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For Chinese fans, popular teen band members are mama's boys
[BEIJING] Liang Shanshan considers herself a mother of two: one child is her biological son, the other is a 16-year-old Chinese teen pop star she has never met.
She is a "mother fan" and part of a group of women in their mid-20s to 60s whose maternal instincts are set off by China's boy band sensation TFBoys ("The Fighting Boys").
The band has won millions of Chinese followers since their 2013 debut, rapidly amassing a following ardent enough to buy a giant ad in New York's Times Square for a band member's birthday.
Mrs Liang insists her feelings are no fleeting fancy: just like a real mother, her devotion to TFBoys' singer Roy Wang (Wang Yuan) is unwavering.
"Our fandom isn't shallow," she explains, adding: "I intend to follow him through his entire career."
While tween fans are attracted to the teenagers' boyish good looks, Mrs Liang and her friends are drawn to their cherubic personas and wholesome values, with songs that explore the trials of growing up ("Practise Book for Youth," "Imperfect Kid").
Some, like 24-year-old Yang Andan, even make annual pilgrimages to Wang's hometown of Chongqing in southern Sichuan province.
"The more I learn about (Wang), the more I like him," Ms Yang said.
Mrs Liang's family has embraced her fandom. Her four-year-old refers to TFBoys as his "big brothers", and her husband accompanies her to concerts to see Wang, describing him as their "kid".
Anthony Fung, a Chinese University of Hong Kong professor who studies pop culture, said this trend of mothers who "worship young idols" began with teen stars of Korean dramas, which are hugely popular in China.
TFBoys are "quite Korean in aesthetic", he pointed out, adding that so-called mother fans are "repeating the same kind of relationship where they will follow an idol... from the beginning to the end".
"They love that kind of healthy, cute boy image," he explained.
Nearly a quarter of TFBoys fans are at least 30 years old - double the band members' age, according to a survey by Chinese media giant Sina.
Mr Fung says in some cases the obsession with TFBoys is a symptom of empty nest syndrome.
"The older fans may have kids who are grown up, so now they're looking for someone else to be at the centre of their attention," he said.
Affluent Chinese women, many of whom have only one child to spoil thanks to decades of the one-child policy, are more than happy to splash out on their celebrity kids.
To celebrate the birthday of TFBoys member Jackson Yi (Yiyang Qianxi) in November, fans flew a cake-shaped hot air balloon over New York and held a party on a cruise ship in Shanghai.
Sometimes, their loyalty is rewarded. On his 15th birthday, Wang debuted a song dedicated to his fans called "Because I Met You."
'My heart hurts'
A recent university graduate who works at a Beijing-based Internet company, Ms Yang said she has learned a lot from the singer nearly ten years her junior.
Every year, she gathers with fans in Chongqing to coat the streets with TFBoys posters in celebration of Wang's birthday, spending several sleepless nights on enormous decorations.
She has even seen her idol in person a handful of times, at meet-and-greets and as part of airport welcoming parties.
"Every time I see him I feel like I haven't seen enough," Ms Yang said.
"But my heart hurts thinking about how hard he works. I hope he'll have more time to rest."
Aside from his entertainment career, Wang also works with several charities and represented China earlier this year at the United Nations Youth Forum in New York.
The schedule doesn't leave him much time for his real family, which the star is only able to see a handful of times a year.
"My dream has always been to make enough money to buy my parents and grandparents a house," Wang said during a TV interview in February.
Ms Yang and Mrs Liang, who addressed each other by their fan aliases ("Mushroom" and "Goldfish" respectively), both vowed to remain loyal to Wang, whom they firmly believe is more talented and a better person than the other TFBoys.
Even when her childlike icon is a child no more, Mrs Liang said - in an echo of a TFBoys song - they can indulge in the "very joyful process of growing up together".
Like young people everywhere, however, TFBoys's more traditional teenybopper fans are not always happy to share their idols with people of their parents' generation.
"A girl at one of the concerts said my husband was too old to be there," Mrs Liang said with a shrug.