zhejiang Province that’s famous for ham and movies. It’s also the home of Zhejiang Huati Culture Communication LTD, a company that’s cultivating the next wave of China’s idol groups, the girl and boy bands that dominate East Asian popular culture. One of their bands, FFC-Acrush (the A stands for ‘Adonis’), have made headlines around the world for being a boy band made of girls.

That’s not strictly true, though. FFC-Acrush are actually a girl band of tomboys. To be more precise, they’re cisgender girls, whose hair, make-up and clothes make them look uncannily like Korean boy bands – which don’t really dress like girls, but also don’t really dress like boys. When Acrush’s five members (An Junxi, Lu Keran, Feng Yuxuan, Peng Yiyang and Lin Fan) dress up in their full regalia for concerts and pose for press images, they can easily pass for guys – it is, after all, the biggest factor driving their appeal – but on their off days, when they’re training, they are unmistakably feminine, although they choose to dress in a loose-fitting wardrobe not too dissimilar to what you might expect an off-duty R&B singer to wear.

When I arrive at their training centre in a building run by Tencent (the tech giant behind the Chinese social media app Wechat), I’m ushered up to a dance studio to meet the band. They’re practicing a routine that will be performed on a variety show, their Korean dance instructor – a man in his early 20s – sashaying in front of them. I take a seat in the corner on a yoga mat. The band, engrossed in their training, barely acknowledge me.

Zhejiang Huati Culture Communication LTD has outfitted a few floors of the Tencent building specifically to cultivate young pop icons. There are dance studios, a giant lecture theatre optimised for acoustics, a recording studio, classrooms, a room with a projector, and rooms outfitted with medical equipment for when the inevitable strain of intense training (classes start at 8am and end at 10pm) takes its toll on the bodies of young girls who are selected, at least partially, for being skinny and fragile-looking. The football training probably doesn’t help, either.

While the Adonis in FFC-Acrush’s name references the band’s male aesthetic, the ‘FFC’ stands for ‘Fantasy Football Confederation’, which is the conglomerate moniker under which all of Huati’s bands perform. During my time in Jinhua, two other bands were being cultivated by the company, FFC-Fcrush (the ‘F’ stands for ‘Football’) and FFC-Gcrush (‘Gaming’). At the outset, all of the bands in the Fantasy Football Confederation were being intensely trained to play football to an if not professional, then at least very competent level. The reason for this, as the group’s management explain, is that members of FFC are from another dimension. In this dimension, Acrush are actually guys, but when they landed on Earth they became girls (who dress as guys). The idea is that they would play their way through various football tournaments, against other FFC groups, to win their way back to that universe.

Wang Tianhai, manager of Acrush and commander-in-chief of the full Confederation, says that the football element of his artists isn’t to do with promoting the sport. Instead, it’s more because a lot of people love football, and this is a way to create a band for that community. Another Huati band, Gcrush, is centred around online gaming. Wang, it seems, is trying to find communities that he can plug his bands into – Fcrush for football fans, Gcrush for gamers, Acrush for the open-minded, feminist, or LGBT music fans. Maybe there wasn’t as clear a plan for them.

“We have since decided,” says Wang Tianhai, “that not all the bands should focus on football. There were a lot of injuries. And also, as you can imagine, training a few hours a day to play football does not leave enough time to also train intensely in dancing, singing, and becoming a star.”

The recent tensions between South Korea and China, over THADD – a missile defence system the US wants to deploy on the Korean peninsula – has seen Korean Idol groups banned from touring in China, which has created a gap in the market that domestic groups, such as those promoted by Zhejiang Huati, are rushing to try and fill. After watching Acrush dance for an hour or so, I walk into a corridor within the building and encounter members of FFC-Fcrush milling about near the lockers, packing up after their mid-morning vocal lessons.

Fcrush look like a traditional girl band. They’re pretty, slender, feminine, and – despite it being a regular training day – all noticeably wearing make-up. Their outfits resemble sexualised versions of sports kits: some are in extremely short shorts or miniskirts, some in basketball tops or American football jerseys, and all wearing knee-high socks. Later, they attend a football theory class (it’s raining, so outdoor training has been cancelled) that involves a lengthy, in-depth lecture about Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas’s longstanding friendship and mutual appreciation, despite both vying for the crown of Europe’s top goalkeeper in the early 2000s. A side debate breaks out amongst them about who was the more attractive. Sadly for Casillas, it’s decided he had “no flavour” and was the less desirable. Their male coach impassively nods along, never weighing in. These theory lessons exist so that Fcrush can fluently talk football with their fans. But they also have the side effect of imparting valuable life lessons. The takeaway of today’s lesson? Respect your opponents, but never stop competing.

