We Were Smart (Shamate I Love You) – Li Yifan


The post-90s migrant workers living in China’s cities have developed a culture of expressing stress with exaggerated hairstyles, known as the Shamate group. This film chronicles Shamate’s emergence and its disintegration over the years.


Synopsis of We Were Smart (Shamate I Love You)

Shamate, an transliteration of the English word “smart”, is a subculture that emerged in mainland China in the 2000s. It is influenced by the Goth subculture or Japan’s Visual Kei in appearance, and is characterized by exaggerated hairstyles. Shamate is popular among urban migrant workers. Their appearance expresses their sense of alienation from the city. The Foreign Policy once described them as “a byproduct of China’s massive urban migration push and the country’s widening class divide.”

Left-behind children, dropping out of school at an early age, and going out to work are almost their common experiences and identity labels. In addition to the personal history of this group of people from left-behind children to migrant workers, this film also shows their real life based on their memories and original footage from mobile phones. It is a youth story in the World’s Factory that is even more brutal than 996.

Around 2008, Shamate was popular in towns and villages all over the country. But since 2010, the mainstream culture squeezed out and liquidated it, destroying its circle from the outside by cyber-violence. Therefore, Shamate became a negative image recognized by the society, and the Shamate group was dispersed and split in 2013. This sensational Shamate trend has eventually disappeared.


2 hours 5 minutes | English or Simplified Chinese subtitles | HD (1920×1080)
China | 2020
Director: Li Yifan

Highlight Endorsement

“As a piece of social criticism, it’s a fascinating account of an unfairly hounded community, told in their own voices, amplifying the experiences of a population that’s been exploited and ignored in an industrial boom they’ve helped to make.”
Tristan Shaw, TheChinaProject.com

“We Were Smart (Shamate I Love You) is not just a documentary to justify the name of Shamate. More importantly, it is a deep stab at the self-deceiving illusion of the urban middle class. It reminds the society to ‘see’, to see the history and pain of Shamate being erased, and to see the coldness, arrogance and narrow-mindedness of mainstream society for a long time.”
Zhang Miao, Initium Media

“To have this group of people sit in front of the camera, remove their defenses, and allow them to tell their stories freely, even with a smile on their face, is a great feat alone. Because what Director Li is doing is ‘preserving the face of the times’ and bring this niche group into the public eye.”
Lin Xi Na, Douban

Reasons for Recommendation

1. We Were Smart (Shamate I Love You) has the rating of 7.9 on IMDB and 8.6 on Douban.
2. There are very few production traces in this film, most of which come from Shamates’ statements of reality, as well as editing and splicing their own short videos of factory life, presenting the audiovisual language from a “de-director-centered” point of view.
3. The persuasive power of this documentary stems from the very systematic and in-depth research, compilation, and presentation of this film, which closely integrates fieldwork and online ethnography.

More Info

1. Global Times: Young migrant factory workers form distinct Shamate subculture
2. FreeWeChat: A New Film Spotlights China’s Most Hated Subculture
3. TheChinaProject.com: ‘We Were Smart’: China’s controversial subculture tells its story
4. 闯Chuǎng: Smart, Disaffected & Unseen: Li Yifan on the Rise & Fall of a Proletarian Subculture
5. China Labour Bulletin: When We Were Smart: Reflections on factory town culture in China

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