‘Old Godmother’ (Lao Gan Ma) is a household name in China. Anyone who frequents Chinese restaurants or supermarkets is familiar with the brand of chili sauces that is made in China since the 1990s – known for the little portrait of a Chinese woman on its label.
That woman is Tao Huabi (陶华碧), who did not only develop the famous chili sauce, but also became the founder and CEO of the privately owned ‘Lao Gan Ma Foodstuff Company’ (老干妈风味食品有限责任公司). The company was established in south-central China’s Guiyang, Guizhou Province, in 1997.
On February 14 2017, Tao Huabi hit the top trending lists on Chinese social media with the hashtag “The Spiciest [Feistiest] Woman of China” (#曾经中国最火辣的女人), when several Chinese media reported that Tao Huabi had already quietly retired from her company in 2014 and that she is no longer a stockholder of the Lao Gan Ma brand.
ROUGH START IN LIFE
“The noodle shop business soon flourished – but not because of her noodles.”
With her journey from extreme poverty to ultimate wealth (she is even included in the Forbes list of China’s richest), Tao Huabi’s story reads like a novel.
Tao was born in 1947 in a remote mountain village in Zun’yi, Guizhou province. Since her family was too poor to send her to school, Tao was not taught how to read and write. When Tao was 20 years old, she married a local geologist and had two sons.
When her husband fell ill, Tao Huabi unexpectedly became widowed within a few years after she got married. She was forced to work outside the village to provide for her family; Tao worked around the clock to make rice tofu at night, which she sold at schools during the day.
In 1989, Tao set up a small noodle shop in the Nanming District of Guiyang. Although she just served simple noodles, she mixed them with her own spicy hot sauce with soybeans (豆豉麻辣酱). Tao was beloved in the neighborhood, where she became a ‘godmother’ to poor students which she would always give discount and some extra food.
With many local students and patrons visiting her little diner, the noodle shop business soon flourished – but not because of her noodles.
Tao Huabi discovered the popularity of her condiment when customers came in to purchase the sauce without the noodles. One day, when her sauce had sold out, she found that customers would not even eat her noodles without her special sauce.
When Tao learned that other noodle shops in the neighborhood were all doing good business by using her home-made sauce in their noodles, she realized the potential of her product.
FROM NOODLE SHOP TO CHILI SAUCE FACTORY
“At the age of 49, Tao took the plunge and set up her own sauce factory called ‘Old Godmother.'”
By the early 1990s, more truck drivers passed by Tao’s shop due to the construction of a new highway in the area. Tao took this as a chance to promote her condiments outside the realm of her own neighborhood and started giving out her sauces for free for the truckers to take home.
This form of word-of-mouth marketing soon paid off when people from outside the city district came to visit Tao’s shop to buy her chili sauces and other condiments.
By 1994, she had stopped selling noodles and had turned her little restaurant into a sauce shop. Two years later, at the age of 49, Tao took the plunge to rent a house in Guiyang, recruited 40 workers, and set up her own sauce factory called ‘Old Godmother’: ‘Lao Gan Ma‘ (老干妈). In 1997, the company was officially listed and open for business.
Although the Lao Gan Ma brand became successful almost immediately, Tao Huabi still struggled for years as a handful of competitors launched fake Lao Gan Ma sauces with similar packaging, and nearly ruined her business.
In 2001, when Tao Huabi was 54, the high court in Beijing finally ruled that other similar products could not use the “Lao Gan Ma” name nor imitate her packages. She received 400,000 RMB in compensation (±60,000$). Twelve years later, her company had an annual sales volume of 540 million US$ (3.7 billion RMB).
“THE MIRACLE OF GUIZHOU”
“Tao was included in the Forbes list richest families in China with an estimated worth of $1.05 billion.”
By now, Tao’s ‘chili empire’ has gone international, as her condiments are sold from the USA to Africa. She is known as the “Miracle of Guizhou.” Despite the many offers she had throughout her career to set up her business elsewhere, she always stayed true to her home-province – much to the delight of local government officials who have continuously shown their support for Tao.
The businesswoman is a true blessing for the province; not just because her brand has become known as a unique ‘product of Guizhou’, but mainly because she offers employment to 4100 people, and directly and indirectly generates income for ten-thousands of farmers.
Lao Gan Ma is by far the largest chili brand of China, with over 20 differently-flavored condiments.
In 2015, Tao was included in the Forbes list of richest families in China with an estimated worth of $1.05 billion.
Besides that Tao, now 70 years old, allegedly loves driving cars (she owns two Rolls-Royces, a Mercedez-Benz and a BMW), she is also politically active and has become a committee member of the People’s Congress at the provincial level.
According to the latest Chinese media reports, Tao Huabi has quietly retired in 2014, which was unknown to the public. She and her youngest son Li Hui (李辉) are no longer on the list of shareholders. Her oldest son Li Guishan (李贵山), however, is still a company shareholder.
“Somehow this makes me a bit emotional,” some Weibo commenters said.
“I just hope the quality will remain as good as ever,” some netizens responded on Weibo. “As a kid I always thought there was drugs in this sauce because it was so addictive.”
Others praised her life story, saying: “Old Godmother is an example that you can still make it in life without any education.”
“We actually have a lot of women here in Guizhou who can make their own delicious chili sauce,” another netizen wrote: “But of course, Old Godmother’s hot sauce is delicious and has its own characteristics. And in the era of Old Godmother, there were very few people who would rely on chili sauce to make a living. She has persisted and kept her prices low.”
“Every great business person has to retire one day,” one commenter writes: “That does not diminish her legendary successful career!”
Others are surprised to find such a life story behind the Lan Gao Ma product: “Who knew our Old Godmother was such a fascinating person?”
Sources and Further Reading
Baidu Page Tao Huabi (in Chinese): http://baike.baidu.com/view/117848.htm#reference--117848-wrap.
Phoenix News (in Chinese) http://finance.ifeng.com/a/20151202/14103739_0.shtml
Sina News (in Chinese) https://zx.sina.cn/n/2017-02-14/zx-ifyamkzq1302308.d.html
Sina Video (in Chinese) http://video.sina.com.cn/p/news/o/doc/2017-02-13/112965694793.html?wm=3049_0022&from=qudao
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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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