17th September 2023 – (Hong Kong) In recent years, the meteoric rise of Cantopop boy band Mirror has captivated the imagination of Hong Kong youth. Their androgynous style, genre-bending songs, and intense fandom have made them a cultural force across the city. Yet outside of Hong Kong, Mirror remains an obscure niche act. This dissonance reveals much about the group’s significance as a distinctly local phenomenon.

Mirror owes its success to skilfully channelling the zeitgeist of contemporary Hong Kong youth. Their effeminate aesthetics and choreography mirror current trends in East Asian pop culture. Lyrics promising to “vastly usher in another new century” have become anthems for the city’s disaffected millennials and Gen Zers. But this very linkage with Hong Kong’s idiosyncratic cultural milieu also makes Mirror less accessible abroad. Their Cantonese songs, nostalgic retro aesthetics, and roots in a Hong Kong reality show have limited appeal to external audiences unfamiliar with that context.

In mainland China, Mirror barely registers on the radar. The country’s cutthroat entertainment scene is flooded with glittering idol groups from behemoth talent agencies. Against this backdrop, Mirror seems provincially small-time. Their stint on a Hong Kong reality show also does them no favours. In China’s sophisticated entertainment industry ecosystem, such programs are viewed as a lower-grade path to stardom. Mirror’s resulting image is more amateurish than polished and commercialised.

There is also a political dimension. Relations between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese youth are increasingly fraught. Given Mirror’s embrace by locals as uniquely Hong Kong’s own, their “Hong Kong-ness” may be a turnoff rather than a selling point across the border.

This partly explains why Jackson Wang, a Hong Kong singer mostly active in South Korea, dwarfs Mirror’s success in China. His Korean-language songs and global aspirations resonate better with Chinese audiences than Mirror’s parochial profile. The language barrier further hampers Mirror’s prospects abroad. Lack of fluency in Mandarin frustrates potential fans beyond Guangdong who might otherwise be drawn to their music. It also limits Mirror’s crossover appeal in the West compared to South Korean acts like BTS.

To be sure, Mirror has made tentative steps to broaden its horizons. Their recent English single “Rumours” represents efforts to court international audiences. Member collabs with foreign celebrities like Alan Walker offer more global exposure. But these dalliances cannot disguise the fact that Mirror’s DNA remains fundamentally Hong Kong. And for the city’s youth, that perhaps constitutes their biggest appeal. They represent a new generation asserting their Hong Kong identity against wider forces of homogenisation.

This tight embrace by local fans but distance from outsiders is precisely why Mirror resonates as an icon of Hong Kong’s popular zeitgeist. In the end, the Mirror reflects what it is shown. For now, that remains a society still nurturing local pride, but increasingly isolated in its own Cantonese-speaking cultural sphere.

Some of the more popular Mirror members and their Instagram followers:

Anson Lo – 1.3 million
Ian Chan – 597,000
Keung To – 1 million
Edan Lui – 700,000
Jeremy Lee – 262,000
Lokman Yeung – 287,000
Jer Lau – 414,000

By comparison, Jackson Wang has an impressive 33 million Instagram followers even though he is hardly seen or heard in Hong Kong. Mirror has therefore only tapped into a very niche Cantonese-speaking youth market in Hong Kong.​

Physical Appearance and Stage Image

The 12 members of Mirror sport looks ranging from cute boyish to heavily styled androgynous. Members like Anson Lo, Jeremy Lee and Keung To wear thick makeup, lipstick and adopt feminine gestures. Fans have praised their beauty as “genderless” and “ethereal”.

In many ways, Mirror is following a common formula for Cantopop idols and drawing inspiration from the Korean idol aesthetic. Their choreographed dance routines and synchronised vocals emulate K-pop groups. A unisex style allows members to appeal to both male and female fans. However, taken to its extreme, Mirror’s stage personas barely resemble typical Hong Kong guys offstage. The dissonance between their daily and performed identities is jarring.

While fans are enthralled by their glossy illusion, critics deride their image as “fake” and excessively effeminate. The Chinese term “zhong xing qing nian” (gender fluid youth) has been used to describe Mirror in mainland China, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively.

Success in Hong Kong, Obscurity Overseas

Mirror was formed in 2018 through the reality show Good Night Show – King Maker aired on Hong Kong’s ViuTV network. Unlike the traditional route of auditioning for record labels, this guaranteed the new group major promotion on ViuTV programs and events. Mirror’s launch coincided with a low point in Cantopop’s popularity, especially after the 2019 protest movement soured relations with mainland China. The local industry hungered for a new idol group to reignite interest in Cantonese pop.

ViuTV vigorously hyped up Mirror as Hong Kong’s next sensation throughout its platforms. This marketing blitz ensured instant fame within the city, but had little reach abroad. Riding the wave, Mirror’s concerts, ads and merchandising surged rapidly. Their videos and billboards are ubiquitous across Hong Kong. Fans boast of their overwhelming influence, claiming “every Hong Konger knows the names of all 12 Mirror members”.

