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April 21, 2016

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Papi cult: laughing all the way to the bank?

MONEY is no laughing matter. Just ask comedian Papi Jiang.

Jiang’s self-made comedy videos went viral on Chinese social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat, sending ripples of interest through the investment community.

In fact, venture capitalists plowed a combined 12 million yuan (US$1.86 million) into the Jiang phenomenon in mid-March. And now the comedian and her backers are set to host a first-of-its-kind auction today in Beijing, asking potential advertisers to bid for the exclusive rights to embed commercials in Papi Jiang videos.

It’s believed to be a groundbreaker in the convergence of Internet live-streaming and advertising.

“Some have estimated the final biding could reach a million, 5 million or even 20 million yuan,” Luo Zhenyu, one of the biggest investors in Papi Jiang’s first round of fundraising, told a media briefing ahead of the auction. “Well, I have no idea which estimate will come closest.”

Organizers have banned tobacco companies, liquor producers, online lenders and pharmaceutical firms from participating in the auction. Bidders are required to provide an upfront 1 million yuan deposit.

“Rules in the new media era have changed the landscape so much, that it’s hard to predict what sort of valuations this kind of streaming platform may be able to command,” Luo said. “We just have to wait and see what happen next.”

So who is Papi Jiang?

First you might ask yourself a few questions. Does your boss sometimes seem like a nincompoop? Are you tired of relatives nagging you to get married? Would you dare be seen out shopping if your hair was unwashed?

These dilemmas of everyday life are fodder for Jiang, who has shot to stardom on the Internet with more than 7 million followers on Weibo and millions of like-and-click hits on WeChat.

The 30-year-old sensation, whose real name is Jiang Yilei, is a graduate student in film directing at Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama. The Shanghai-born star has worked as a fashion model, storywriter and teacher. Her career path was unclear until when she started making videos -- just for the fun of it – and created the persona of Papi Jiang.

Since last August, she has produced more than 40 short videos parodying the trials and tribulations of daily life. In a crowded realm where so many selfies are vying for Internet stardom, Jiang stands heads above the rest.

There’s something about her satiric comedy that strikes a chord with people. It’s hard to replicate her biting wit in words, but here is a snippet of a routine included in her video entitled “Are you ready? It’s Spring Festival.”

It’s a dialogue between Jiang and an imaginary auntie distressed by her niece’s failure to get married before she reaches 30.

Papi Jiang (as the auntie): Have you got a boyfriend? How long have you dated him? Are you going to marry him? Is he rich? What’s his background?

Papi Jiang: Hmmm . . . When will the US enact gun-control laws?

Papi Jiang (as auntie): What! That’s totally none of your business!

Papi Jiang: It’s none of your business whether I get married or not.

Papi Jiang (as narrator): Now you have learned how to fight back, right? Don’t bother. I know you would never dare to speak aloud like that to your relatives. I truly hope that no one has to face these situations during the Chinese New Year.

Or consider this dialogue between Jiang and an imaginary boss in a clip entitled “Asking Boss Zhang How to Make a Film.” It pokes fun at senior managers who put on airs of importance but talk nonsense.

Papi Jiang (as the boss): I bought the copyright of a popular online novel story. Adapt it to a drama script.

Papi Jiang: Sure! As you wish!

Papi Jiang (as boss): But you have to add something, you know.

Papi Jiang: Like what?

Papi Jiang (as boss): Torment, of course! First, you time-travel the hero and heroine back to the Qing Dynasty…. No, the Qing Dynasty is used too often. Pick the Song Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty, Tang Dynasty and Warring States Period -- all of them in once. And show characters in torment. The hero kills the heroine, then later realizes he has killed the wrong person. Torment? Definitely a torment! Then let the heroine be reincarnated and kill him. Wow, wrong person again. Torment? Definitely a torment! Guess what happened next?

Papi Jiang: What?

Papi Jiang (as boss): They are both reincarnated into the war against the Japanese! The hero is a Party member, but the heroine is a spy. Party member kills spy, but again he realizes he has killed the woman he loves. Torment? Definitely torment!

Papi Jiang: (Speechless)

Papi Jiang (as boss): Why have you stopped taking notes, Papi?

Millions of Chinese young people, and even many in the older generations, laugh aloud at Jiang’s flawless fusion of Mandarin, Japanese, English and Shanghai dialect in her videos. Her fan club on Weibo proudly boasts that she deserves an Oscar for her performances.

“You can barely tell where one language starts and another ends because they all mix together so effortlessly,” said Lu Yang, a member of the fan club. “She’s so good that you feel like you are watching a real-life family drama.”

Chen Cun, 62, a Shanghai Literature Award winner, publicly praised Papi Jiang’s "wickedly sharp tongue.”

Challenges ahead

Too wicked at time, perhaps. Her littering of swear words in the videos didn’t sit well with censors. She was asked to remove some of the more offending videos and tone down her coarse language in future, People’s Daily reported.

Papi Jiang’s response? She released a new video ridiculing weight loss regimes. It didn’t contain any foul language. She vowed that her videos in future would adhere to “core socialist values.”

Her knack is for seizing common nuances of life and turning them into parodies.

“She is deconstructing hot social issues in a humorous way and capturing changing trends in public taste,” said Zhang Yi, chief executive officer of market consultancy firm iMedia Research.

The cyberworld loves the insouciance. Jiang stand apart from the so-called wang hong, or Internet celebrities, who are commonly women plying sexy personas to promote themselves and peddle food, cosmetics and clothing.

She parodies the common foibles of everyday people and the absurdities of social conventions. Though she wears little makeup and dresses down, fans say she looks like French actress Sophie Marceau.

Her video series included titles such as “How to Survive as a Boyfriend” and “Why Your Girlfriend Didn’t Like the Gift You Bought Her.” The light tone of these videos was a hit with male fans.

Wu Xiaobo, a well-known freelance analyst, said he sees a looming proliferation in Papi Jiang-style video personalities this year.

“The rise of social media and the lower cost of making short online videos are creating an Internet phenomenon,” Wu wrote.

Successful self-made online stars like video blogger Michelle Phan appeal to a community of followers who share their interests. Phan launched her career as a makeup designer and entrepreneur, thanks to her video postings on

“You perhaps see Papi Jiang as enjoying five minutes of fame in the limelight, but I see the endless potential of her transformation into something much greater,” said leading investor Luo on in his official WeChat account back in March.

Luo joined Zhen Fund, Lighthouse Capital and Xingtu Capital to take a combined 12 percent stake in Papi Jiang’s performances.

Some wonder if Jiang’s popularity will suffer because of commercialization. They fear that chasing profit will break the amateur aura that attracts online audiences.

Professional investors beg to differ.

“Papi’s fans aren’t drawn to her by conscience or deep values but rather by the desire to be entertained,” said Chen Yuetian, investment director at Innovation Works, who oversees Internet and mobile Internet start-ups.

Some Internet celebrities try to generate profit by selling peripheral products like CDs or high-heels, he said. Revenue from advertising makes better sense for Papi Jiang and she has chosen the right path, he added.

Die-hard fans say Papi Jiang’s talent can withstand anything.

“As long as she keeps uploading funny videos, I will watch them,” said Lian Wei, a 50-something fan.


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