It has been over two decades since Zhang Yong, the owner of Haidilao (海底捞), set up his first hot pot restaurant in Jianyang, Sichuan, with a mere investment of 10,000 yuan (±1470$). Now, 23 years later, it has become the dominant hot pot chain in the country. The restaurant is popular across China, where it has an annual turnover of approximately 450 million dollars.
In Beijing alone, the chain has 36 locations. From Shanghai to Shenzhen, Haidilao has 176 outlets in 53 Chinese cities. The chain allegedly opens 20 new restaurants every year. By now, Haidilao has over 15,000 people working for them and has also gone international, with more restaurants opening up in Singapore, the USA, and Seoul.
How did a restaurant serving such a traditional and ubiquitous Chinese dish become such a success? Hot pot restaurants, where fresh meat and vegetables are dipped in simmering broth, are extremely common across China. But Zhang Yong chose to market Haidilao and its authentic Sichuan hot pot with an innovative strategy: high-service, high-tech, and high-quality.
High-Service Hot Pot: “Brainwashing” Staff
Except for the tasty hotpot, anyone who has ever visited Haidilao will surely remember one thing: here, you can get a free manicure while you wait. The restaurant has become so popular that waiting in line for one or two hours to get a table is no exception. But with an entertainment area that provides customers with board games, free snacks, drinks, manicures, massages, and even shoe polish services, queuing has become part of the Haidilao experience.
The ‘entertainment area’ is just of the many ways in which Haidilao accommodates to its customers’ desires. There is ample staff for every table. Customers with longer hair get free hairbands to tie their hair back while eating. Customers with glasses are provided with eyeglass cleaning tissue. There are special aprons to avoid stained clothing, and even handbags get their own protection. At the Haidilao toilets, staff will hand out hand towels and provide customers with any toiletry items they may need.
Anyone working at Haidilao is thoroughly trained. On question-and-answer platform Zhihu.com, former Haidilao servers shared their experiences of working at the restaurant. They explain that all Haidilao workers have to follow a compulsory training after they are accepted to come work at the restaurant.
The training is provided by people who have worked at the chain for at least 3 to 5 years, who teach new workers about corporate culture and Haidilao food. The staff learns how to welcome guests, how to make small talk to set a good atmosphere, and learn about the restaurant rules (always smile, never quarrel with customers, etc).
According to some former workers, working at Haidilao is a bittersweet experience. Since the staff works, lives, and eats together, their whole lives basically revolve around their work, except for the 4 days off they have per month.
Although there are some who applaud the company for setting the work ethic and for its relatively luxurious common dorms and good canteen, there are also those who say that Haidilao “brainwashes” its staff by creating its own community with “ridiculous rules” (staff cannot use customer’s toilets, all workers have to turn in their mobile phones before their shifts, working very long hours, etc).
Haidilao’s staff management and training have become a popular topic for marketers and scholars in China. Over recent years, many Chinese academic books and articles have been published that focus on Haidilao’s business model innovation, its service creativity, and customer satisfaction.
High-Tech Hot Pot: Ordering through iPad
Although Haidilao is not as digital as ‘newcomer’ Wodi Huoguo, it does fully incorporate China’s digital developments into its restaurants.
All tables are equipped with a charge station for mobile phones (iPhone, Android), and a personal tablet for customers to go through the menu to order the hot pot and all ingredients and drinks. Items ordered through the tablet arrive at the table within minutes. The restaurant also provides free Wi-fi in all areas. Needless to say, they accept WeChat and Alipay as payment methods.
Haidilao also provides online reservation and ordering services. Customers can order the Haidilao hotpot to their home – they’ll even bring the pot itself. Afterward, they will come to pick up the dirty dishes.
The Haidilao Wechat app has several features. One especially fun one is its online gaming area, where gamers can compete and win discounts on their next hot pot bill.
