‘Plus Size’ Boy Band In China Seeks To Inspire Fans

BEIJING | Gathered in a practice room, five buxom young men dressed in baggy black sweaters pat their bellies and wave their arms. Bearded double chins, they shout “Hoo-Ha!” in time to beat the African drums.

The choreography is for the new song “Good Belly” by Produce Pandas. DING, Cass, Husky, Otter and Mr. 17 weigh an average of 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and proudly call themselves “the first group of plus-size boys in China”.

That’s a radical departure from the industry norm seen in South Korean supergroups such as BTS, whose lanky young members are sometimes referred to in China as “little fresh meat.”

Still, it seems to be working for Produce Pandas, who shot to fame after doing about half of “Youth with You,” an idol talent contest hosted by iQiyi, one of China’s biggest video platforms.

On the show, mentors and audience voters choose nine finalists, either individuals or members of a group, to come together to form a new group.

“The five of us may not have the standard boy band look and shape, but we hope to use the term ‘plus-size band’ to break aesthetic stereotypes,” Cass said in an interview.

The five, two of whom once sang in bars, are also unusual for their relatively advanced age in an industry that reveres youth and stamina. Most of their fellow competitors on “Youth with You” started training in the South Korean style during their teenage years.

While Produce Pandas has excited audiences and sparked discussions about looking like a pop idol, some taunts have also surfaced online.

Users of China’s Weibo microblog snapped up the Chinese word for panda, a namesake of which appears in the Chinese name of the Japanese horror movie “Ring”, suggesting watching them dance was just as chilling.

Mr. 17, the group’s lead dancer, was the competition’s oldest contestant at 31. He had been discovered on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, where he posted clips of himself dancing in his pajamas or holding a bowl of rice.

He dubbed himself “17” after his favorite age. The former oil company worker says he doesn’t feel old, but admits that after rehearsals “I felt my energy drained”.

The five were tapped from over 300 hopefuls by Beijing-based DMDF Entertainment, who wanted to build a group that would be round and approachable as well as inspiring.

Husky, who worked in IT, thought he would fit in perfectly because he’s been chubby since elementary school and has repeatedly failed to lose weight.

“I often train one day and then rest for the next three days, so the result is clear that I gained weight instead,” he said. It’s about “getting fit (and) not to lose weight, but to lose fat.”

Echoing Husky, Cass said the good thing about being on such a team is that they don’t have to abstain when it comes to food.

“We don’t mind eating like a horse. I pity the “little fresh meat” gangs whose members have to diet to stay lean. I feel good every time they watch longingly while we dig!

Team leader DING quit plus-size modeling when he heard about auditioning for an “XXL” boy group, saying, “I think that’s probably the closest I can get to be on a magazine cover.”

The five are currently working on a new album, featuring songs such as “Pursue Your Dreams.”

“Get on a horse and chase your dreams. Don’t waste your time,” the lyrics go.

Singer Otter, who has idolized South Korean boy band Super Junior since the age of 7, never thought he could be part of a group that lives and performs together and, more importantly, encourages ordinary people.

“I hope people will feel encouraged watching our performance,” he said. They may think, “If Produce Pandas can break through and perform on a bigger stage, then ‘why can’t I?'”

Associated Press video producer Olivia Zhang in Beijing and AP Entertainment writer Juwon Park in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

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