They're Big, but Not Yet Stars

Qian Jin Zu He, based in Nanjing, appears at store openings and industry conventions as well as nightclubs. Through its performances, the group hopes to change negative stereotypes in China about the obese, says one member.
Qian Jin Zu He, based in Nanjing, appears at store openings and industry conventions as well as nightclubs. Through its performances, the group hopes to change negative stereotypes in China about the obese, says one member. (Photo Courtesy Qian Jin Zu He)

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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 6, 2007

NANJING, China -- On the street, they are often the target of laughter or cruel whispers. Individually, they have all been denied jobs or their parents' praise.

On stage, however, the four members of a singing group known as Qian Jin Zu He are strong and confident, belting out their signature rap song, "So What If I'm Fat," passing out photographs of themselves and signing autographs.

The lead singer, 26-year-old Xiao Yang, is 375 pounds; the others in the group are between about 200 and 300 pounds. Together, they tour the country, performing at nightclubs, paint factories, garment industry conventions and shopping malls.

Their success has been modest, but given the powerful discrimination against the obese in China, Xiao said her discovery by a talent agent has been "like a tree branch saving me in the water."

The story of precisely how Xiao's group came to be is a window onto the challenges of being obese in a country where the ideal form of feminine beauty is delicate, girlish and small-boned. As China has grown more prosperous, the percentage of overweight citizens here has also grown. Still, those who are obese continue to struggle in relative solitude. Only about 7 percent of the population in China is considered obese, compared with 30 percent of the population in the United States.

Not long ago, having overweight children in China was viewed as a sign of prosperity. Even today, grandparents who can remember famines, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, tend to spoil and overfeed their grandchildren.

But chubby is no longer in fashion here, and image has become more important than ever. Summer boot camps for the overweight are springing up. In an increasingly competitive market, employers demand height and weight information from job candidates. And in higher education, fitness can now be a reason to reject college applicants, officials say, all other factors being equal.

"Chinese people now have a higher requirement for fashion and healthiness," said Wang Zeqing, a social psychologist who is leading a nationwide project analyzing the psychological health of Chinese. "Being fat, in people's minds, means not trendy and healthy."

Discrimination against the obese is inevitable, Wang said: "It's how society is now. Employers have countless choices. They can easily turn down a fat person and choose a better-looking one."

It was against this backdrop that Xiao struggled to make a life for herself. Growing up in the city of Xuzhou, in the eastern province of Jiangsu , she took weight-loss pills at age 5. Her embarrassed parents refused to hold her hand in public and enrolled her in what she recalls as a "devil eating program" that allowed participants to eat only fruit and drink only water.

Xiao recalled being rejected from three technical schools because of her obesity. She had wanted to become a chemistry teacher; though her test scores were not low, she said, officials feared she couldn't stand up in a classroom for 45 minutes at a time.

Four years ago, in desperation, Xiao placed an ad in a local newspaper, begging for someone to help her lose weight or find a job. Hu Zhi, a public relations agent based in Nanjing, saw it. He decided to add her to his roster of "special people" with unusual talents.


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