In less than two years, 'Afu' (阿福) Thomas has become a household name in Shanghai. He has over 646,000 followers on Weibo; he's racked up more than thirteen million views on Bilibili; and thousands of Chinese netizens tune in every day to his videos to follow his regular exploits, living his life out there in the world.
Thomas Derksen is a Weibo “Wanghong” — a "micro-celebrity" who makes his living creating original video content on social media. Part of an online phenomenon sparked by Papi Jiang, Afu Thomas is known for his Mandarin fluency and spot-on Shanghainese. The 28-year-old is originally from a small town in Rheinland, Germany, but now he's married to a Shanghainese wife and makes his living entirely through vlogging in China.
In one of his most popular videos, he plays two roles: as himself and his Shanghainese driving instructor. The comedic element of the video is Afu getting bullied by his instructor. Then the video takes an unexpected turn when he questions a couple of shifus at driving schools about why they act so mean all the time. As they explained their perspectives, the music swells and the comedy disappears.
It's "everyday life stuff" mixed with "hey, why can't we all get along".
Meeting Thomas in person, he's exactly what you would expect from watching his videos: boisterous, bubbly, boyish, and he speaks with an almost childlike rapidity. As someone with a generally pessimistic world view, even I have to say, it's hard not to get won over by his earnestness and positivism about international relations.
So read on. SmartShanghai talked to 21st century digital vlogging boy Afu Thomas about China internet fame.
SmSh: When you started to make videos, were you expecting to receive this much attention?
Thomas Derksen: No, no, no. I had no plan. When I have to give a speech or something I always make a joke in the beginning that I made a big business plan and I made a market analysis and everything. But that wasn't the case. It’s a joke because when we started this we just made it for fun.
I went on a TV show before called “生活大不同” [Editor's note: a Chinese talk show where expat students talk about their life in Shanghai]. And when I came back from Germany two years ago, I initially planned to go back to the TV show, but it got canceled. So my friends asked me "why don’t you make some videos on your own, you can make your own TV show." And I thought 'why not, it doesn’t have any cost'. So we just started with an iPad at home, and we were just writing the text on our own.
Then our second video went viral.
SmSh: That was the son-in-law video.
Thomas: Yeah, and then I really liked it. I like the interaction with followers, and I like to learn new stuff. When I worked in the bank before, and my wife in a lawyer’s office, we didn’t have to do anything with social media or video editing and so on. It was a new area for me and I was willing to learn how to edit videos. So it was great stuff.
Thomas: We have now two people working with us together, but most of the work we still do on our own. Because it’s our passion, you know. I like to make videos and to edit, and my wife loves to write the scripts.
SmSh: Where do you get your subject matter from? Are you looking out into society and commenting on it?
Thomas: Normally, we don’t use hot topics. I don’t like gossiping or talking about other people. That’s not my kind of stuff. What I like is family-friendly stuff that makes people happy. Because there is so much bad news, and so many aggressive people on the internet and everywhere, spreading hate. I want to make the opposite. That’s why I have a limited scope of the stuff I talk about -- mostly about family, mostly “接地气” (down to earth). Topics from everyday life and positive topics. We also ask a lot of friends “what are you thinking about?” or “what are other people talking about in your friend circle and your WeChat recently?” So they help us a lot.
SmSh: I see generally very positive comments on your videos.
Thomas: Yes, yes! That’s a thing I’m very surprised about. On one hand, I don’t talk bad things about other people, so that’s probably why not a lot of people talk bad about me. There are some bad comments, but when I compare it to other YouTubers or people on Chinese social media, I see the rate is very very small. That’s what makes me very happy, and also says I’m on the right path.
I think it’s great because it shows with that little power I can change the world a little bit, and make it a better place.
Every time I post a video I reply to the comments myself, and when I see people sending messages to me saying “Afu, today I had a very bad mood but I saw your video and it makes me very happy”, this is what makes me really proud. This is what counts the most for me.
SmSh: You talk a lot about the good things in China and about positive aspects of Chinese society. Where is your positivism about life in China coming from? How are you feeling compelled to praise China?
Thomas: I think it’s not about praising China. Because I’m also proud of being German, and I’m also partly Chinese. I think if you want to see the bad things about Germany or the bad things about China you’ll have to watch the news and don’t come to Afu -- because it is not my purpose making these videos.
Sometimes I feel like I want to show the German people or the European people the good side of China, and the Chinese people the good side of Germany. Because we’re such an interconnected world and we’re living in a very globalized time now. In a time before, when I said to the taxi driver I’m from Germany, and they would say "wow, Germany is very good, we can learn from Germany." But now I think in a lot of aspects we Germans also can learn from China and Chinese people. That’s why I really want to promote the good side, and I hope it’s getting better.
As you know, there’s no perfect country. Germany is not perfect, China is not perfect. Wherever you go you will find bad people, you will find bad stuff to talk about. That’s not what I like to talk about because I think there’s enough negativity in the world.
Thomas: No, she didn’t unfortunately. I worked at a bank before in Germany for more than three years so this is the topic I’m really really interested in. And I have a lot of friends working in Hangzhou for Alipay, so whenever I get some information I’m happy to work together with them. I think this is a very convenient part of living in China that you don’t have to take cash with you outside. And in Shanghai, you can take the metro with just your mobile phone since a couple of days ago. This is great stuff for me and I really wish something like this could be promoted in Germany. So that’s why I am always very very active in this area.
