Vlog­ging the Lime­light

With their in­ter­na­tional back­grounds and out­sider per­spec­tive, more Chi­nese-speak­ing for­eign vlog­gers are be­com­ing celebri­ties by shar­ing their ob­ser­va­tions on food, travel, ex­pa­tri­ate life and cul­tural dif­fer­ences on Chi­nese so­cial plat­forms

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Yi Ziyi

In­sane! That's in­sane! I can't be­lieve it!” says Brian O'shea with de­light about the 2.8 mil­lion fans he has amassed on Chi­nese short video app Douyin.

Known to his fans as “Bobo,” the 25-year-old Ar­gen­tinean foodie has built his fame on Chi­nese so­cial plat­forms through a short video se­ries, Taste­buds (伶牙俐吃), which de­picts his ex­pe­ri­ence tast­ing var­i­ous kinds of re­gional cui­sine around China. From Pek­ing duck to biang­biang noo­dles, braised cray­fish to stinky tofu, O'shea's vivid de­scrip­tions of each dish and sin­cere ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the ex­pe­ri­ence have seen the show at­tract tens of mil­lions of views on­line.

O'shea has amassed more than 169,000 fol­low­ers on the videoshar­ing web­site Bili­bili and 161,000 fans on Weibo, China's Twit­ter equiv­a­lent.

A grow­ing num­ber of for­eign video blog­gers like O'shea have be­come wanghong – in­ter­net celebri­ties whose careers are based on creat­ing orig­i­nal so­cial me­dia con­tent for Chi­nese au­di­ences. Adored by Chi­nese mil­len­ni­als who are cu­ri­ous about for­eign cul­ture, these Chi­nese-speak­ing for­eign­ers tar­get light­hearted sub­jects such as lan­guage study, food, travel, fash­ion, fam­ily and cross-cul­tural com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

With the ad­vent of new me­dia, a new gen­er­a­tion of tech-savvy for­eign­ers have cap­tured Chi­nese hearts by show­ing their deep con­nec­tion with the coun­try.

Bite of China

O'shea first de­vel­oped a love of Chi­nese food in Syd­ney's Chi­na­town, where he worked for two years. “When­ever I got hun­gry or wanted to get snacks, I would just go to Chi­na­town. I fell in love with it and peo­ple kept telling me, ‘if you love this, you should eat it in China be­cause it's 10 times bet­ter.' That's why I de­cided to go to China,” he told our re­porter.

He taught him­self Chi­nese af­ter he moved to China in 2016. He in­vested at least two hours learn­ing Chi­nese each day, a habit he has con­tin­ued.

Since then, O'shea has been to more than 20 cities in China to ex­plore au­then­tic lo­cal food. He has tried of­fal soup, se­same tripe, and fried grasshop­pers (which he is par­tic­u­larly fond of) – as well as silk worms, a lo­cal treat in North­east China.

Lu­osifen, also known as snail rice noo­dles, a spe­cialty of Guangxi Zhuang Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion, is the young gourmet's re­cent fa­vorite.

“[In lu­osifen] you have the rice noo­dles, which are soft; you have fried peanuts and fried soy­beans, which give a crunchy com­po­nent and oily nutty fla­vors; you also have the snail broth, which has a strong fla­vor; some­times they put meat into it, or pick­led eggs, and tofu skin. It's also

spicy. It's sour. There are so many fla­vors and tex­tures and sen­sa­tions that make you sweaty,” O'shea said.

He cre­ated his first Taste­buds video in April last year, fea­tur­ing duck blood and ver­mi­celli soup, and pan-fried pork buns. In just three months, he had amassed 100,000 fol­low­ers.

O'shea at­tributes his pop­u­lar­ity in part to his sin­cere af­fec­tion for Chi­nese food. He said peo­ple can get a bit hurt when for­eign­ers mer­ci­lessly judge their food cul­ture as “dis­gust­ing” as they eat an­i­mal of­fal or some other “weird things.”

“Now they know a for­eign guy who is so in­ter­ested in their food, who loves it and dares to eat all these so-called ‘weird' things – I think that is a big part of my pop­u­lar­ity,” he said.