Acrush have certainly not stopped competing, even if they’ve dialled the football down to only once a week or so. The rest of their time is heavily programmed, as I learn over the days following them in Jinhua. A class timetable tells me where they will be and what they will be learning. They wake up early (class starts at 8am), and after their morning dance class, which lasts for two hours, they have a ten-minute break before heading into the acoustically-optimised lecture theatre for singing practice. There, they take turns with a vocal coach to practice a solo. The week of my visit coincides with their impending yuekao 月考, a monthly exam that tracks their progress. “It’s the law of the jungle,” says Wang Tianhai. “There are countless idol bands, so we have to work to keep up. If anyone is falling behind, then they can be cut.”

The band is very supportive of one another, joking around and goofing off in the intimate moments between their classes. The sort of egos you might expect of a band who are already generating international headlines and have millions of followers on social media are decidedly absent. Perhaps it’s a factor of their intense training, and the fact that they all live together in a giant dormitory around the corner from the training centre. In such an intense environment, you either learn to get along or you’re dropped.

Aside from the headlines, this has been Wang Tianhai’s most abiding problem. “Putting dozens of girls, who all want desperately to be stars, in an apartment building and making them to train from dawn until dusk.... well, it isn’t easy,” he tells me. “Maybe when all this is done I’ll write a book.” Aping the name of some of the classics of Chinese literature, he wants to call it The Chronicles of Huati.

When they first started out, the band had their phones taken away and trained in basic isolation. The phones have now been returned, but the rigour of their programme remains, and the spectre cast by their monthly examinations ensures that the band is constantly improving. During my time at the facility I end up watching An Junxi, the pixie-like lead rapper of the band, sing Khalil Fong’s song “My Special One” so many times that I can sing it back word-for-word. “Sometimes we’re lonely, sometimes we fail. We fear being let go. We seek someone who understands. I’ve waited so many times for the future, for when you’ll arrive. There’s people from the mountain to the sea, but amongst them, I know you’ll always be.”

Watching Acrush perform without their outfits and make-up, going through the endless repetitions that constitute their training, is to see inside the furnace. Idol groups, with their polished choreography and honed personas, are forged, and taking a trip to Zhejiang Huati Culture Communications is akin to watching smiths at work, hammering out the kinks.

“Are you not tired?” I ask Feng Yuxuan, the most recent addition to the band.

“I was, at first,” she replies. “But I’m used to it now. You get used to the training, and you understand that it’s a step that everyone has to go through.”

Beyond their training, though, I’m interested to know how they feel about football and the idea of their band being from another dimension. I broach this question to the group while they’re having a meal together. “That’s something you should ask her,” they shrug, nodding at their agent, Zhou Xiaobai. She admits, with a hint of exasperation, that they’re still working it all out. It is, however, best to think of it as a metaphor. “The idea of that other universe is simply to say that there’s a place where people could be whatever they wanted,” she explains.

Metaphors are important when it comes to understanding why Acrush have caused such a stir. Their first song, “行动派 Action”, which features lyrics like “A promise of rebellion – to be an exception,” rails against passivity and of not being true to yourself. It’s easy, therefore, to take this one step further and – considering their tomboy style – immediately proclaim the band to be queer or LGBT icons, the sort that (as the Huffington Post have claimed) are “breaking down barriers”. But Acrush did not invent the concept of androgyny, nor cross-dressing. Men have played women in traditional theatre (Beijing Opera in China Kabuki in Japan, and Talchum in Korea) for centuries. They’ve been allowed to do so in these contexts because it doesn’t upend traditional structures or challenge the received wisdom that homosexuality is somehow not normal. The same is true of contemporary ‘flower boys’, as effeminate boy-band idols are called in Korea. As Chuyun Oh, an assistant professor at San Diego State University says, “the Heterosexism strongly rooted in Korean society ‘secures’ the Flower Boys’ cross-dressing and androgyny because they will be assumed as heterosexual regardless of their non-conventional representation of masculinity.”

