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China Food & Drinks

China’s Noodle War Has Just Begun

An issue over noodles in the south of China has gotten so out of hand, that the government has to intervene. China’s most famous noodles, Lanzhou Beef Noodles, are at the center of this dispute. The main question: who’s the boss in the world of Chinese Noodles?

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An issue over noodles in the south of China has gotten so out of hand that the government has now stepped in. China’s most famous noodles, Lanzhou Beef Noodles, are at the center of this dispute. The main question: who’s the boss in the world of Chinese noodles?

Lanzhou Beef Noodle (州牛肉面) is one of China’s most famous dishes. It originated in Lanzhou, the largest city of China’s northwestern province of Gansu. The dish is also simply called ‘lamian‘, the Chinese word for ‘noodle’ (the Japanese ‘ramen’ is based on this word). In 1999, Lanzhou Noodles were identified as one of China’s three major ‘fast foods’, together with Beijing Quanjude Roast Duck and Tianjin Goubuli steamed buns.

Recently, a feverish debate has erupted over Lanzhou Beef Noodles. Who is entitled to use its name and have a monopoly position within its business? The topic became trending on Sina Weibo under the hashtag of “the factional struggle over Lanzhou Noodles” (#兰州拉面派系之争#), after a big Lanzhou Noodle chain in Shenzhen called ‘Oriental Palace’ was boycotted by locals, who literally blocked customers from entering the restaurant.

 

Breaching the ‘noodle norms’

 

On June 8, Weibo blogger Li Shu Shirin (李舒shirin) posted pictures of a protest outside a newly-opened Oriental Palace Lanzhou Noodle restaurant. The blogger described how several men sat outside the restaurant door, preventing customers from coming in. Others stood near the entrance holding up signs saying things like “this restaurant breaches the noodle norms!”, while some used loudspeakers to tell the shop owners to go away. The pictures quickly attracted the attention of Weibo’s netizens.

whatsonweiboThe Oriental City restaurant, blocked by protesters.

The protesters blocking the store are Qinghai people; a group of noodlemakers that originally is from the northwestern province of Qinghai, bordering on Tibet. The people from Qinghai are famous for setting up Lanzhou Noodle shops all over China, supposedly regarding themselves as the ‘true’ Lanzhou noodlemakers. In their perspective, China’s new big noodle franchise stores, such as Oriental City, take away their customers. More importantly: they breach the long-standing tacit agreement in China’s world of noodles that a new Lanzhou Noodle shop shall not open its doors within 400 meters an existing one. Along with other franchise stores, the Shenzhen Oriental Plaza neglected this ‘norm’, and opened its restaurant near another (Qinghai-owned) Lanzhou Noodle shop, much to the dismay of local noodleshop owners.

Oriental Palace (full name: Oriental Palace China Lanzhou Beef Noodles,东方宫中国兰州牛肉拉面) was first opened in 2010 and has been rapidly expanding ever since. Especially in the southeast, home to many Qinghai ‘Lanzhou Noodle’ shops, Oriental Palace has not received a warm welcome. Ma Jun, CEO of the Oriental Palace Lanzhou Group, told reporters: “Our shops have been boycotted ever since we started, but we are doing nothing wrong – we always operate according to the laws.” He also revealed that the Lanzhou government has now stepped in to resolve the issue, and that it will help to find a solution for Qinghai and Lanzhou noodle companies.

 

Will the real Lanzhou noodlemaker please stand up?

 

So what is this connection between Qinghai and Lanzhou noodles? Since the 1980s, Qinghai peasants were the first to start their own noodle shops businesses in the southeast of China. Throughout the decades, more and more people from Qinghai started to sell beef noodles in different cities all over China. According to research, about 60 to 70 percent of all Lanzhou Noodle Shops across China are now run by people from Qinghai. People from the Qinghai muslim Salar ethnic group approximately have 30,000 beef noodles shops in over 100 Chinese cities. Without the influence of Qinghai’s noodlemakers, Lanzhou Noodles would arguably not have been as famous as they are today – its popularity has also spread to Singapore and Malaysia.

