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My starring role in a video with English subtitles that made no sense at all

The social media platform has about 600 million daily active users, and lots of people want a piece of the action, as Denis Staunton found out when a man from Inner Mongolia came calling

There was a blizzard on its way into Beijing in a couple of days and my friend knew he would be trapped at home for much of the week with his mother-in-law, who was visiting for a month. They got on well enough but he felt that every hour away from her was a bonus for both of them so he suggested we spend the evening together.

He said he would come to my place and mentioned something about a video, which I understood to mean we might watch one. Half an hour early, he sent a message to say he had arrived.

“I’m outside the gate with my cameraman. Can you come out and let us in?” he said.

The cameraman was a 22-year-old law student who, like my friend, was from Inner Mongolia and his camera was a mobile phone. My friend was dressed as I had never seen him before in a black leather jacket with a microphone clipped to the lapel and his hair gelled into a pompadour.


“This is his first time as my cameraman,” he said, nodding towards the law student.

“I have another friend who does it but she keeps telling me I should do it this way or that way. He will just do what I tell him.”

I was one of a number of friends he was videoing at home and he planned to splice us all together into a single short video which he would post on Douyin, the domestic Chinese version of TikTok. He appeared to have the storyboard worked out and when we arrived at my building he told me to go upstairs and wait while he did a piece to camera outside.

After some stagy greetings inside, the camera remained on him all the time as he asked me to show him around while we talked about my life and times and how I liked being in China. I showed him the huge map of China on my office wall but he was distracted by a photograph of me when I was younger, his eyes flicking between me and the picture in horrified fascination.

Over a hotpot at HaiDiLao an hour later, my friend outlined his social media strategy, which he said was about attracting the right audience rather than the biggest one. After he had established a relationship with them, he might be able to interest them in the company he worked for and the products they sell.

Douyin has more than 600 million daily active users in China and KOLs (key opinion leaders) can make fortunes promoting brands through live-streams and other formats. Some star in their own short-form dramas or soap operas, with each episode lasting only a few minutes.

Like other Chinese social media apps, Douyin is a more sophisticated ecommerce platform than any of its western counterparts. And it has recently started charging users for some content, opening up a new revenue stream for the platform and the creators who use it.

As he tipped some more lamb into the hotpot, my friend started to issue a lecture on life to the law student, telling him to forget about interning with a judge and to find a mentor at a private company.

“He’s stubborn. People from Inner Mongolia are very stubborn. I used to be stubborn,” he said.

“He needs to find a good guide. The company doesn’t matter. Find the guide and follow him. Isn’t that right?”

The law student started to fall asleep.

He was at one of Beijing’s elite universities where they house six to a room in small dormitories with narrow bunk beds and he found it difficult to sleep there. He told me he had slept for only three hours the previous night and I said I would not enjoy sharing a room with five other people either.

“There are 1.4 billion of us. We have to sleep somewhere,” my friend said.

The following day, he sent me a voice message with a 90-second video of our interview in which he looked marvellous and I did not. The sound was a crackle with both of our voices almost inaudible.

“The video is good actually. It’s just a problem with the microphone. I’m so sad, you know,” he said.

He didn’t stay sad for long and a little later, he sent a new, three-minute version with the same sound quality and with English subtitles that made no sense at all.

“I will try harder,” he said.