To the casual observer, the attendance by an eight-year-old American boy at a yearly conference for one of China’s biggest internet companies last week might have been an unlikely sight.
That child was viral internet star Gavin Thomas, known in China as “fake smile boy”. Images of him smirking at the camera – first as a toddler, then as a youngster – looking confused or showing his trademark uncomfortable smile have floated around the internet for years, becoming a staple on social media like Twitter and Reddit.
But after Chinese social media users started making their own memes from Gavin’s photos posted on Instagram a few years ago, his popularity exploded.
Coogie,an 18-year-old from Shanghai, has been following Gavin’s Instagram account for years.
“Afterwards, I noticed a lot of people in China would use screenshots from his videos to make memes or short clips,” she said. “They were so cute and funny, and his memes became really popular.”
In China, many of the memes relate to awkward situations encountered in everyday life. Some catchphrases: “I’ll just sit there quietly watching you be fake”, “school makes me happy” and “alone, weak and helpless”.
Tencent, who invited Gavin to its annual conference recently, even launched a sticker pack of Gavin’s facial expressions on China’s most widely used messaging app. Gavin can also be seen on a variety of mugs, posters and clothing hawked on Chinese e-commerce sites.
All this shows how an easily recognisable Western meme has broken through language and cultural barriers to appeal to users halfway across the world, in a notoriously closed internet environment.
“We discovered Gavin’s face being used on T-shirts being sold in China around the beginning of the year,” his manager, Byron Ashley, told the South China Morning Post.
“And that to us was the first indicator that we needed to start building a presence for him in China.”
Gavin’s first Weibo account was set up in July, and now boasts more than 1.8 million followers who eagerly comment on updates from his daily life such as photos and live-streams.
The boy first made the journey to China from his native Minnesota in August to meet fans and tour some of the country’s major attractions.
“He absolutely loved the pandas in Chengdu,” said Ashley, who promised that Gavin would be “back soon”.
Gavin’s success was helped in no small part by his uncle, the internet celebrity Nick Mastodon, who first started posting funny videos of the child at the age of two on the now-defunct video platform Vine.
Now, more and more Chinese fans are jumping on his bandwagon.
“Because he’s cute!” said Leya, a 20-year-old from Chengdu when asked why she is a big fan of Gavin. “Who could not like such a cute young boy?”
Leya, who prefers not to use her real name, first found out about Gavin through Chinese memes. She then started following him on Instagram and watching videos of him, to get a sense of his daily life.
“It’s because he’s so young but so funny,” Coogie agreed.