Produce Pandas are a true anomaly in China’s music industry, which churns out dozens of cookie-cutter boy bands every year. These guys don’t have chiselled looks and eyeliner – this chubby, cuddly outfit is China’s first plus-sized boy band.
With ages ranging from 22 to 31, they’re practically geriatric considering many idols start training for a showbiz career in their teenage years. But maturity and a rotund figure is exactly what the star agency behind the band was looking for when they started recruiting members in 2018.
The five members were chosen from 300 candidates, said Young Luo of agency DMDF Entertainment’s artists and repertoire division, and the outfit made their debut in July with the single La La La .
“Using all kinds of channels, we asked star scouts to recommend chubby guys to us. We wanted to break the stereotypes and the industrial-factory standard on what an idol group should look and act like.
“We also wanted to create an idol group that could be true role models for ordinary people, showing that everyone can achieve success and their dreams as long as they are passionate. Unlike typical boy bands, Produce Pandas portray happiness, liveliness, fun, energy and adventure.”
The chance to join Produce Pandas was a dream for Otter, who like all band members has not revealed his full Chinese name. The 22-year-old from Liaoning province, a former Amazon customer representative in Beijing, said when he was a child all he wanted to be was a pop star.
“Korean pop group Super Junior are my idols, but before, I thought I didn’t have what it takes to be in a boy band. When I was working for Amazon, I sang part-time at a youth hostel [in Beijing], mostly performing classic songs. When I submitted my resignation to the youth hostel [to join Produce Pandas’ full-time training], the hostel boss said I needed to lose weight as boy band trainees aren’t fat. But [DMDF] likes me. I feel so lucky.”
Fellow member Mr 17, from Jiangsu province, the eldest in the band at 31, said his family objected to him giving up a stable job at a petroleum refinery to join the band.
“I worked at Sinopec [the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation] before. My parents also work there. My father thought it was risky to [join a boy band] at this age. But it has been my dream since I was young to be in a band. I had to take the chance.”
They may have only 6,600 followers on their YouTube channel but with their songs topping the Chinese pop category on iTunes in Japan, Mr 17’s bet seems to have paid off.
“I told my dad about everything we did, such as our trip to Bali [before the pandemic, to make the music video for the single Sui Sui Nian ]. He never said anything. But in August we went on [Chinese national broadcaster] CCTV, and my dad posted the news on his social media,” Mr 17 said.
October 15 saw the release of their debut album, titled A.S.I.A . It contains eight Chinese songs themed around eight Asian destinations, as well as two songs sung in English.
Fortune Cat , with its electronic sound inspired by video games, revolves around Japanese culture and Tokyo. The Paramount Show is inspired by the swinging pre-communist era in Shanghai. Other tracks deal with Hong Kong, Beijing, India’s Bollywood industry and Bangkok.
Young said their plans to film music videos in the different Asian destinations were scuttled by the coronavirus outbreak.
“We did the first shoot in Bali for Sui Sui Nian right before the start of the pandemic, but in the end the remaining music videos were shot in Beijing where we are based. The Bali music video features 15 scenic spots on the island and the Balinese authorities have used it to promote their tourism industry.”
The songs are performed in various Chinese dialects such as Cantonese and Taiwanese, as well as in English. The debut single La La La – which is also included on the new album – is about China’s Sichuan province, famous for its pandas. The five members sing in the Sichuan dialect about local culture, such as the province’s renowned hotpot .
While all five members come from China, their target audience is the whole of Asia, Young said.
“When making the debut album, we looked for songs [from writers] from all over the world. So far, the band are very popular in Japan as the Japanese market is more open to novel concepts like this. And we have plans to create songs in even more languages.”
Even though they might not look much like other boy bands, Produce Pandas underwent the same rigorous training as any other budding act hoping to make it big in Asia.
Ever since May last year they have received training every day in a studio lent by a centre for the elderly in Beijing, which is also where they live, with only one rest day a week.
Otter said he found the training quite harsh in the beginning.
“I wake up at around 8am. The training goes from 9am to 1pm, then 2.30pm to 5.30pm, and 7pm to 10pm.”
Former pub singer Cass, 29, from Jiangsu province, said he felt so exhausted by the training that he sometimes broke down in tears.
“I did not have any gym training before. So the physical fitness lessons were quite tough for me in the first month. But it’s been worth it. When we performed in Chengdu, I was surprised to find that we are quite popular. The audience sang with us when we performed La La La .”
Ding, 26, a former plus-sized fashion model , said he hoped more people would come to appreciate Produce Pandas.
“While we may be fatter than other guys [in other boy bands], we get the same vocal and dancing training as them. During my four years working as a plus-sized model, I did many fashion shoots for e-commerce platforms. When I first joined the fashion industry, chubby boys were in the minority. But recently, being chubby has become something of a new style as there are now more dancers, singers and models who are a bit fat.”
Instead of focusing on their figures, Husky, 25, from Harbin in China’s Heilongjiang province, said he hoped people would be inspired by their story.
“Mainstream male idols sell the idea of being cool and handsome. We are more approachable, and are able to play with the audience to make them happy.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.