Gathered in a practice room, five generously proportioned young men in baggy black sweaters are patting their bellies and waggling their arms. Bearded with double chins, they shout “Hoo-Ha!” in time to upbeat African drums.
The choreography is for the new song “Good Belly,” by Produce Pandas. DING, Cass, Husky, Otter and Mr. 17 weigh an average of 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and proudly call themselves “the first plus-sized boy band in China."
That's a radical departure from the industry standard seen in South Korean super groups such as BTS, whose lanky young members are sometimes referred to in China as “little fresh meat."
Yet, it seems to be working for Produce Pandas, who rose to fame after making it about halfway through “Youth with You,” an idol talent competition hosted by iQiyi, one of the largest video platforms in China.
On the show, mentors and audience voters pick nine finalists, either individuals or group members, to come together to form a new band.
“The five of us may not have the standard look and shape of a boy band but we hope to use the term ‘plus-sized band' to break the aesthetic stereotypes," Cass said in an interview.
The five, two of whom formerly sang in bars, are also unusual for their relatively advanced ages in an industry that worships youth and stamina. Most of their fellow contestants on “Youth with You” began South Korean-style training while in their teens.
While Produce Pandas excited audiences and sparked discussion about how a pop idol should look, some taunting also appeared online.
Users of China's Weibo microblog seized on the Chinese word for panda, a homonym of which appears in the Chinese name for the Japanese horror movie “Ring," suggesting that watching them dance was similarly frightening.
Mr. 17, the band's main dancer, was the oldest contestant in the competition at age 31. He had been discovered on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, where he posted clips of himself dancing in pajamas or while holding a bowl of rice.
He nicknamed himself “17” after his favorite age. The former petroleum company worker said he doesn't feel old, but admits that after rehearsals, “I felt my energy was emptied."
The five were solicited from over 300 hopefuls by Beijing-based DMDF Entertainment, which wanted to build a band that would be rotund and approachable as well as inspiring.
Husky, who worked in IT, thought he would fit in perfectly because he has been chubby since primary school and has failed repeatedly to lose weight.
“I often work out one day then take a rest for the next three days, so the result is clear that I gained some weight instead,” he said. The point is “stay in shape (and) not to lose weight, but to lose fat.”
Echoing Husky, Cass said the upside to being on such a team is that they don’t need to abstain when it comes to food.
“We don’t mind eating like a horse. I feel sorry for the ‘little fresh meat' bands whose members must follow a diet to stay slim. I feel great whenever they look on enviously as we dig in!"
Team leader DING quit plus-sized modeling when he heard about auditioning for an “XXL” boy band, saying, “I feel this is probably the closest I can get to being on a magazine cover."
The five are now working on a new album, with songs including “Pursue Your Dreams."
“Saddle up on the horse and pursue your dreams. Don’t idle your time away,” the lyrics go.
Vocalist Otter, who has idolized the South Korean boy band Super Junior since he was 7, never thought he could be in a band that lives and performs together, and more importantly, encourages ordinary folk.
“I hope people will feel encouraged when watching our performance," he said. They can think, “If Produce Pandas can make a breakthrough and perform on a bigger stage, then ‘why can’t I?'”
Associated Press video producer Olivia Zhang in Beijing and AP Entertainment Writer Juwon Park in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.