In other words, because East Asian societies are so strongly heteronormative, a man dressing as a woman is not read as queer in the same way that it is in the West, and is therefore not a statement. A woman dressing as a man, however, challenges these assumptions. As Kam Louie, a professor at Hong Kong University who has written extensively on Chinese Masculinity explains, “boy groups who perform feminine roles do not actively fight for gender equality as such.” A girl group performing masculinity is implicitly read as doing just that.

When I ask various members of Acrush to define their style, they all say more or less the same thing: “It’s just about being yourself.” Some of them go further, saying that they feel like they’re making an argument, subtly, that women can also be strong and authoritative, and that there shouldn’t be a tightly prescribed idea of what is feminine. However, they’re extremely careful to guard their sexuality. “We do not talk about it, and you can’t ask about it,” Wang Tianhai says when I meet him in his office. He goes on to say, repeatedly, that his girls are “normal” (in Chinese, 正常 is the unfortunate antonym that most people use when saying that someone is not homosexual).

That’s why it’s important not to read too much into what Acrush are doing, and why the breathless editorials proclaiming them LGBT icons are perhaps off the mark. They are not, after all, the first women in China to adopt male characteristics and make it big. In 2005, Li Yuchun – known as Chris Lee in the West – was crowned the winner of Super Girl, a Pop Idol-style talent show which was, at the time, the most-viewed television show in Chinese history. Known for her short hair cut and androgynous style, the singer has been called ‘the mother of the unisex style in China’ and has worked with huge fashion houses like Chanel, Balenciaga, and Givenchy, and has headed global campaigns for Coca Cola and L’Oreal.

But Chris Lee is straight, something that Acrush refuse to reveal. In fact, they prefer to avoid talking about gender and sexuality altogether. Instead, they choose to go by 美少年 meishaonian, which translates simply to “beautiful young people”. Wang Tianhai told the New Yorker, improbably, that he didn’t even know what the term ‘LGBT’ means. As we chat, he reiterates that Acrush are definitely girls – straight girls – and that the whole gender issue is causing him a not inconsiderable amount of stress. Either way, cropping your hair and wearing boots does not make you a lesbian, and shouldn’t be a sufficient (or necessary) condition to be a queer icon.

That Acrush have been parlayed into the wider discourses of the LGBT movement in China is more representative of the state of that campaign than of anything that they’re doing as a band. Given homosexual couples receive no legislative recognition (i.e. couples cannot marry or adopt) and that the Chinese government actively scrubs LGBT content offline and bans TV shows from portraying LGBT relationships, an androgynous girl band can feel revolutionary.

It’s also important to underscore that celebrity in East Asia functions differently to the West, where not only do people expect celebrities to transgress, they take a morbid fascination in their downfall – just take a cursory glance at the trajectory of former Disney stars, for example. East Asian celebrity, on the other hand, is not the same. At its most extreme you have Japan’s AKB48, the largest girl group on Earth with over 130 members, all of whom sign ‘contracts’ marrying themselves to their fans and therefore abstaining from other relationships. In 2013, Minami Minegishi, one of the main members of the group, appeared in sobs on national TV in Japan having shaved her head in penance for transgressing the cardinal rule – she’d been photographed leaving her rapper boyfriend’s house.

In Korea, idols are allowed to date and high profile couples do exist. As Jieun Choi, a staff writer at the English language news outlet Korea Exposé tells me, society has been fairly relaxed about male idols like Rain dating publicly (he married Kim Tae-Hee this year, after dating her since 2013). She also points to Yoona as an example of a female K-pop star whose public dating has been well received by her fans, though she notes that it isn’t always as easy for female idols to date openly in Korea as for their male counterparts. In China, things are even laxer, with the star Wu Yifan getting caught on hookup apps while on tour, garnering him the nickname ‘Canada Hook-up King’. Still, the Canada Hook-up King is the exception that proves the rule – screenshots of him inviting girls back to his hotel room look pretty twee in comparison to allegations that arose at the same time that R. Kelly has been keeping a sex-cult in his basement.

The point of East Asian celebrity is that it is a fantasy. It’s best to think of it as some kind of 24/7 performance art, where idols exist to represent the best of us. Where Western celebrity is meant to represent pure Id (it’s the dirty things we’d probably all do if we found ourselves with unlimited money and sexual opportunity), Eastern celebrity is more idealistic (it’s meant to represent what we’d hope we would do, given a platform to inspire others). Acrush members, for example, spend a lot of time on Chinese social media responding to their fans, telling them to study hard in school and to be respectful to their parents. That’s why there’s an interesting tension inherent to all female celebrity in East Asia – they’re heavily sexualised as part of their commercial identity, but at the same time, the performers themselves display no sexual agency.

