One year ago, Chinese pop group WayV made its debut with a plan laid out in the lyrics of its first single: “With my team, we are not surrendering,” they sang on “Regular." “The dream is gripped tight in my hands and lights up the visions I imagined.”
In the past year, WayV has pursued those dreams by releasing an EP, two mini albums, and an English-language single, but the group's vision wasn’t just musical. Offstage, WayV has closed the gap that usually separates idols from fans by showing the world unedited versions of themselves. Four of the seven members have opened personal Instagrams and streamed everything from getting stuck behind hotel-room beds to eating burgers and singing with abandon in the back of a van. As a team, they’re confident, goofy, and very active online, constantly incorporating meme-y humor into their posts and interactions, and generally not caring much what anyone thinks about them.
They have the day off today.... sort of. The members are hanging out around a massive conference table in one of SM Entertainment’s four buildings in the Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea. The walls are lined with posters of some of the company’s many iconic K-Pop groups: EXO, Girls' Generation, SHINee, Super Junior, TVXQ. Later, WayV leader and vocalist, Kun, and dancer WinWin will head to an English lesson together, and dancer Hendery will attend drum practice (“I’m just learning for fun,” he says, nodding earnestly. “I think it’s important to have hobbies”), and they have this interview, of course.
But today there are no official appearances to make in front of fans or cameras, which means the group members are makeup-free and styled in their own clothing, sipping drinks from the café downstairs, making themselves comfortable in their seats. Dancer Ten will, in partnership with rapper YangYang, translate the members' thoughts and opinions to English, and has practically draped himself over the table with anticipation, blocking rapper Lucas, who is now slouched in his chair and hidden from view. YangYang and Kun’s faces are partially obstructed by black face masks, the kind used to protect wearers from pollution, or for K-pop idols, to maintain anonymity in public (and sure, they could be thinking about pollution too). They’ve pulled the masks down to their chins for this chat, but still look ready to get up and walk out onto the streets of Seoul at any moment.
The room is relaxed, and the seven group members are teasing one another in Chinese, Korean, and English. When Ten’s widely known nickname for Hendery is brought up for discussion, Kun shrieks with laughter. Ten acts exasperated (“Ah, you’re gonna bring that up again!”), but immediately begins an evaluation of each member. “Shrek is my favorite animation, and Hendery is Donkey because...”
“Because I am annoying!” Hendery shouts from the end of the table.
“Because his characteristics and the way he plays around with us are very similar to Donkey,” concludes Ten.
“It’s because he talks a lot,” admits YangYang.
Ten continues, “YangYang resembles Puss in Boots” (YangYang nods brightly, probably because Puss in Boots is his favorite character) “and Xiaojun is like the pink dragon that’s in love with Donkey.” Xiaojun, the group’s main vocalist, looks baffled by the comparison but doesn’t protest.
Ten narrows his eyes at Lucas as if trying to see him more clearly. “Lucas kind of reminds me of Prince Charming, that guy who is always like,” Ten straightens up, pushes his shoulders back, and dramatically runs his hand through his jet black hair, "'Ah, I'm so handsome.'" Hendery giggles and nods in agreement. “And WinWin… I don’t know…” Ten sighs in genuine frustration as WinWin smiles shyly behind large gold-rimmed glasses. "It's very hard because WinWin just seems like a human.”
YangYang’s hair flops around a bit as he nods: “Yeah, he’s like the most human out of all of us.”
Kun, the last victim, turns to Ten slowly, as if warning him to choose carefully. “King? King?” says Xiaojun excitedly, referring to Lord Farquaad. Kun grimaces, waving his hand in the air, saying, “Ah, no, no, no.” Ten takes a breath before adding, "I shouldn't say this but... you know the three little pigs?” Kun, whose hair is a sweet cherry pink, looks at Ten in disbelief. “When I look at Kun, he is just so pink and soft and squishy,” Ten says, giggling. The members are in pieces, emitting wild, guttural laughs that get caught in their throats. Kun makes a face and slaps Ten on the shoulder.
All seven members of WayV are of Chinese descent, though Ten was born in Thailand and YangYang spent six years of his childhood in Germany. One by one, they came together to train under SM in Seoul. Lucas taps his fingertips on the table as he explains in Chinese, “I think people want to know more about how our group dynamics came to be, but there is nothing more to say than this: We all came from different places to another foreign country to train and work together. We all believed in and helped each other.”
Ten continues, “When we first met, we had this sense like, ‘we need to help each other out.’ That kind of thing connects us. We protect each other.”
They consider their lives to be deeply informed by their heritage. “We’re all Chinese but are from different cities, so we grew up with different cultures in our home,” says YangYang. “In Guangdong [where Xiaojun is from] and Hong Kong and Macau [from which Lucas and Hendery hail], they speak Cantonese instead of Mandarin and have special meals like dim sum. But WinWin grew up in Wenzhou City and they have…”
He trails off as WinWin narrows his eyes and puts his fingers to his lips to think before saying, “Hot pot, which is very good and very spicy.” WinWin smiles, emphasizing the last word.
