Thomas Cheung had been on TikTok for about six months when a company called Erka Media offered to make him a big star in China.
“At that time, we had a string of super, super viral videos,” the former retail worker said. “I mean, we were all over the Internet. We had PewDiePie reviewing us.”
Thomas’s account, “The Chainz Family” has more than 4 million followers on the wildly popular video app. The 32-year-old Sydneysider has become something of a niche celebrity due to the success of his comedy skits, which feature him and his sweet-natured grandmother, who often co-stars.
Erka Media pitched a deal to help set him up on the domestic Chinese version of TikTok, known as Douyin. Something that’s otherwise difficult without a Chinese phone number.
The company said it would advise which of his clips might work for local audiences, Thomas claimed. It would translate or add subtitles, where necessary — and take a cut of any local advertising deals in exchange.
Erka Media calls itself a multi-channel network or MCN on its website — a type of company that manages the accounts of content creators across multiple social and video platforms in China, with a focus on importing overseas stars.
It even claims on its website to work with big American YouTube personalities like Neels Visser, who denied any association to the ABC. Erka Media did not respond to repeated requests for comment about this, nor about Thomas’s account.
What works in the Chinese market
All over the world, social media platforms feed off new faces. In China, the power of “wanghong” or internet celebrity or KOLs (key opinion leaders) on social media has been stratospheric.
The competition for eyeballs among an exploding number of social and video platforms is also fierce.
Amelia Darmawan, strategy director at a social media advisory service Totem, looks for influencers outside China who might work domestically on various video platforms, such as Haokan.
All kinds of content can work for this crossover market, according to Amelia — music, dance, cooking or comedy — but not if it’s too language based. And not if it’s about politics.
In an era where just one tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests can cause an international incident for the National Basketball Association, few companies are likely to take a risk.
“I think that the kind of content that we’d be looking to bring into the Chinese market at this point wouldn’t be highly political or polarizing,” she said.
Thomas said so far, his “wholesome” content fits the bill: “I think that the content that I make with my grandma, it’s universal,” he said.
The search for fame
For influencers or content makers outside China, it could be an uphill battle to reach the heights of homegrown stars such as style icon Zhang Dayi.
Dr Haiqing Yu, who researches the socio-political impact of China’s digital media at RMIT University, speculated that not being Chinese could be a marketing benefit for an ambitious influencer.
“The non-Chinese face on social media platforms would give an exotic flavour, particularly if that Caucasian face can also speak Chinese,” she suggested.
But Elijah Whaley, who worked until recently at the Chinese influencer marketing platform Park Lu in Shanghai, says there are few examples of influencers from outside China truly succeeding in the local market.
For one thing, internet users in China who are interested in foreign social media stars are likely to use a VPN and access their account directly.
There is also a cottage industry where “super fans” rip popular content off Instagram or YouTube, add regional subtitles and aggregate it on local video platforms.
MCNs like Erka Media promise to act as intermediaries, but it can be hard to know who to partner with.
That’s one reason why Veronica and Vanessa Merrell, who go by the Merrell Twins on YouTube, have been cautious when approached by companies offering to set them up with social media accounts overseas.
They want to make sure credit is given and videos aren’t taken out of context. “We have to be cautious about who we give access to,” Veronica said.
In any case, simply transferring clips from Instagram, for example, onto a local platform like Xiaohongshu or Little Red Book is likely to cause mismatch in content and context, according to Elijah.
The people who will succeed in his view, will be “specifically making stuff for China”.
How to make money
Ambitious influencers will also need to adapt to a different type of social media economy.
On YouTube, popular users can make money by running ads against their content, but that system is not dominant on Chinese platforms.
Instead, content makers are more likely to make money by selling goods or winning brand sponsorships.
“It’s also one of the reasons why influencers over here are so much more expensive and popular,” Elijah said.
“Brands don’t have very good native marketing tools within the social platform and content platforms … so they have to work with influencers.”
While all social media is transactional by design, Elijah suggested direct commerce is more overtly prioritized by design.
There is typically a seamless transition from an influencer’s post about a product to payment, for example.
Media anthropologist Dino Ge Zhang agreed that few Chinese video platforms share ad revenue. Instead, “more explicit brand deals” are key.
Thomas describes the Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, as “a full economical ecosystem”, where an item advertised in a video can be purchased with just a few clicks.
For now, this aspect of his experiment with Douyin — the making of money — is going through “growing pains”.
He needs to be approved by Douyin as a commercial user so he can start monetising. Only then will he know if the experiment will pay off financially.
The power of the diaspora
There is also a large cohort of Chinese diaspora aiming for stardom on Chinese social media. In Park Lu’s database, Elijah can list dozens of KOLs based in Australia.
Often Mandarin-speaking students in their late teens or early twenties, Dr Yu has found local KOL incubators, or companies that offer services that help them develop their profile on platforms like Weibo.
These businesses may provide professional photographers and sets, while also offering the services of a public relations or advertising company.
But ambitious internet personalities in and outside China face an oversaturated market.
Elijah believes there is now a KOL or influencer bubble in China. “Top tier KOLS, essentially now are celebrities,” he said.
“But again that’s the top 1 per cent. Just like in sports or music or anything. So the top 1 percent are killing it and essentially everybody else is starving.”
The KOL industry is also professionalised, with aspiring stars even entering training schools before starting their careers. And ultimately, not everyone can make it.
“The few extremely successful examples quoted in Western media (such as Papi Jiang) who made it as amateurs are not representative of the majority of the industry where most people are still grinding everyday,” Dino said.
It’s not a lifelong career for anyone, Dr Yu agreed.
“There is a precarity involved in this industry. Being young means that they’re willing to take the risk,” she said.
Thomas, who has Chinese heritage, feels the benefit of his connection to the country via Douyin — both for family, and hopefully, for his finances.
“If there [are] opportunities, I hope we are an obvious choice.”