Acrush, and for that matter the whole Fantasy Football Confederation, are no different. It’s true that their style can be read as avant-garde and as challenging preconceived gender roles – but it can also be read as a winning formula chanced upon by a production company. And maybe it doesn’t really matter, because all of that is external to the band itself – it doesn't change the reality for the members of Acrush as they battle their way through monthly examinations and the harsh glare of the spotlight.

This isn’t to say that what Acrush do is not brave, nor is it to dismiss it as cynical. When I ask Zhou Xiaobai what the hardest moment they’ve had so far as a band is, she replies, rather touchingly, with a story from a few months earlier, when they travelled to Korea to train. The group were approaching their big reveal, the moment they would first be presented to their fans (as well as potential investors). They’d just got back to Jinhua and were watching as the other FFC groups trained. Seeing them in their make-up and pretty outfits, dancing the way that all girl groups danced, then they looked back at themselves in their clompy workman style boots and close-cropped hair and they wondered if anyone would get it. “We looked at them, and it was obvious that people would love them,” they recall. “But when we looked at ourselves, we thought it was hopeless.”

But when it came to their first major performance, they played to over 6,000 people in a football stadium in Wuhan. It was a concert set up to showcase a whole host of idol bands from all over China. A young group with only one song released they weren’t given the kind of VIP treatment that some of the other bands got. It was evening and already dark by the time their set time came up. Earlier in the day the announcer had introduced BY2 as the only girl group performing that day, without realising that Acrush – who he’d only seen in their full make-up – weren’t actually boys.

Acrush were lost behind the stage using their phones to try and light the way. They were nearly knocked down by Hua Chenning, another famous idol, as he sped past on a golf cart surrounded by security. They made it, eventually, on stage, and put in a solid performance. “I think we proved ourselves that day,” says An Junxi, one of the band members, as we sit drinking coffee in the restaurant on the ground floor of the Tencent training ground. The rest of the band nod in agreement. “Yeah!” says Lin Fan, another one of the members. “As we were waiting outside for our car to collect us, a lot of people came up and said ‘Hey! We saw you on stage!’ and would ask for our autographs or ask to take pictures.”

After a few days with Acrush and following their dizzying routine of dancing, vocal lessons, singing and music theory classes, it’s easy to forget the wider conversation the band is sparking and not just be impressed by their work ethic and drive to make it in a brutally competitive field. “If I wasn’t here, I would probably be busking,” jokes Lu Keran, the lead singer, “because all I’ve ever wanted is to perform.” It’s ironic, too, that in Chinese, the name Huati 华体 – as in Huati Culture Communications – is also a homophone for huati 话题, which means ‘topic of conversation’. As Acrush have increasingly been leveraged to talk about wider issues of women’s rights and the LGBT movement in China, the fact that they are a band of actual girls with their own aspirations and desires sometimes gets lost.

“I really care for these girls,” Zhou Xiaobai tells me, sitting on a sofa outside one of the practice rooms. “I found them myself, in different parts of China, and brought them here.” She pulls out her phone and shows me pictures of the girls when they were younger. “We didn’t make them dress like this,” she says, showing me a picture of Lin Fan. “They were always tomboys.” In the picture, Lin Fan looks a lot younger – maybe about 14 years old –  and is sat in her school uniform, the same ubiquitous zip-up tracksuits that school children wear across China. She had short hair then, too, and looks different to the rest of the girls in the photo. A moment later, Lin Fan herself pops up behind Zhou Xiaobai and grabs the phone. “See, haven’t I always been like this?” she says.

On my final day in Jinhua, after watching days of rehearsals, Zhou Xiaobai is outside smoking a cigarette. The summer humidity has congealed and turned into a light rain, which looks like ink drops on the dry tarmac. “What I really hope is that people will just judge them as artists, and rate them on the quality of their performances,” she says, “and not for all the other stuff.”

For their diehard fans, Acrush is more than a metaphor. After their performance in Wuhan, while the girls were signing autographs and taking pictures, Zhou Xiaobai wandered off and watched them from a distance, proud of what they’d achieved. Some fans asked if she was with Acrush, and she nodded. She turned to them and asked, “Why do you like us?” They shrugged. “We just do.”

Follow Barclay Bram on Instagram: @barclaybram