It typ­i­cally takes a day to film an episode of Taste­buds. The Ar­gen­tinean vlog­ger posts one episode each week out of what he calls a “re­spon­si­bil­ity to fans.”

So far, O'shea has made 70 episodes. On Bili­bili alone, his videos av­er­age 70,000 views weekly, some reach­ing 360,000.

An­other part of this pop­u­lar­ity is that he was quick off the mark as one of China's first for­eign food vlog­gers. “It was eas­ier to get pop­u­lar­ity [on Chi­nese so­cial net­works]. The com­pe­ti­tion is not that great. Not many for­eign­ers are do­ing food in China, whereas there are lots of good cre­ators do­ing food on Youtube,” he said.

When talk­ing about his opin­ions of China's so­cial me­dia ecosys­tem, O'shea said he en­joys the pos­i­tive, wel­com­ing at­mos­phere on Chi­nese so­cial plat­forms to­ward for­eign vlog­gers.

“Chi­nese au­di­ences are very pos­i­tive. On Youtube, many fans or non-fans are very ag­gres­sive some­times. They are not very wel­com­ing. But in China I get 99 per­cent pos­i­tive, good com­ments. They are su­per friendly. They are very kind. I feel very wel­comed. I feel very com­fort­able,” he told Newschina.

For­eign­ers 2.0

Since late 2016, for­eign­ers in Wu­daokou, a district of Bei­jing that is home to many in­ter­na­tional stu­dents due to its prox­im­ity to sev­eral

uni­ver­si­ties, they might be stopped by a young, dark-haired man with a cam­era ask­ing for a quick in­ter­view.

The man is Raz Gal-or, also known as Gao Yousi, a 23-year-old Is­raeli grad­u­ate of Pek­ing Univer­sity. In Jan­uary 2017, he co-founded the For­eign­ers Re­search In­sti­tute (歪果仁研究协会) , lit­er­ar­ily trans­lated as “crooked nuts re­search in­sti­tute,” a pun on the Chi­nese word for for­eigner.) The Bei­jing-based startup in­ter­views for­eign­ers about their life in China and shares videos on so­cial me­dia.

Videos cre­ated by the For­eign­ers Re­search In­sti­tute typ­i­cally fea­ture five-minute street in­ter­views with a dozen for­eign­ers on ev­ery­day top­ics and cul­tural quirks. “Our pur­pose is to let for­eign­ers in China ex­press their thoughts about the coun­try and let Chi­nese know what ex­pats think of them,” Gal-or said.

His startup has gath­ered 5.5 mil­lion fol­low­ers on so­cial me­dia sites, and each video reaches an av­er­age of 10 mil­lion views.

Their videos have been a hit among Chi­nese au­di­ences, demon­strat­ing how a group of peo­ple who may not look Chi­nese have none­the­less in­te­grated them­selves into life in Bei­jing: speak­ing flu­ent Chi­nese, mas­ter­ing di­alects, us­ing Chi­nese slang and e-com­merce sites and singing songs of their fa­vorite Chi­nese stars at Karaoke bars.

One of their most-watched episodes, with more than 1.12 mil­lion views on Bili­bili, in­ter­views peo­ple about their fa­vorite Chi­nese stars. Some men­tion global house­hold names like ac­tor Jackie Chan and bas­ket­ball star Yao Ming, but more bring up names bet­ter known to lo­cals, in­clud­ing the slacker co­me­dian Ge You. Many also ex­press their af­fec­tion like fan­girls to hand­some young male stars, who are dubbed “Lit­tle Fresh Meat,” such as ac­tor/singer Kris Wu, singer Lay Zhang Yix­ing and the pop­u­lar teen band Tf­boys.

Gal-or de­scribes him­self and these ex­pats as “for­eign­ers 2.0,” a new gen­er­a­tion of ex­pats who en­gage more with Chi­nese pop­u­lar cul­ture.

“They [for­eign­ers 2.0] are not like their pre­de­ces­sors who came to China to do busi­ness, sight­see­ing, work in a multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion or be a short-term English teacher. They came to China to study and hope to build a career here. They are more down-to-earth, speak flu­ent Chi­nese, live like lo­cals and make lots of Chi­nese friends,” Gal-or told Newschina. “We hope that our videos can help Chi­nese bet­ter un­der­stand for­eign­ers and also help for­eign­ers more deeply un­der­stand China. We at­tempt to use a funny, down-to-earth, cre­ative way to break cul­tural prej­u­dices and stereo­types that Chi­nese and for­eign­ers hold to­wards each other.”

