‘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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These Chinese School Are Awarding Excellent Students with Pork Meat Gifts
Awarding excellent students with raw meat or even fresh fish seems to be a new trend in Chinese schools.
A remarkable award ceremony at a middle school in Fuyang, Anhui province, has attracted the attention of Chinese netizens this week for the meat gifts the school offered to its outstanding students.
The award ceremony was held on January 26 at the Anhui Fuyang No. 1 Middle School. The five best students of every class were each rewarded with 2,5 kilogram (5.5 pounds) of pork meat.
At the end of the ceremony, a total of 600 students took home a staggering 1500 kilogram (3306 pounds) of pork meat in total.
Although the initiative of this particular school came as a surprise to many netizens, more schools across China are introducing these kinds of food gifts to their students lately.
“Nowadays, every household has enough stationery. So we came up with the idea to award our students with pork meat instead.”
The director of the Anhui school, Mister Sun (孙), told reporters: “In the past, the school always awarded its best students with pencils and notebooks. But nowadays, every household has enough stationery. So we came up with the idea to award our students with pork meat instead.”
The pork meat, gifted in a bag with a pig on it, was given just in time for the upcoming Chinese Spring Festival, which celebrates the start of the Year of the Pig this year.
Sun further added: “The students’ hard work is rewarded with something they can take home and share with their family members and other people they love. In this way, they can also experience the gratefulness of others.”
The Fuyang middle school is not the first school that awards its students by offering them fresh meat products. Recently, several stories of Chinese schools awarding their students with meat gifts made their rounds on Chinese social media.
A primary school in Liuzhou, in a mountainous and impoverished area of Guangxi province, received the praise of many netizens when they awarded their 71 most outstanding students with 1,5 kilogram of unwrapped pork meat on a string. It is the second year in a row that the school chose to present its students with a meat gift.
At another school in Dongguan, Guangdong province, the 90 most outstanding students were each rewarded with a fresh fish earlier this month. The fish were caught from the Humen Wharton School’s own pond, The Paper reports.
In a recent interview, director Wu (吴) of the Dongguan Humen Wharton School told The Paper that the fish are usually fed with the leftovers from the school canteen. By rewarding the students with these fish, Wu said, the school not only hopes to make the pupils happy, but also hopes to increase their awareness on the ecological environment.
“This is the reality. When you work hard, you’ll have meat to eat.”
Last year, a school in Fujian’s Nan’an awarded 30 of its highest-scoring students with a pork leg, something that also attracted the attention online at the time. More schools, including one in Shanwei, then followed their example.
On Weibo, various hashtags relating to the new ‘trend’ are making their rounds. “Middle School Awards Its Students with 1500 Kilogram of Pork Meat” (#中学用3000斤猪肉表彰学生#) received over 5.5 million views this week. “School in Mountainous Area Awards Students with Pork at the End of the Year” (#山区小学期末发猪肉奖状#) had over 3 million views on Weibo.
Chinese netizens applaud the schools for giving these food products to reward students, mainly seeing it as a way to boost the children’s confidence.
“This is great!” one commenter wrote: “The students can really experience how it feels to earn something and what it feels like to contribute. And at the same time, they can share and enjoy their achievements with their family.”
“What a great award,” others say: “They’ll feel so proud to bring this back home.”
“This is the reality. When you work hard, you’ll have meat to eat. Why weren’t there such good schools around when I was a kid?”, a Weibo user says.
It is a tradition in China to hold an award ceremony at the end of the semester. During the ceremony, that is attended by the school’s students, teachers, and sometimes (grand)parents, the best students are praised for their accomplishments. The purpose of the award ceremony and the public praise is to let the excellent students set an example for their fellow classmates, and to motivate the students.
But not everyone is equally positive about the initiative. “The intention is good, but how attractive is it for a child to receive a pork leg nowadays?” one man from Guangdong wonders: “Isn’t it more and more uncommon for people to perceive meat as something that’s rare to eat?”
“It’s not about the meat itself,” others argue: “It’s about bringing home something and making them feel accomplished.”
Among the few voices criticizing the idea, there are also those who advocate vegetarianism and think it would be more valuable to teach children the value of living creatures rather than to give them pork.
Others argue that the pork meat gift is not ‘halal.’
But the vast majority of commenters still praise the initiative, saying it is honest, nutritious, and lets the whole family benefit from their child’s accomplishments. For some, the idea is simple and straightforward: “Those who study hard get to eat meat.”
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Another Hotpot Controversy: Famous Food Critic Wants Hotpot Gone
Hotpot discussions are getting heated.
After a hotpot restaurant became top trending on Weibo yesterday for recruiting ‘Ivy League’ graduates as waiters, another hotpot controversy has hit Chinese social media.
This time, the renowned Hong Kong food critic and cookbook writer Chua Lam (蔡瀾, Cai Lan) has stirred discussions among Chinese netizens over comments he made during an appearance on the Hunan TV talk show Day Day Up (天天向上/Tiantian Shangtian), SupChina and The Guardian reported on January 3rd.
When asked by one of the hosts of the show what dishes he would love to see disappear from the world, Chua answered: hotpot.
“Hotpot is the cooking style that lacks culture the most,” the food critic added: “You just throw the ingredients in there, there’s nothing tasty about it.” Because the hotpot allegedly has no cultural significance and because the cooking style is so easy, the critic suggested it might as well disappear altogether.
Chua Lam is a popular personality on social media. On his Weibo account, he has more than ten million fans.
Read the full story at Hotpot Ambassador here.
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