Although the Qinghai- and Lanzhou-made noodles are practically the same, and both call themselves ‘Lanzhou noodles’, there are some subtile differences according to specialists. The main difference lies in how the broth is cooked. Traditionally, the Qinghai broth needs to be cooked three times. The noodles are supposed to be hand-made. And, originally, they use over 30 different ingredients; from yak meat to butter and ox bones.

 

Relying on the ‘noodle economy’

 

Qinghai noodlemakers now face fierce competition from China’s upcoming big noodle chains. Major companies such as Jin Ding, Oriental Palace, Malan Noodles or Master Huang have spread over the entire country, with over 20,000 restaurants nationwide. Generally, Qinghai noodle shops are run privately, and do not operate as chain stores. Since about half of Qinghai peasant rely on the “noodle economy” revenue for their income, the rise of China’s big noodle stores is a nightmare for many. The fact that these big chains do not stick to their gentleman’s agreement of not opening new shops nearby existing ones only adds fuel to the fire.

noodleshopsLeft: Oriental City chain, right: a small-scale Qinghai shop.

Many Weibo netizens do not agree with the Qinghai protesters, and speak out in support of Oriental City. Netizen Qinlong Fu Hanjun (秦陇复汉军) says that as long as restaurants operate according to the law, other groups have no say in their business – that would be against the principle of a free market economy. Another user says: “You simply cannot call Qinghai-made noodles ‘Lanzhou Noodles’ – to do so is actually fake.”

But there are also other netizens who think that if there truly is a norm for noodle shops to not open up new stores within 400 meter of another, then companies should adhere to it.

“The Lanzhou government should take responsibility for this issue,” one netizen says on Sohu: “The people from Qinghai have been opening up so many restaurants under the banner of ‘Lanzhou’, but Lanzhou has only started to promote their own noodles over the past few years.”

“Why don’t you just call your own noodles ‘Qinghai noodles’ instead of ‘Lanzhou noodles’?” another Sohu commenter says: “In that way, other Lanzhou Noodle Shops can just open up nearby without any problems. If you don’t like other noodle shops opening up, just stick to your own noodles!”.

The unrest near China’s big noodle chains and the disagreement amongst netizens shows that this noodle war has only just begun. For noodle lovers, it’s nothing but good news; Lanzhou-made and Qinghai-made noodles will soon be on even more corners of China’s cities.

By Manya Koetse

©2015 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Food & Drinks

Would You Like Coffee with Your Sneakers? Chinese Sports Brand Li-Ning Registers Its ‘Ning Coffee’ Brand

Li-Ning enters the coffee market: “Will they sell sneaker-flavored coffee?”

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An unexpected competitor is joining China’s coffee market. With over 7000 stores in the country, Li-Ning has the potential to become the biggest athletic coffee chain yet.

Another player is joining mainland China’s growing coffee market. It’s not an American coffee giant, nor a coffee house chain from Hong Kong – it is China’s leading sportswear brand Li-Ning Sports (李宁体育).

Li-Ning registered its coffee brand under the ‘NING COFFEE’ trademark. As reported in an article written by ‘Investment Group’ (@投资界) and published by Toutiao News (@头条新闻), Li-Ning has confirmed on May 6 that it will provide in-store coffee services to enhance customers’ shopping experiences in the near future.

The move means that Li-Ning could potentially become a big player in China’s coffee market, competing with major brands such as Starbucks, Luckin Coffee, Costa and Pacific. If the in-store coffee cafes would roll out in most of its shops, there could be over 7000 Ning Coffee cafes in China in the future. By the end of 2021, Li-Ning Sports had a total of 7,137 stores in China.

