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
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.
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