Gal-or does not re­gard him­self as a wanghong but an “en­trepreneur.” “I never film videos about my­self. Many of my friends do in­di­vid­ual videos and be­come pop­u­lar on­line. They are do­ing pretty good. But that's not what we're do­ing. We are a startup from day one that builds a plat­form where for­eign­ers can share their thoughts about their life in China,” Gal-or told Newschina.

But de­spite that, the team has launched a se­ries called Don’t be Shy, fea­tur­ing a 15-minute short doc­u­men­tary in which for­eign­ers, usu­ally GalOr him­self, ex­pe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent com­mon jobs in China. He has worked as an ap­pren­tice at a break­fast stand mak­ing fried bread sticks, a ter­mi­nal op­er­a­tor at the sub­way in Bei­jing help­ing the pas­sen­gers get on and off the train, a vil­lage teacher in Qing­hai Prov­ince teach­ing wide-eyed stu­dents and a tea picker tea in the Wuyi Moun­tains of Fu­jian.

“We want to pro­vide con­tent that not only shows how for­eign­ers think about life in China, but also the real life of or­di­nary Chi­nese peo­ple who con­trib­ute a lot to our con­ve­nient life but re­ceive lit­tle at­ten­tion,” Gal-or ex­plains.

“Couri­ers, vil­lage teach­ers, break­fast cooks, sub­way op­er­a­tors… You come across them very of­ten, but you don't know their life, and you don't know how much ef­fort they've made to meet the de­mands of this rapid-de­vel­op­ing in­ter­net era.”

“I re­ally en­joy the job ex­pe­ri­ence se­ries and round ta­ble dis­cus­sions over sub­jects like ‘for­eign trash,' the ‘Metoo move­ment' and ‘Chi­naUS trade.' These episodes in­crease the show's depth. It seems that it [the For­eign Re­search In­sti­tute] is seek­ing a con­tent trans­for­ma­tion from en­ter­tain­ment to depth and re­spon­si­bil­ity,” Olivia, a Chi­nese viewer com­mented on the on­line-ques­tion-and-an­swer plat­form Zhihu.

Pan­der­ing to View­ers?

China has more than 300 video and livestream­ing plat­forms with 250 mil­lion users. Ac­cord­ing to Bei­jing-based re­search agency Analy­sus, the value of China's in­ter­net celebrity mar­ket is es­ti­mated

to be 100 bil­lion yuan (US$14.5B), nearly dou­ble that of 2016. The in­come of some in­ter­net celebri­ties is said to have sur­passed well-known film stars.

“The on­line con­tent in­dus­try has de­vel­oped over a decade in the world. It's not a novel thing. Ten years ago I al­ready fol­lowed lots of in­ter­net celebri­ties on Youtube. But in China it de­vel­oped rather slowly and hasn't been a trend un­til 2016,” Gal-or told Newschina.

Now more and more for­eign­ers are claim­ing a stake in the boom­ing wanghong econ­omy.

Thomas Derk­sen, 28, also known as “Afu Thomas,” is a pop­u­lar Ger­man vlog­ger who lives in Shang­hai and has nearly one mil­lion fol­low­ers on Weibo. Speak­ing Chi­nese with a per­fect Shang­hai di­alect, he has gained huge pop­u­lar­ity with his amus­ing, di­alect­fo­cused videos that doc­u­ment ev­ery­day life in a Shang­hainese fam­ily as a son-in-law, and poke fun at the cul­tural dif­fer­ences be­tween Ger­many and China.

Ya­mashita To­mo­hiro, a Ja­panese in­ter­net celebrity, also lives in Shang­hai. Since 2015, To­mo­hiro has posted videos in­tro­duc­ing Ja­panese cul­ture to Chi­nese au­di­ences with hu­mor, and he now runs an on­line com­edy show with more than 3.5 mil­lion fol­low­ers across var­i­ous so­cial plat­forms. He de­scribes him­self as a “lu­bri­cant for China-ja­pan re­la­tions.”

