OUT of nowhere, around 30 couples materialize in crowded Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall and onlookers stare as they embrace and kiss long and passionately. Most are Chinese couples, but in some cases expat men kiss Chinese women, and in at least one case, two Chinese women kiss.
This was a rare display of public affection in China in late January and one of the more provocative examples of flash mobs, a relatively new phenomenon in China where people are taught to behave modestly and with restraint in public.
But mobs are catching on and there are a number of flash mob clubs, QQ flash mob chatrooms and video-sharing websites.
Chinese flash mobs (kuai shan or literally “fast flash” 快闪) are much more conservative than those in other countries where they are edgier, more outrageous, satirical and political. In China, they tend to be commercial, playful and artistic, as in performance art.
“Flash mob events appeal to Chinese young people who increasingly want to express themselves and their individuality,” says sociology professor Wu Gang at East China Normal University. “The appeal lies in casual and varied presentations in which people can just be themselves, and strike a chord with passersby.”
Permits are usually required for large-scale public gatherings in China, especially if there’s a hint of politics, so flash mobsters must tread carefully. Big events require advance permission from police, but there’s seldom an issue if mobs cooperate with shopping malls, institutions and commercial enterprises.
“Small flash mobs with healthy themes held at shopping malls don’t need to get permits, but big ones with dozens of people outdoors at squares and Metro lines need permits and should be reported in advance to public security teams,” according to an official surnamed Li from the Putuo District Public Security Bureau.
As with all mobs, people connect in advance by e-mail, social media or other media before gathering in plazas, Metro stations, train station and elsewhere.
Most, with some exceptions such as the kissers (we don’t know for sure), are well rehearsed and there aren’t many impromptu feather pillow fights or zombie walks, as in Western countries.
Many flash mobs are related to charities, culture and brand promotion. For example, a bunch of panda dancers show up to promote tourism in Sichuan, home of the pandas. And Chongqing traffic police sang and anced this month to promote safe driving, urging people not to run red lights.
“Compared with hilarious foreign flash mobs, Chinese performances still lack creativity and diversity,” says Jason Qi, senior organizer of a city flash mob club with around 400 members, aged from 6 to 40-something.
“That’s mainly because of stricter regulations here in public places,” says Qi, a 25-year-old IT professional. “Sometimes it’s hard for us to turn our ideas into reality. And we need more passion and emotional reaction from crowds interacting with us.”
Most of their events are small, brief, and held at shopping malls, so they don’t a permit in advance, but they ask permission from the malls’ security guards, he says.
His flash mobs promote environmental protection, care for autistic children and various commercial brands.
“We never hold events tackling political themes and never violate rules. We mostly sing and dance to convey positive life messages,” he adds.
The club has staged over 10 events since 2011 when it was founded.
The Nanjing Road kissing fest lasted for several minutes, then the couples disappeared into the crowds. Two minutes of video were posted online.
Now that the weather is warming up, more flash mobs are popping up.
Earlier this month, mothers breastfed their infants in Wuhan, Hubei Province. They staged a flash mob sit-in at a busy shopping mall.
They encouraged mothers to breastfeed because of increasing food safety scandals and sought facilities where mothers could breastfeed.
In another case this month, Beijingers suddenly appeared at the Midi Music Festival, dragging heads of cabbages on leashes as they moved around stages. Some people suggested it represented young and aimless college grad drifters who move to Beijing.
In late April, a flash mob event materialized at Shanghai Metro’s Jiangsu Road Station to mark World Book Day. Subway staff and others read books aloud to encourage people to read more books.
When Shanghai New York University opened last August, more than 200 freshmen from more than 40 countries staged a 3-minute flash mob dance.
Flash mobsters have surprised passersby by drinking cola together, wearing masks and posing as statues.
In January this year, more than 60 staff of Pudong International Airport did a flash mob dance to celebrate the Chinese Lunar new Year. They danced with passengers and sent them New Year’s greeting cards, couplets and small gifts.
Qi says he was thrilled the first time he watched a flash mob dance online several years ago.
“This action art mostly involved foreigners because it was very new to Chinese people,” he says. “I was struck by their courage and confidence in revealing themselves and their emotions in front of strangers,” he says.
He says the aim of his club is not commercial, though they are paid for some performances. “We do this for fun and we hope to inject some vitality and creativity in hectic urban lif,” he adds.
Earlier this month, a flash mob sang “The Drinking Song” from “La Traviata” at Shanghai K11 Art Mall, in an activity sponsored by FM94.7 of the Shanghai East Radio Co.
Female students from East China Normal University, wearing long dresses, suddenly appeared among crowds and sang as onlookers cheered and took photos with their cellphones.
“I am not a fan of classical music but I was touched by this scene in which everyone was immersed in music,” says Michelle Yang, an accountant in her 30s.
Over the past few years, a few flash mob events have been organized by the broadcasting company to raise public awareness of classical music, reading, a slow lifestyle and health.
Last year, radio announcers presented a “goose dance” with children at Xintiandi shopping hub, stretching their necks to emphasize good posture. They taught office workers from the neighborhood easy dance moves to prevent neck and back pain.
According to Chen Meng, marketing director of Shanghai East Radio Co, pedestrians used to feel wary of flash mobs, but now they are more open-minded and accepting since surprising things can happen in Shanghai.
“These scenes can inspire enthusiasm for art and different lifestyles, showing people other possibilities,” Chen says.
Eric Chan, director of operations at K11 mall, says flash mobs create an artistic and interactive atmosphere. “It shows creativity is flourishing in China.”
Other flash mobs
• Hong Kong’s first flash mob gathered in August 2003 when dozens of foreigners performed a ballet at a McDonald’s for one minute and then dispersed.
• In 2004 in Qingdao, Shandong Province, 30 young people wearing identical uniforms and masks mopped a bustling street with napkins.
• In the summer of 2010, 100 people staged a hip-hop dance at every corner of Wujiang Road, a pedestrian street, in Shanghai. Passersby joined in.
• On June 25, 2011, a flash mob marked the death of Michael Jackson and people performed Jackson dances at a shopping plaza in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province.
• In 2012, TV celebrities gathered at the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station, emerging from the crowd and singing, “Go Back Home Often,” to cheer passengers heading home for the Spring Festival holiday.
• In January 2014, a flash mob sang “Hero’s Dream” at the Shanghai Railway Station to encourage young people to engage in public service.