On the day of her audition, 21-year-old Cheng Xue got up at 6 in the morning to practice her lines.
“Annyeonghaseyo,” she said, using the Korean word for “hello.” “My name is Cheng Xue, and I’m so honored to be here today.”
She quickly memorized the line but was still anxious. “Everyone else will be able to say a full sentence in Korean except me,” she thought.
After blankly staring at the bathroom mirror for a while, she resolved to spend no more time fretting. Her train from Zhengzhou to Beijing, about 430 miles away, was scheduled to depart at noon. She had a ticket returning the same day. It was either get through or go home.
Cheng is part of a growing number of young Chinese people chasing dreams of K-pop stardom. South Korea’s take on boy- and girl-group music has become a global phenomenon with its catchy beats, choreographed dances, and highly stylized videos.
Bands like BTS and Blackpink have been dominating charts worldwide, with three of BTS’ albums topping the Billboard 200. (The boy band is the first since The Beatles to release three No. 1 albums in less than a year.)
The talent is no longer drawn from just South Korea. There are a number of agencies in China that also train young hopefuls on how to sing, dance, and compete in TV shows.
The process is competitive, and few people end up getting into the companies’ training programs, let alone see a debut. Cheng herself had sent her portfolio to nine companies. Only one invited her to audition.
That company, W-1, holds open calls for trainees twice a year. Thousands sign up, but only 100 remain after a week of competitive singing, dancing, and Korean tests.
Those 100 are then signed to the company, where they’re groomed to become K-pop stars.
The daily schedule is grinding, and many people quit halfway.
Meng Xi, 21, successfully joined W-1 last year as a part-time trainee. She is currently in her third year of undergraduate studies at China University of Political Science and Law, but she hopes to commit full-time to K-pop training when she graduates next year.
“I’m very stubborn about my goals,” Meng says.
Her daily schedule is grinding. In the mornings, she’ll attend classes at her university, but in the afternoon, it’s a strict regimen of singing and dance practice, followed by two hours of Korean language classes.
Meng often doesn’t get home until 10 pm. During breaks, she catches up on schoolwork, but if she were to train full time, she would also have to attend classes on how to pose, act, and build a personality for TV shows and competitions.
Many people, she says, quit halfway.
A lucrative business
K-pop has become a moneymaker in China, where boy and girl groups command a devoted following.
A number of big-name groups—Super Junior, Exo, and Miss A—have, or have had, members of Chinese descent, and they’ve also released songs in Chinese, giving the groups an even bigger boost in China.
The market for pop music in China is predicted to reach nearly $15 billion by 2020.
For the members, the opportunity is equally lucrative. Even after they leave their groups, the fanbase follows.
Kris Wu, for example, debuted as a member of Exo in 2012 and left in 2014, but he has since developed a successful solo career as a singer and actor, starring in some of China’s biggest blockbusters.
His former group mate, Lu Han, has also pursued a solo career, earning the nickname “China’s Justin Bieber” and boasting 60 million followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter.
The success of K-pop in China has pushed more agencies to recruit from the country, and even spawned a localized version of a Korean TV show, called 青春有你 (roughly translated to “You Have Youth”), where aspiring trainees compete for spots in a Chinese pop group. A report by Netease predicts the market for pop music in China could reach nearly $15 billion by 2020.
(Read more: Inside a Chinese social media influencer factory)
But life in the upper echelons of the K-pop world is not always glamorous. Artists go through intense training, and companies maintain strict control over their private lives.
Most agencies, for example, require artists to remain single in order to devote time to performing and maintaining a relationship with fans.
“The fact is that many aspiring Chinese K-pop stars just don’t want it enough.”
Chinese members of K-pop groups have accused their companies of treating them worse than their Korean peers.
Most notably, Lu and Wu both left Exo on acrimonious terms, accusing their agency, SM, of disregarding their health problems and treating them differently because they were Chinese.
Han Geng, one of the first Chinese K-pop stars, left his group, Super Junior, for similar reasons.
Despite the tough environment for K-pop artists, trainees like Meng continue to try breaking into the industry.
Meng believes many Chinese trainees flounder because they’re not used to the stress and pressure.
“Han Geng’s case was unfortunate, but the fact is that many aspiring Chinese K-pop stars just don’t want it enough,” she says.
“I didn’t even get to show them my singing!”
For now, Meng is working for W-1, but she believes she has what it takes to get to agencies in South Korea, including SM, the company that made Exo and Super Junior.
Cheng, on the other hand, is still trying to get her foot in the door.
“I didn’t even get to show them my singing!” Cheng tearfully recounted over the phone after her audition.
She was eliminated just seconds after opening her mouth. Apparently her Korean had not been good enough for the judges.