I called them Hooligans once, in passing.
And it stuck. It also caught on within my group of friends in Shenzhen, sprouting a new term for when referring to a group of them: hooligang. That is just what they are, though. They are young men from ages 18 to 25. They are loud, and they travel in packs of no less than four at a time. They wear tight washed out jeans with even tighter black shirts and jean jackets. They are Chinese millennials in big cities: they work in factories, hair salons, and restaurants. They love leopard print. Their hair comes in any colour, shape, and size you could possibly imagine. They walk around with their arms lazily hung around each other, laughing and chain smoking. They are misunderstood. And for our purposes, they have some of the most ridiculous and epic fashion you have ever seen.
A “Hooligang” on the Shenzhen metro. Just look at that hair. Beautiful.
They are not Hooligans in the sense that one might refer to the young and misguided poor that joined the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. They are Hooligans in the modern sense, inside of their own history; they don’t care about anything other than how their hair looks and where their next paycheque is coming from. They spend their money on beer, clothes, and going to twenty four hour internet cafe’s. They are dropouts of high school and middle school, or didn’t have the grades to go to college. They live in crammed apartments together. And in big cities, they are everywhere.
Photo credit to Haley Comisky
Hooligans are a complicated group, and they have a special place in my heart. All of the things listed above are true; they are those things. A combination of the rigorous school system in China and a lack of funds directly contribute to the vast numbers of the young working poor in China. They usually don’t have families – not because they are what you or I might consider too young, but because they are too poor to afford being married and having a child. If they do get married it is usually later in life, out of some sort of family arrangement, in their home towns. They are migrant workers from the “poor” provinces like Guangxi, Yunnan, Guizhou, Jiangxi, and Anhui. They have come to large cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou to find work that cannot be found in their hometown, and usually end up working in factories.
Their fashion is something unparalleled in any place I have ever been in the world. Whether they are short and stout or tall and skinny, their hair is the main focus of their appearance. It is gigantic. It is black or red or white or orange. They spend hours putting it all together. But there is one cardinal rule between them: Don’t. Touch. The. Hair.
One time I did touch one of my Hooligan friends hair jokingly. I immediately got a stern look of disapproval. “What’s the problem?” I asked. He was my friend – we had known each other for months.
“My hair is looking good right now. It took me an hour to do this. Don’t touch it.” And I never did again.
Hooligans are an interesting group of people because you don’t see any other group in China dressing the way that they do. Men of the same age, if they worked in a school for example, would not be dressed like this. Unlike in North America, where one might consider this a phase of the assorted youth, it is special to this group of men. If they are young and part of the large working force in China, you can guarantee they have Hooligan hair. You can guarantee that they wear leopard print and tight jeans with flashy belts. It is a give in that they are loud and don’t give a hoot about you or what is going on in society. If you are foreign it is a god damned guarantee that they will shout “HELLO!” at you every time they see you. (I personally liked to, from there, start a conversation with them in Chinese and watch all of their unabashed faces suddenly turn bright red.)
I am not here to point out their foibles. I am here to talk about how amazing I think their fashion sense is. It is like nothing you have ever seen. They will wear leopard print with stripes, belts with sharp metal attached, swanky shoes, copious amounts of jewellery. It’s like the 1980′s in America come to life – and that is no exaggeration.
It is simply stunning. Something that upon my arrival to China I didn’t understand or like. I thought they looked rather foolish in all of their tight, mismatched clothes. They think that simply wearing black pants with white tops makes them look formal. But the longer I stayed in China, the more I grew to like the style. They could literally wear anything and get away with it. It is because they do not care that they can get away with the style.
If you catch them at work, you’ll be able to single them out: they love to chain smoke and laugh uproariously. You can hear them from outside of their shops, laughing with their noses stuck in there phones. And if you ever come to China, you will know exactly who I am talking about when you lay eyes on them, even if they are in uniform (hint: they will be wearing tight pants).
Photo credit to Meredith Martz
So before you dismiss it as a phase of a certain age group, think again. It is not emo or goth or whatever. It is distinctive to a certain group of men that are part of a certain class group within China. And it is amazing, with a sense of camaraderie unchallenged the world over.