Ten notes, “In another part of China, Sichuan, the taste is like a ‘numb’ spicy. When you eat it your lips get numb.”
“[Taiwanese musician] Jay Chou is one of the biggest reasons that I wanted to become a singer,” says Kun, before belting out a bit of one of Chou’s songs. “Since 2000, he has been very influential for Chinese music, a legend.”
Lucas tilts his head to one side and adds, “I also think a lot about the culture of Chinese music that Kun just mentioned. It’s different from music from the West that we are also influenced by, so we’re able to introduce people to the combination of the two. Our members’ music culture is ‘Chinese style,’ but we use that to make pop songs. For example, traditional Chinese songs are very slow and…” he lets out what sounds like a yodel, before continuing, “Xiaojun style.” Xiaojun raises his eyebrows and shoots him a look from across the table. Lucas clarifies that his imitation is meant as a compliment, “Xiaojun’s voice is very rare in Chinese pop music.”
“It’s gentle,” Kun says, nodding.
YangYang continues, “Lucas is saying that Xiaojun grew up singing ballads so his voice fits slow songs, but if you add his voice to a hip-hop song, for example, it mixes well, even if it’s in a different style. It’s another level; a mixed culture.”
Ten offers another example: “WinWin does traditional Chinese dance so we’re like, 'Why don't we use that for the next album?' It makes WayV unique. We can mix pop culture and traditional Chinese dance to create something new.”
Ten suggests that WinWin try again to speak in English, and everyone cheers in support as he clears his throat. “Chinese dance looks like ballet and Chinese kung fu,” WinWin says, then nods to indicate that he’s said his piece.
“It’s over!” YangYang says with a laugh, seeming eternally chipper. “But yeah, that style is a mix of different kinds of Chinese dance. And every time we watch WinWin, we think, Ahhh, my God!"
"So beautiful!” Kun adds in English.
Ten quips, smirking, “At Chinese New Year they wear traditional red outfits and perform the dragon dance. If we use that, maybe WinWin can be the dragon.” Everyone laughs but WinWin, who is visibly not as thrilled with the idea.
Because of their upbringing and training, every member speaks at least two languages fluently (Korean and Mandarin), and most speak four. In a recent Instagram live, YangYang and Ten deliberated over what language to use to talk to each other as if picking an item from a menu. The group mixes English, Korean, and Mandarin when speaking to one another, but in what languages do they each think? Hendery’s hand zooms up: “For me, Cantonese.” Ten thinks in Thai and English, WinWin in Mandarin, YangYang in Mandarin and English. Kun thinks in Korean in Korea and Mandarin when he’s in China.
Lucas’s eyes almost pop out of his head as he exclaims in Korean, “I really don’t know!” He continues in English, “Sometimes,” and then switching to Mandarin, “I think in Mandarin, sometimes in Korean.” He scrunches his shoulders and flips his hands up in the air like the shrug emoji and admits, “I only think in Cantonese when I am angry.” WinWin explodes into laughter. YangYang attempts to translate but dissolves into giggles, at which point Kun loses it too. Does Lucas also speak in Cantonese when he’s angry? Ten nods rapidly, eyes wide, to confirm.
From the corner, Xiaojun speaks up: “I think a lot.” Lucas throws his head back with a wild laugh, delighted by this unprompted introspection.
Ten explains that Xiaojun is “the mood maker” of the group, a term commonly used in K-pop to describe “someone that becomes the main focus because they're unique and fun to watch. With that kind of personality you catch people's attention without knowing it, and sometimes Xiaojun gets stressed because he’s like, ‘What happened? What did I do? Why are they pointing at me?’"
Xiaoun smiles from below his ashy platinum fringe. “Bringing strength to people, that's the thing I always want to do,” he says, when asked about music. “When I write a song it's always as a gift to others. Three years ago one of my friends was going through a hard time.” His dark brows are furrowed and the room is silent. “I wrote a song to bring them warmth and power.” He presses his palms together, as if praying, while he talks about finding strength in himself. “Other people can go out to coffee shops, but with our tight schedules, I can't do that a lot, so I often try to sit alone with myself and be quiet when I'm in a noisy space. That allows me to process everything and take it all in. I usually read books about life, philosophy books.”
“If you know Xiaojun, he’s a guy who believes in the concept that love is everything in the world," Ten says, jumping in with another perspective, "so you have to give him a lot of love….”
Ten is cut off by Hendery, who announces, in Chinese, that “he’s [Xiaojun] turning red now!”
A blushing Xiaojun groans, “Ohhh, my God!” and disappears under the table.
“He’s shy” says Ten, as Xiaojun pops back up to share one more thought: “Through reading books I find peace, even in those noisy places.”
Ten smiles at him and coos “cute” in Korean.
