Students dress up and get animated

CHINA - Hidden behind the curtain, Bai Bingju was making up in front of a small mirror to prepare for the next drama. In 15 minutes, she would perform on the stage for her favourite role - Sabre in the cartoon Silver Soul. The 18-year-old high school student, from Mengzi, capital of Honghe Hani and Yi autonomous prefecture in Yunnan province, was confident that her team could be a strong competitor at the 6th Animation Festival of Yunnan, which ran from Aug 9-14.

Bai's team rehearsed more than a thousand times before arriving at Kunming, the provincial capital. "We face ferocious competition as other contenders are here for the title," says Bai, who won a third prize in the competition. "But the point of costume play is not all about winning the championship but having fun."

About two years ago, Bai first heard of something called costume play and the curiosity drove her to see how the participants got the colorful costumes and played their favourite roles in well-known cartoons or animations. Since childhood, Bai was trained in painting and dancing, which helped her new hobby.

Bai's story was about how social perception has changed on costume play. It has gained popularity in many cities - more than 3,000 cosplayers from all over the country competed for the championship. The young generation can spend more time on their own interest with adequate financial supports from their parents.

The fancy costumes showed the exciting side, but there were difficulties behind it that onlookers couldn't feel.

Bai's mother Li Yao says she strongly opposed the new fashion of dressing at the outset. "It was really odd for my husband and me, not to mention her grandparents," Li says. "Therefore, we cautiously let her try it because we didn't want her to be too disappointed."

At Mengzi High School, cosplay was once taboo for students because it was regarded as a huge distraction from classes and tests, which are the top priority for most Chinese parents and students, says Bai. Therefore, Bai and her teammates must rehearse during the weekend. "If you are interested in something, time could be squeezed out," she says.

Bai managed to balance time for study and her "odd hobby" - and she won a high spot through the exams in her class. Little by little, the parents accepted cosplay and Li companied her daughter to take part in the festival.

Zhan Chunmei, chairman of the organising committee of the animation festival, says that this year's festivity exerted a pull on a record high number of participants from many other cities, such as Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, and Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province.

Rui Qun, 21, has been participating in the festival for six consecutive years, declaring that cosplay cost a lot as the students had to pay for the costumes, makeup and training. "Each year I spend almost 3,000 yuan (S$600) on the garments and props. I pay for it, I don't ask my parents for the money," says the slim girl at the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics.

Rui is more independent than most girls at her school, running her own business selling cosmetics from abroad in Kunming. The trade earned money that supports the new hobby, she says.

"When I entered my freshman year, there were only several cosers," she says, using the Chinese nickname for cosplayers. "However, last year saw a huge increase of students who really made up to perform," she says. The university now has more than 50 students who are active players.

Zhan says Yunnan has more than 5,000 cosers, compared with less than 500 just five years ago. "As the parents grow more tolerant toward new cultures, the number will increase fast in the next decade," Zhan predicts.