Although it is not available in China, Netflix’s global sensation Squid Game has already amassed a massive fan base in the country, with fans circumventing strict internet controls to watch the show and purchasing merchandise such as its unique outfits.
However, it is already a hit in cities such as Shanghai, where a crowd gathered on Tuesday at an eatery selling dalgona – the crisp sugar candy featured in one episode – with customers gathering to take photos at its Squid Game-themed sign.
“When I first started watching, people were sending jokes about the show in group chats,” a customer named Li told AFP.
“It’s rather fast-paced and thus quite thrilling,” the series’ video producer said.
After purchasing the candy, Li and his friend filmed their attempt at a show challenge in which contestants attempt to cut shapes from the snack without cracking it.
Squid Game follows a group of society’s most marginalized and indebted members as they are forced to compete in a series of children’s games until all but one participant dies. The “winner” will receive US$38 million.
As the show grew in popularity around the world, China’s nimble manufacturers raced to meet the demand, with products such as the bright pink uniforms and eerie masks worn by anonymous guards appearing on the giant online shopping platform Taobao.
Peng Xiuyang, a vendor, told AFP that demand for Squid Game merchandise had increased his sales by around 30%.
When a customer asked if he sold the masks – a plain black full-faced covering printed with squares, triangles, or circles – he had never heard of the show.
But now, vendors like him, as well as plastics manufacturers in Yiwu’s eastern hub, are scrambling to meet demand from both domestic and international buyers.
“Our customers are those who have seen the series and want to get in on the action,” he added.
With Halloween approaching, the spine-chilling masks have become his most popular item.
Despite the lack of official availability, Chinese audiences have found ways to watch the show, including easily accessible unofficial streaming sites and file-sharing.
The problem of piracy is so widespread that South Korea’s ambassador to China, Jang Ha Sung, recently told a parliamentary audit that he had requested action from Chinese authorities.
“Our assessment is that Squid Game, which is gaining global popularity,” Jang testified remotely from Beijing, “is being illegally distributed on around 60 sites in China.”
As the show’s popularity grows among China’s tech-savvy youth, the hashtag Squid Game has received nearly two billion views on social media, and related topics have been trending for weeks.
Users speculated on how they would complete the challenges featured in the show and imagined what a Chinese version of Squid Game would be like.
“It’s not like it would pass censorship if we made such a show ourselves… if it was too violent, it would just get taken down,” one user said.
For the time being, fans simply want to have a good time.
“I’ve seen (the snack) being sold online, but it’s my first time finding it in real life,” said a customer named Yang from Shanghai.