High-Quality Hot Pot: Outstanding
No matter how good the service is, eventually it all comes down to taste and quality in order to make customers come back. The Haidilao chain has strict rules on quality control, and carefully selects its suppliers. This is something that is especially important to Chinese customers, since China has seen ample food scandals over the last decade.
Haidilao offers new variations on standard hot pot recipes, adding new recipes and dishes every year.
Haidilao also offers a condiment bar with over 20 dipping sauces, from sesame dip to spicy oil, as well as side dishes such as cucumbers, peanuts, and fresh fruit.
The restaurant consistently gets good reviews, also from the expat community. In the restaurant awards by magazines such as Time Out and Beijinger, Haidilao has often won prices throughout the year, including those for “Best Hot Pot,” “Outstanding Service,” or “Outstanding Chinese Restaurant of the Year.”
You Never Eat Alone
On Weibo, Haidilao is also praised by many netizens, although some say that “the service is so good that it actually becomes embarrassing.” (“I just needed a band-aid but the servant personally came and helped me put it on.”)
Recently, netizens find Haidilao’s latest service addition especially funny; whoever eats alone at Haidilao is now provided with a teddy bear to accompany them at the table. “I am happy with this new friend Haidilao picked out for me,” one netizen posted.
Many netizens post pictures of their Teddy friend on Weibo.
There are also those who post pictures of guests at other tables, saying: “So it really is true that people at Haidilao dine with teddy bears!”
One Haidilao story especially attracted attention when this WeChat conversation surfaced online. “I went to eat at Haidilao by myself (..) and I asked the waiter if it was true that I would get a teddybear to eat together with me. They said their restaurant didn’t have teddies and I said never mind. After a while they came up with this one [picture of a cat], and they asked me: ‘Is a cat ok too?‘”
For more about dining at Haidilao, check out our recent video blog here:
Notice: What’s on Weibo is an independent blog and is in no way affiliated with Haidilao.
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BBC: Extreme Eating Trends and the Rise of Eating Disorders in China
The Food Chain by the BBC investigates the rise of eating disorders in China.
The rise of eating disorders in China is the topic of a recent BBC online radio documentary episode (27 min) within the Food Chain series.
The Food Chain investigates the rise of eating disorders in China: is this an inevitable consequence of economic development? And if so, why are eating disorders still all too often seen as a rich white woman’s problem?
In the first of two episodes to explore the rising prevalence of eating disorders outside of the western world, Emily Thomas speaks to women with the illness in China and Hong Kong, who explain how hard it is to access support for binge-eating disorder, bulimia and anorexia, because of attitudes to food and weight, taboos around mental health, and a lack of treatment options. They describe the pressure on women to be ‘small’ and ‘diminutive’, but still take part in the country’s deeply entrenched eating culture.
A psychiatrist working in China’s only closed ward for eating disorders blames an abundance of food in the country, parental attitudes and the competitiveness of Chinese society. She also warns of the dangers of the uncontrolled diet pill industry. From there BBC delves into the sinister world of ‘vomit bars’ with Manya Koetse.
She tells Emily Thomas about the recent craze for live binge-eating among young Chinese women and how some of this is disturbingly followed by ‘purging’. Why do they call themselves ‘rabbits’? And why does no one use the term ‘eating disorder’ when talking about these trends?
BBC also explores the link between the rise of eating disorders and economic development. Does there need to be an abundance of food in a society before these problems develop?
To listen to a short fragment on China’s binge-eating rabbits by Manya Koetse, click here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/p06mw03b .
To listen to the full documentary, please click here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/p06mw03b.
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Binging and Purging as Online Trend: From China’s “Big Stomach Stars” to “Vomit Bars”
China’s ‘Big Stomach Stars’ are all the rage – but is it really just harmless entertainment?