In June 2023, obsessed fans even chartered trams, ferries and buses emblazoned with member Anson Lo’s face for his birthday, causing traffic disruptions.

But in mainland China, Mirror remains widely unknown. Among Hong Kong stars, they rank near the bottom on Chinese social media searches. Even minor TVB actors are more prominent on the mainland.

“Are they really hot? Never heard of this boy band,” Chinese netizens react incredulously to Mirror’s supposed fame. The lack of awareness reflects China’s vastly more crowded entertainment scene. Mirror also notably sings only in Cantonese, not Mandarin. Their nostalgic, retro sound pays homage to Hong Kong pop history but feels old-fashioned to external audiences. The group has publicly stated they have no plans to actively promote in mainland China or overseas. Their management likely realises Mirror’s highly localised appeal.

Riding Controversy to Fame

While clearly dominating Hong Kong, Mirror initially faced some public mockery over their heavy look and limited vocal skills. Critics derided them as “fake idols” coasting more on appearance than talent. Accusations of imitating K-pop were common, given their Korean-style choreography and coordinated fashion. Mirror’s popularity seemed confined to teenage fangirls smitten by their scripted boyfriend charm. But an inflexion point came in 2021 when Mirror member Keung To unexpectedly won the Ultimate Song Chart Awards for My Favourite Male Singer, defeating veteran Cantopop kings.

His acceptance speech promising to “protect fans with our works” won praise for its maturity. Many saw the award as heralding a new era where slick production could trump technical vocal skills.

Mirror further gained respect for confronting attacks from establishment players like TVB. The band was mocked on a TVB variety show as fake singers that “should go away”. But Mirror’s lyrics boldly proclaimed “the times can be recreated” and refused to back down. This channeled youth frustration with an out-of-touch older generation. Mirror was now lionised as underdogs fighting for Cantopop’s revival.

The controversy cemented Mirror’s image as ushering in a new age for Hong Kong pop. To many locals, even those not into idol groups, they represent much-needed rejuvenation against old-fashioned detractors.

Rise of Rabid Fandom

Mirror owes much success to their hardcore fans. The fans exemplify modern participatory fandom. They mobilise on social media and passionately promote their idols. When attacking critics, the fans can become aggressive “stans”.

Through worshipping Mirror, its fans find identity and purpose. The group provides fantasy boyfriends. Fandom activities offer friendship and community. During Mirror’s rise, middle-aged housewives emerged as their most fervent supporters, these older women see Mirror as awakening their youthful spirit. Some who became accountants or journalists against their dreams live vicariously through Mirror’s underdog success story.

This inter-generational dynamic reveals much about Mirror’s cultural symbolism. For older fans, the band inspires nostalgia for Cantopop’s heyday before 1997. For youth, Mirror champions Hong Kong identity amidst political turmoil. Both groups feel that Mirror signifies Hong Kong finally nurturing homegrown idols again after years of admiring foreign stars. Rallying behind a uniquely local group gives a sense of community pride.

Obsession Gone Too Far?

However, Mirror’s surprisingly mature fandom also has a dangerous side. There are abundant stories of “stalker fans” invading members’ privacy and personal space. Some obsessive fans have waited outside members’ homes, secretly photographed them in public, and aggressively confronted perceived “rivals” for their affections. Occasional disturbing cases have emerged of fans physically assaulting rivals or even attempting suicide when an idol gets a girlfriend or boyfriend. Psychologists warn these represent symptoms of deeper mental health issues.

The devotion of Mirror fans is most prominently displayed during members’ birthdays. Followers routinely spend extravagant sums on birthday advertisements across Hong Kong to honour their idols. Entire trams, buses, ferries and buildings have been wrapped in gigantic Mirror member posters for birthdays. The cross-harbour Star Ferry was even chartered for Anson Lo’s birthday ride event. Fans boast that no spot in Hong Kong is unseen without massive Mirror birthday promotions. These publicity stunts cost upwards of millions of Hong Kong dollars funded by diehard followers. The marketing blitzes for member birthdays have become hallmarks of the Mirror fandom phenomenon.

While Mirror has gently tried dissuading such invasive behaviour, criticisms remain that the band commercially exploits their fans’ irrational infatuation without discouraging unhealthy excess.

For instance, fans have bragged about watching Anson Lo’s latest movie over 40 times in cinemas, likely as the band had offered special merchandise to hit ticket targets.

While fandom fervour creates commercial opportunities, experts suggest Mirror should advocate for more responsible support. Allowing followers to jeopardise their health or relationships to support their idols can be ethically problematic.

Overall, Mirror’s success in captivating local fans has made them cultural icons of contemporary Hong Kong. But their niche appeal has yet to translate globally. For now, Mirror remains a phenomenon largely “made in Hong Kong”, speaking uniquely to the city’s current hopes and anxieties. Whether their magic can be bottled beyond Hong Kong remains to be seen.