Starbucks has 5,400 stores in China. Leading domestic coffee chain Luckin Coffee expanded to over 6000 stores last year. Costa Coffee, although closing some of its China stores in 2021, announced that it aims to have a total of 1,200 stores open in China later this year. Looking at Li-Ning’s presence across China, its in-store coffee cafes could be serious competition for the leading coffee chains in the country.

Over the past few years, various Chinese sportswear brands, including Anta Sports and Erke, have seen a rise in popularity, but Li-Ning is still China’s most famous brand name for athletic apparel and shoes. The company was founded in the early 1990s by Chinese Olympic gymnast and business entrepreneur Li Ning (1963) and was generally seen as a Nike copycat – the original logo was even similar to the Nike swoosh. Although Li-Ning looked like Nike, the brand is more appealing to many Chinese consumers due to the fact that it is cheaper and made in China.

Li-Ning markets itself as being “deeply and uniquely Chinese” (Li Ning official website 2022), which has made it more popular in an era of “proudly made in China” (read more about that here). Moreover, it also promises to offer high-quality sportwear at a price that is cheaper than the American Nike or German Adidas.

Li-Ning’s success is also owed to its marketing strategies. Besides being the official marketing partner of many major sports events, including the NBA in China, the brand has also contracted with many household athletes and famous global ambassadors.

Over a decade ago, marketing observers already noted that despite the remarkable success of Li-Ning in China, the brand still had a long way to go in order to strengthen its image as a long-term brand, recommending Li-Ning to “create excitement around the brand” by building more associations related to lifestyle and coolness to better resonate with younger Chinese customers (Bell 2008, 81; Roll 2006, 170).

With its latest move into the coffee market, it is clear that Li-Ning is moving its brand positioning more toward the direction of lifestyle, trendiness, and luxury. Although purchasing a coffee at Starbucks or Luckin is part of the everyday routine for many urban millennials, coffee is still viewed as a trendy luxury product for many, relating to both cultural factors as well as economic reasons. As noted by Cat Hanson in 2015, the price of a single cup of coffee was equal to a month’s worth of home broadband internet (read more).

Previously, other fashion brands have also opened up coffee stores in China. As reported by Jing Daily, international luxury brands Prada, Louis Vuitton, and FENDI also opened up coffee cafes in mainland China.

Another unexpected coffee cafe is that of China Post, which opened its first in-store ‘Post Coffee’ in Xiamen earlier this year. On social media, many netizens commented that the brand image of the national post service clashed with that of a fairly expensive coffee house (coffee prices starting at 22 yuan / $3,3).

“The postal services are located in cities and in the countryside and are often used by migrant workers, and generally this demographic isn’t buying coffee,” one person commented, with another netizen writing: “This does not suit the taste of ordinary people, it would’ve been better if they sold milk tea.”

Post Coffee, via Jiemian Official.

On Weibo, Li-Ning’s journey into the competitive coffee market was discussed using the hashtags “Li-Ning Enters the Coffee Race” (#李宁入局咖啡赛道#) and “Li-Ning Starts Selling Coffee” (##李宁开始卖咖啡##).

Like with China Post, many commenters say the combination of sportswear and coffee is not something they immediately find logical. “Will they also sell sneaker-flavored coffee?” one person wondered, with others thinking selling coffee – seen as a product from western countries – does not exactly match with Li-Ning as a ‘proudly made-in-China’ brand.

“How would you feel about trying on some clothes at Li-Ning while sipping on Li-Ning coffee? I understand Li-Ning is jumping on what’s popular, and this time it’s coffee,” one Weibo user writes, with others also writing: “I think it has potential.”

“I’m willing to try it out,” various commenters write. For others, they want to see the menu first: “It all depends on the price.”

For more about the coffee and tea market in China, check our other articles here.

By Manya Koetse

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our weekly newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

References

Bell, Sandra. 2008. International Brand Management of Chinese Companies. Heidelberg: Physia-Verlag.

Roll, Martin. 2006. Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China and Covid19

Weibo Has Still Blocked ‘Shanghai Buy Groceries’ Hashtag

“It’s easier to get a Shanghai license plate than groceries around here.”