Unlike previous rising Chinese social media stars such as Papi Jiang, the 26-year-old Mimi from Chongqing did not become an online celebrity because of her comic skills or acting talent, nor for her singing voice or dance moves. Mimi Zhang became famous for eating 8 lb (4 kg) of rice in one sitting, during an eating challenge in 2016.
By now, Mimi is one of China’s most successful ‘Eating Broadcasting’ hosts. Also called ‘Big Stomach Star Eating Livestream’ (大胃王吃播) or ‘Livestream Eating Vlogging’ (吃播女博主) in China, it is an online video genre in which hosts will consume extremely large amounts of food.
In South Korea, it is known as the ‘mukbang‘ phenomenon, and the craze started there some years earlier, peaking in 2016. ‘Eating Broadcasting’ stars such as Kinoshita Yuka (video) and BJ The Diva (video) already had their moments of fame on the internet in South Korea, Japan, and beyond, but the genre only recently has become a real hype on Chinese social media.
Binging on Camera
Looking at the number of views and subscribers from YouTube to Twitch, or on platforms such as Kuaishou or Douyin, the ‘Eating Broadcasting’ genre obviously has millions of fans worldwide.
This online movement is innocuous in many ways. According to experts, people enjoy watching others eat because they feel a social connection, or want to stimulate their own appetite – it is one of the reasons why the craze is also dubbed ‘social eating.’
For many, the genre is simply entertaining; hosts often eat unconventional dishes, they are descriptive with taste, play around with their expressions, take on challenges, talk, and make funny sounds while eating.
But what if ‘social eating’ becomes ‘binge eating’? How harmless is the genre if it shows skinny women eating excessive amounts of food, inadvertently promoting unhealthy eating habits and unrealistic standards?
Along with Mimi Zhang, ‘Big Stomach Mini'(@大胃mini) is one other among many Chinese livestreamers that has achieved online stardom by eating large amounts of food. The 24-year-old reportedly is 1,70 m. tall and only weights 47 kilograms (103lbs), yet recently managed to eat a staggering 17 kg (35 pounds) of meat (video).
More and more, netizens are starting to connect these live-streamers to a habit of purging. Ongoing rumors suggest a supposed connection between binge streaming and vomiting.
Recently, various accounts claimed that Mimi Zhang used to have an account (using the name ‘Little Mi 360’ 小密360) on an online forum where people, mainly women, encourage each other to binge and purge.
China’s “Vomit Bar” (催吐吧) Community
China’s so-called “Vomit Bars” (催吐吧), online forums focused on binging and purging, have formed a hidden community on Chinese internet for years.
The phenomenon already came to light in 2012, and started to receive news media attention within China in 2015 and 2016. Most of the bigger online forums got shut down in 2017, however, after rumors circulated that a member of a ‘Vomit Bar’ had reached such a low weight that her organs failed and she passed away.
Nevertheless, the online community consists of thousands of people, mainly women aged 14-40. A previously well-known forum on Baidu (now shutdown) had around 50,000 members called ‘rabbits’ (兔子) and over 5,5 million posts.
Since then, there are still some scattered forums, and a special Android app called ‘Meet Like Rabbits’ (相识于吐), where users can share their experiences and tips on message boards. On WeChat’s group chats, members of the community have more freedom to talk in private with less risk of being shut down.
Members of the online ‘purging community’ are called ‘rabbits’ since the Chinese word for rabbit, tuzi (兔子), sounds similar to the word for ‘purging’ (tu 吐), and also because they eat all day, just like rabbits.
The main goal of these online forums is to share tips and tricks on how to lose weight by purging, while still binging on food. People also post photos of their binges or body, and share their hopes and fears in losing weight. “The way it is now, I could maintain a weight of around 46 kilograms,” one ‘rabbit’ writes: “I think it’s fat. My heart is filled with panic. I can only vomit.”
Newcomers ask others about best ways to vomit, and some people who say they’ve been binging and purging for years share experiences about their painful stomach and tooth decay.