Throughout the conversation, Kun has been sitting back in his chair, supervising, giving calm, barely audible directions in Chinese to his members. As Xiaojun combs through his thoughts, Kun suggests that Lucas try to “control [his] emotions” so Xiaojun can express himself without distraction. At another point, after a question is posed to the entire group, Kun reminds the members to “speak clearly” if they choose to answer. Kun is the eldest, in addition to being the leader, and has noted that he does not like to be called the “mother of the group.” But he does seem to serve as a parental voice of reason. “As a leader, I don’t do anything special,” he says humbly. “But I always work on being the glue of the group, to help us be more united. My role is to make us better.” When WayV recently won Best New Asian Artist at the 2019 Mnet Asian Music Awards, Kun was not as collected. “I was so nervous, you can see my hands were shaking,” he says, laughing.
That award was a meaningful indication that the members of WayV, whose ages range from 19 to 24, are on their way to fulfilling the plan they laid out for themselves on the song “Regular.” But there are smaller moments too, when the group realizes how much its impact has grown in a year. YangYang, for example, is obsessed with collecting sneakers, a habit he picked up while studying at an international school in Germany. “In our dorm right now, we have a wall of sneakers just for me. I am a fan of basketball, and sports in general, and collecting sneakers is a way to get closer to them, especially because I don't play much anymore. And I really like Travis Scott, so I try to collect all of his sneakers. It helps me get more in touch with him and his music," he says unabashedly. "It’s like a fanboy thing.”
Now, fans of WayV, officially dubbed “WayZenNi,” collect YangYang’s clothes in a similar way. “On Twitter there are ‘YangYang sneaker closet’ posts. When I go to the airport, people photograph my shoes and post a picture of them!” he says, blushing. “I feel overwhelmed.”
Lucas “awws,” and Ten says, snorting, “Now he's telling the world that he has a fan Twitter!”
WayV has multiple musical releases under its belt and fans who adore the group, but the members still consider themselves to be in the early stages of artistic development. “I think we're still babies!” Ten says, and the rest of the group nods. “When you look at the world, there are so many new things coming up and trends changing. There’s no ending point where you can say, ‘I’ve learned everything,’ because everything keeps moving and we need to keep learning.”
“Personally, I think I need freedom,” Lucas says in Chinese, “to develop myself, to feel the colors of the world and in life, and then to use those experiences to give character to new projects.”
Ten absentmindedly rubs a silver horseshoe charm hanging around his neck. “I think that's important," he says. "That kind of stuff really impacts us as artists. I want to express myself through music so I am learning to write lyrics. Yesterday, Xiaojun and I went to the studio and he started playing random chords on the piano and I tried to write down my own melody and lyrics.”
WinWin wants to act, and YangYang and Hendery are working on writing their own raps and freestyling. The pair had two songs — "King of Hearts” and “We Go NaNaNa” — included on WayV’s most recent mini album, Take Over the Moon, which came out in October. According to YangYang, “We Go NaNaNa” was like “an exam” to see if they could write their own songs. When that experiment went well, “Hendery and I got the 'King of Hearts' demo and discussed the mood, the feeling, the topic. It was a really fun experience for us. Preparing our new album was one of the best learning experiences.”
“When we first met, we had this sense like, ‘we need to help each other out.’ That kind of thing connects us. We protect each other.”
Hendery, who has been uncharacteristically quiet at the end of the table, nods enthusiastically as YangYang speaks. After the interview, he apologizes profusely for not saying much. “I don’t speak English very well but I’m working on getting better,” he says in perfect English, then becomes animated as he geeks out over the American YouTube channels he watches to improve his vocabulary, including First We Feast. Hendery is also the de-facto reviewer of Kun’s vlog series “Kun’s Cloud,” and the two sat whispering over the latest edit just before this interview started. Vlogger Kun is practicing magic (“He’s really good!” says YangYang) and using his foundation in piano theory to compose in LogicPro. Now he is focusing on fine-tuning his ear and spends “a lot of time in MIDI looking for suitable sounds for me and for our group.”
Xiaojun is learning to produce as well, but shakes his head when asked if we’ll hear his work soon: “I don't think I'm ready. I want to learn more. Kun is better than me, but we teach each other.”
When asked about WayV’s future, YangYang adds a big-picture perspective: “We're going to go on together and grow as a family for five, 10, 20 years.”
Lucas says that because his relationship with the other members was created as they grew up together, “I hope fans can now grow up with us so we can build that kind of dynamic with them too. It won’t just be the seven of us, but a whole WayV community.” Is that why he goes live on Instagram so often? Lucas howls with laughter, embarrassed to be called out for his frequent streaming, as Ten quietly chokes on his coffee. “I started my Instagram because I want to see our fans from all over the world. I think there should be more interaction between us; I want to be friends with them.”
Ten puts down his coffee and says seriously, “To be honest, I don't see that much of a difference between fans from different countries, because they all give us love. And the thing about love is that it doesn’t matter what country you’re from, it transcends all that.”
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue