In Chinese cities during the mid-2000s, one would often spot youngsters sporting wildly-shaped hair, eccentric clothing, and heavy makeup. They often formed groups known as “families” after meeting each other through the internet. With inspirations from goth and Japanese’s Visual Kei, this subculture was known as Shamate (杀马特).
Despite their rebellious and defiant appearances, this subculture was born from rural migrant workers (农民工), a phrase which describes workers with rural household registration who are employed in urban workplaces and live in urban areas. They were not necessarily born in rural areas.
What determines whether someone is a rural migrant worker depends on a household registration system called hukou (户口). Each town and city has its own hukou which grants residents access to welfare services in that jurisdiction. This system generally categorizes towns and cities as urban or rural. No matter where a child is born, they will have the same hukou as their parents. This system was meant to ensure that the rural population stayed in the rural areas.
However, economic reforms in the 1980s led to cities needing cheap labor. In a huge migration, hundreds of people from rural areas poured in to work in big cities. In the process, many parents left their children behind. These cities were largely unwelcoming to rural migrant workers.
From these abandoned children of rural migrant workers sprung up the widely misunderstood Shamate subculture. It is a transliteration of the English word “smart”. The founder of this subculture, Luo Fuxing, believed that the word “smart” meant “fashion”. The result was a nonsensical jumble of words that came to be the title for many abandoned children.
These children of rural migrant workers faced a severe gap in understanding China’s mainstream culture. They had limited access to information, received insufficient education, and often didn’t have enough family members or peers to teach them how to fit in. Many grew up thinking the struggles they faced were faced by everyone.
Once they moved to cities and got jobs in factories, they were often victims of factory injuries and exploitation. Many had to work for hours on end, getting little pay and facing mistreatment.
Despite what many seemed to think, Shamate was never meant to go against mainstream culture. Rather, it was a way for them to express themselves. In a documentary called We Were Smart, the founder of the Shamate, Luo Fuxing, said about their work in factories, “It feels like you’re living in a cage. You don’t know what’s outside, you don’t know anything. So you made yourself hard and sharp, like a porcupine.”
The first step to becoming a Shamate and the most iconic part is the hair. Their hair is usually in bright colors such as blue, red, or yellow, often styled into spikes like a hedgehog or into thick tufts. Hair is a sign of a Shamate’s status. Some barbers specialized in styling this type of hair.
Some like to pair their hair with similarly bright clothing, while others pair it with black clothing. Capris, tank tops, tattoos, and distinct makeup are popular, with glam rock and punk inspiring their outfits.
Many couldn’t afford personal computers, so they used the computers at internet cafes to meet others like them. After grueling work hours, they would gather together in groups to forget their troubles. They held breakdance contests, posted pictures online, and got their hair styled in their signature neon puffs. They met in public parks and roller rinks. They’d have heart-to-heart talks about their struggles and hopes for the future. Meeting with other Shamate gave them something to look forward to.
Unfortunately, this subculture only lasted as a solace for so long. China’s mainstream viewed the Shamate as a sign of China’s lack of refinement. Middle class citizens didn’t like the rural workers “intruding” into their cities. This led to tolerance for Shamate plummeting. Factory bosses slowly stopped putting up with Shamate’s wild way of dress. When they posted pictures online, they were extensively mocked. Some were bullied and even beaten by strangers on the street.
After being neglected in their rural villages, exploited in their factory jobs, they had to put up with further harassment for being Shamate. Many chose to fade back into the crowd.
They dressed normally, cut off their hair, and became ordinary factory workers again. Surprisingly, many ended up becoming friends with the people who used to despise the Shamate.
Though the Shamate subculture has nearly died out, the migrant rural worker community they came from is still an integral part of modern China.
According to the China Labour Bulletin, the number of rural migrant workers in China’s urban areas increased from 285.6 million in 2020 to 292.5 million in 2021. They account for over a third of China’s working population, yet these workers are often looked down upon.
The pandemic has made things harder for rural migrant workers, too. Many struggle to travel between their cities and their rural hometowns, which leads to having very limited contact with their family members. Many workers have had to sleep under bridges and struggle to make livelihoods.
In the past few years, there has been renewed interest in this subculture. Many news outlets have written articles on this topic, and reporters flock to interview former members. Between all the mocking, interest, and assumptions, it’s nearly been forgotten what Shamate even means or why anyone would want to become a part of it.
Little Shamate Princess, a 21-year-old girl working in a factory, explained to Jiemian Global what drew her to this subculture. She explained, “We are normal people who love the shamate hairstyle. People look at me like I'm a superstar. It feels good to be a superstar.”
Each individual tries to escape their troubles in different ways. Why don’t we let everyone be a superstar in the way they want to?
About the Author:
Selina Li is a talented 14-year-old writer for The Bittermelon; she is currently the program leader for the Herbal Tea and Hormones Program and likes instant noodles.
China Labour Bulletin. “Migrant Workers and Their Children.” China Labour Bulletin, 26 May 2022, clb.org.hk/content/migrant-workers-and-their-children. Accessed 17 Sept. 2022.
Zhai, Xingli, and Yingxin Liang. “More than Just a Hairstyle: Will the Shamate Kids Ever Grow Up?-Jiemian Global.” En.jiemian.com, 24 Nov. 2020, en.jiemian.com/article/5311700.html. Accessed 17 Sept. 2022.
Yin, Yijun. “Death of a Subculture: The Life of a Former “Shamate.”” Sixth Tone, Sixth Tone, 28 July 2016, www.sixthtone.com/news/1133/death-of-a-subculture-the-life-of-a-former-shamate. Accessed 17 Sept. 2022.
Zhang, Henry, and Luyao Chang. “Luo Fuxing: “the Last of the Shamate.”” Guernica, 1 June 2021, www.guernicamag.com/luo-fuxing-the-last-of-the-shamate/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2022.
Meng, Siyuan. “Shunned, Shattered, Shamate: Telling the Story of China’s Most Hated Subculture — RADII.” Stories from the Center of China’s Youth Culture, 24 Dec. 2020, radii.co/article/shamate-documentary. Accessed 27 Sept. 2022.
Angelos, Ayla. “In Smart Kids, Alex Huanfa Cheng Explores the Demise of a Lost Chinese Subculture.” Www.itsnicethat.com, 18 Feb. 2022, www.itsnicethat.com/articles/alex-huanfa-cheng-smart-kids-photography-180222.