Other pop­u­lar in­ter­net celebri­ties in­clude French­man Quentin Al­bert, whose videos mainly doc­u­ment his trav­els in China, New Yorker Jerry Kowal, who does cul­tural and so­cial com­par­isons be­tween China and the US in his works, Martina Cata­nia from Italy, whose videos ex­am­ine cul­tural dif­fer­ences be­tween China and Europe rang­ing from dat­ing cul­ture to beauty stan­dards.

But some in China ques­tion whether these for­eign vlog­gers are merely pan­der­ing to Chi­nese au­di­ences, ex­press­ing opin­ions they ex­pect them to ap­prove of in or­der to gain a cult fol­low­ing.

“I've fol­lowed many for­eign wanghong on­line but now I've un­fol­lowed some of them. I get slightly un­com­fort­able when watch­ing vlog­gers who pan­der to their au­di­ences too much, say­ing what Chi­nese may like to hear. But in fact au­di­ences can tell whether what you're say­ing is sin­cere or not,” said Zou Qiqi, a stu­dent of School of Jour­nal­ism and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Ren­min Univer­sity of China.

“I'm a big be­liever in hon­esty,” says O'shea. I per­son­ally try to stay as ob­jec­tive as pos­si­ble. I think peo­ple should be hon­est, should do con­tent about what they ac­tu­ally be­lieve, keep all those val­ues alive. I also have seen there's a lot of con­tent with too many very neg­a­tive views about China, I don't like that ei­ther,” O'shea said.

From the per­spec­tive of Cai Yuyun, a me­dia re­searcher at the Depart­ment of Jour­nal­ism and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at South­west Univer­sity, pop­u­lar for­eign vlog­gers have served as a mir­ror for Chi­nese au­di­ences to un­der­stand their own cul­ture.

“They pro­vide a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, an an­gle of ‘the other,' to help Chi­nese un­der­stand them­selves and their own cul­ture,” she wrote in an ar­ti­cle that an­a­lyzed the pop­u­lar­ity of the for­eign in­ter­net celebri­ties.

Nev­er­the­less, Cai also points out that for­eign vlog­gers' nar­ra­tives of China still need to be treated crit­i­cally, be­cause their work has a ten­dency to cater to their au­di­ence's ex­pec­ta­tions.

“With the rapid de­vel­op­ment of China's econ­omy, there's an ur­gent de­sire for Chi­nese peo­ple to gain recog­ni­tion from ‘the other' to re­in­force their own self-iden­tity. […] In some videos, which de­scribe Chi­nese peo­ple as ‘the world's most in­dus­tri­ous peo­ple' or China as ‘the safest coun­try,' these ar­gu­ments sat­isfy a Chi­nese psy­cho­log­i­cal need,” Cai wrote.

Now Gal-or's team is seek­ing to ex­pand their in­flu­ence glob­ally. Their dream is an am­bi­tious one: to be­come the most in­flu­en­tial China-re­lated video con­tent provider on the in­ter­net.

The global ver­sion of the For­eign­ers Re­search In­sti­tute is called Ychina, but it has fewer fans than its Chi­nese op­er­a­tion – 52,820 sub­scribers on Youtube, with videos that av­er­age be­tween 50,000 and 200,000 views.

“Many coun­tries in the world, de­vel­oped or de­vel­op­ing, still har­bor prej­u­dices to­ward China. On many oc­ca­sions, prej­u­dices are more from the lack of in­for­ma­tion. Their ac­cess to China is lim­ited, more through pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics. Our pur­pose is to bring the world au­di­ences to the fore­front of Chi­nese so­ci­ety, through lighter fields such as en­ter­tain­ment, in­no­va­tion, cul­ture and lan­guage,” Gal-or told Newschina.

“We might not change their opin­ions, but we can cre­ate a new ac­cess point for them to un­der­stand China,” he added.

Brian O’shea (right) and Nio, a singer from Spain who is also an in­ter­net star in China, taste paella in a Span­ish res­tau­rant in Shen­zhen, Guang­dong Prov­ince Raz Gal-or poses with gifts he re­ceives from Chi­nese fans

Brian O’shea

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