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While Shanghai is promising to improve food supplies for locked-down residents, many households are still struggling to get their groceries and complain about high prices for basic food items. Over the past week, Weibo has blocked a hashtag page about the issue.

On April 8, during the seventh day of Shanghai’s phased citywide lockdown, the Chinese social media platform Weibo removed the ‘Shanghai Buy Food’ or ‘Shanghai Groceries’ (#上海买菜#) hashtag while many in the city were facing difficulties in getting food delivered to their house and were venting their anger online. Getting daily necessities has become a problem for millions of residents not allowed to leave their homes due to the city’s coronavirus prevention measures.

The hashtag censorship coincided with state media news reports about Shanghai ensuring life supplies for residents and improving delivery capacities at a time when most stores, restaurants, supermarkets, and wet markets have shut down normal operations. Shanghai has registered over 253,000 Covid-19 infections since March 1st of this year, reporting another daily record of 26,330 confirmed cases on Wednesday.

Some joked that just censoring the problem was also a way of dealing with it. “Oh great, they solved the grocery shopping problem,” popped up as a recurring joke on Weibo after the hashtag page was removed.

The hashtag ‘Shanghai Buy Groceries’ first started trending on Chinese social media on March 23, when Shanghai residents started worrying about an impending lockdown amid spiking Covid19 cases.

Although Chinese state media reported on March 24 that Shanghai health authorities reiterated they had no plans to impose a citywide lockdown – and two people accused of spreading rumors about an alleged citywide lockdown were even placed under police investigation -, the city announced its phased lockdowns three days later and scenes of panic buying at local supermarkets ensued.

But around April 8, the moment when the hashtag’s popularity surged, many residents faced food shortages as their home supplies ran out and grocery orders did not come through. While some residents started receiving food boxes issued by the local government, most compounds and buildings also set up their own community WeChat group to place bulk orders at certain food vendors which then deliver the group purchase to the community, where it is distributed by volunteers or property management employees.

Earlier this week, Shanghai implemented a new measure that divides residential units into three risk categories depending on whether or not there have been any cases of Covid in their communities for a stretch of two weeks. For at least 15 million residents, their locked-down status remains unchanged – and for those in the ‘precautionary’ communities, their status could also be downgraded to the ‘locked down’ level the moment a positive case pops up again.

E-commerce and food delivery platforms such as Ele.me and JD have been sending more staff to Shanghai from other parts of China to help ensure quicker and smoother sorting and delivery processes. On April 13, many households also received their first (free) food boxes.

By Wednesday, hashtags such as “Shanghai Residents Are One by One Receiving Supplies” (#上海市民陆续收到物资#) and “Delivery Drivers Increased to Help Shanghai” (#多地快递小哥增援上海#) were circulating on social media. But on Weibo, the hashtag page for “Shanghai Groceries” still comes up with no results.

For some Shanghai residents, the pace of food delivery, even with improved delivery logistics, hasn’t been quick enough to alleviate their current food shortages. Others are also complaining about the costs of their ordered groceries, some spending 285 yuan ($45) or more on some basic groceries including noodles and vegetables.

One Weibo user asks: “Please, where can I buy reasonably priced meat, eggs, and green onions?”

“It’s easier to get a Shanghai license plate than groceries around here,” another netizen complained.

For some, doing online groceries has become an Olympic game; netizens are posting videos of setting a 5AM alarm clock, jumping out of bed, and entering their online orders as fast as they can. One video showed a wife cheering on her husband while his thumb was going as fast as possible to place grocery orders via his smartphone e e-commerce app.

“If I have to keep grabbing groceries like this, I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown,” one thirty-something lady from Shanghai wrote on Weibo: “I really hope the situation in Shanghai gets better soon. What happened to the city I grew up in?”

For more articles on the Covid-19 topics on Chinese social media, check here.

By Manya Koetse

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our weekly newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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