Doctor Ma Yongchun (马永春) from Zhejiang Tongde Hospital since long has been warning people that these kind of online forums are harmful. She told iFeng news that the so-called ‘rabbits’ get caught up in a vicious cycle of binging and purging, and in doing so are developing serious eating disorders that can become life-threatening.
Eating Disorders in China
The Chinese ‘rabbit’ community could perhaps be compared to the Western ‘pro-ana‘ phenomenon, an online movement where people promote the behavior related to the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.
But there is one major difference; the ‘pro-ana’ community is connected to the term ‘anorexia’, suggesting that users of such forums are somewhat aware their behaviors are a sign of an actual eating disorder.
In these Chinese online communities, however, there seems to be a lesser acknowledgment that the cycle of binging and purging is one that belongs in the realm of a psychological disorder. Although people do complain that they feel they can no longer stop their irregular eating pattern, they talk more about their stomach aches and ulcers than they actually talk about suffering from an eating disorder.
This perhaps relates to the fact that there is little general awareness about eating disorders (ED) in China. Although there are no official statistics on the occurrence of bulimia, anorexia, or other ED in China, previous studies have found levels similar to Western countries (Tong et al 2014).
What various studies over the past years have also established is that there are major differences between Western countries and China in how eating disorders manifest themselves, suggesting they are not culture-bound but culture-reactive (Getz 2014, 749; Pike & Dunne 2015).
Because EDs are (1) traditionally conceptualized as a “Western mental health issue,” because (2) there is a social stigma attached to mental health issues in general in Chinese society, because (3) there is little general awareness on EDs, because (4) there is a lack in Chinese healthcare facilities specialized in EDs, and because of (5) various cultural factors (e.g. a very strong food culture), Chinese patients are more prone to talk about their problems in the form of somatic symptoms such as an extreme (dis)taste for food or abdominal problems, than in the form of a psychological problem (Getz 2014, 746-750).
Recently, Chinese media slowly seem to be promoting more awareness on eating disorders. The American video “I became Anorexic for Instagram” has gone viral on Chinese social media over the past month, as it was posted by various state media channels on Weibo.
Among thousands of reactions, many said: “It seems that this kind of disease doesn’t occur much in China – we have too many tasty food!” Others said: “I want to lose weight too – I want an eating disorder like this!”
But there are also more and more people who are tying the rise of China’s online unhealthy eating trends to more serious issues. “These girls who eat so much [on camera] do not just have big stomachs, they actually puke in order to eat so much. I don’t find it entertaining to watch them anymore,” one netizen (@有兔劳劳) says.
“I now find it sad to watch these ‘big stomach stars’ (大胃王),” another person says: “They definitely vomit – it’s impossible for one person’s stomach to hold so much food.”
“What’s up with all these ‘big stomach stars’ recently? It’s not something they were born with, or something they were trained in doing; they are like those ‘rabbits’ and it is a disease, it’s bulimic. I don’t want to support them anymore by watching how they harm themselves,” another commenter writes.
Meanwhile, China’s binge-eating online stars seem to be unaffected by the online rumors that connect them to unhealthy trends and eating disorders.
For some commenters, there is no issue at all: “She just has a great appetite.”
Are you suffering from an eating disorder and need help? For information on eating disorders and how to help if you are worried about someone, Beat (UK) or ANAD (US) has advice for sufferers, friends and family.
References (online references linked to in text)
Getz, M.J. 2014. “The Myth of Chinese Barbies: Eating Disorders in China including Hong Kong.” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 21: 746-754.
Pike, Kathleen M., and Patricia E. Dunne. 2015. “The Rise of Eating Disorders in Asia: a Review.” Journal of Eating Disorders 3:33. Available online https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40337-015-0070-2 [17.1.18].
Tong, J., Miao, S., Wang, J. et al. 2014. “A Two-stage Epidemiologic Study on Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Female University Students in Wuhan, China.” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 49(3): 499-505.
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