SmSh: But the supermarket Rossmann, they reached out to you and took your advice, right? How did that partnership come about?
Thomas: Yes, yes. Through our platform, we had the opportunity to meet a lot of people and some friends introduced us to other people. They want to make it more convenient for Chinese customers in Germany to buy their products, that’s why they cooperated with Alipay. I’m a German living in China so it was a perfect opportunity for me to support them.
SmSh: In your videos you mostly talk about your personal life, some of your videos featuring your mother and father in law, and of course, your wife. How does being a "digital influencer" change your behavior in real life and your relationships with family and friends?
Thomas: When I go out in the city center people recognize me. So I have to watch my behavior more than I did before. I cannot pick my nose in the public, I cannot cross the red light, (I would never do it on purpose) because I’m always aware people are watching me. It has the influence. There’s a Chinese saying “人怕出名猪怕壮” (“people fear to get famous like pigs fear fattening up (for the slaughter)”), so it has a lot of disadvantages.
It’s not that I would encourage all the young people to become an internet celebrity because there’s a negative side also. But for me, I’m not the kind of “偶像” (idol), like those who have young girls [followers] who don’t give you any privacy. It’s not that I’m comparable to TF Boys or Angelababy, they really don’t have any privacy.
SmSh: When you are documenting your private life, like in the China Air video where you shot your experience with your wife after being upgraded to first-class, having a meal together, I’m curious, does recording everything also suck the joy out of it?
Thomas: It’s work. Shooting the video and editing the video takes time and a lot of effort, it’s not as easy as it looks. But it’s a different kind of joy. The way I see it, particularly this video, a lot of people liked it on YouTube and other platforms, they said it’s very very interesting, so it brings me another kind of joy. It’s not that I can’t be lazy on the flight to Germany or in a hotel because we’re doing videos.
SmSh: How much creative control do you have when you’re working with advertisers?
Thomas: We’re very very picky with our advertisers. We only work with brands that we really like. I would never recommend anything to my followers that I don’t like. Because if you do it once or twice and the followers would know and it’s not okay. When we are doing content for them, my wife is very strict, she would say: "this is what we’re doing, we’re doing it in this style and this content, if you don’t like it then see you next time." This is our attitude. Because we have the experience now, we know what kind of content works good on our platforms, what kind of advertising or product placement people like to see. What we do is we try to make it into our content and let people see, "okay, even it’s an advertisement it’s very "用心的 (earnest)".
SmSh: There are many expats who used to go on TV shows and then they switched to Bilibili and Miaopai etc, how do you select which platform you’re going to upload your content to? Do you often do live-streaming, too?
Thomas: We just put our videos on all the platforms. Because in China there are so many platforms, unlike Europe or Japan. For live-stream we just use yizhibo, because it’s connected to Weibo, then we don’t need to spread the news as our followers get a notification when we start live-streaming.
Thomas: I saw some videos before. But I don’t want to get influenced by what they do and I want to keep my own style. I watch more vloggers from the US who talk about totally different topics because I think it’s more important for me to learn techniques and storytelling. And that’s why I focus more on other YouTubers who don’t have anything to do with China. My favorite YouTuber is Casey Neistat, and I want to learn from him. He’s a daily vlogger who talks about travel wherever he goes. I don’t want to focus just on China, my videos are in Chinese and for the Chinese audience, but I think my life is not only “I am a foreigner living in China.” I want to promote myself as “Afu Thomas”. I want to show people my life and how I am living. Since I’m working in social media, I’m busier creating content than consuming content.
SmSh: What’s your favorite Chinese internet slang?
Thomas: In the last year, I used a lot “扎心了，老铁” (“that hurts, bro”), because it makes things funnier when something weird happens to you. And I also like very “正能量” (“positive energy”) words like “为你打 call” (“showing supports to you”). I think it’s a very nice term.
SmSh: Do you have any crazy fans or stalkers now?
Thomas: No. As I said before I’m not TF Boys or Luhan, that women would pass out when they see me. And I want to be more of a nice guy next door than a star or celebrity.
SmSh: So you’re not going to sign to an entertainment company?
Thomas: We have a lot of people asking, but the most important thing for me is freedom. I don’t want to be a celebrity, so now for me, it’s enough. I never want to buy a villa or a private jet, I’m not interested in stuff like this. So when I can get a quiet happy life that’s enough for me.
SmSh: There are certain topics you can’t touch when you’re making videos in China. Is that ever a problem to you?
Thomas: If I want to change a country, the first priority for me would be, I have to go to Germany. Because there’s a lot of stuff going very wrong in Germany and as a German, I would have to take care of it. And when I say "okay, Germany now is a perfect country and then I would go to China and change China." It’s not something that should come from me. If Chinese people want to change their country they should do it.
SmSh: One final question from our chief editor: Who would win a street fight, you or Dashan?
Thomas: Me!! For sure! His Chinese is much better than mine, but if we fight physically I would probably sit on him or whatever, and he would have to surrender!