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Lao Gan Ma: The Story of China’s Most Spicy Godmother Tao Huabi

China’s ‘Old Godmother’ Tao Huabi, creator of Lao Gan Ma, is China’s hottest businesswoman.

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She is China’s ‘Old Godmother’: Tao Huabi (陶华碧) is the creator of one of China’s most famous chili sauces and is the embodiment of the ‘Chinese dream.’ By following her own path and relying on her business instinct, Tao rose from poverty and became a multi-billionaire. China’s spiciest businesswomen has now quietly retired.

‘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.”

A bottle of Lao Gan Ma is generally sold at around 8-10 RMB (±1-1,5US$). Overseas, prices vary from 8$ to 15$.

“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?”

– By Manya Koetse
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Sources and Further Reading

Baidu Page Tao Huabi (in Chinese): http://baike.baidu.com/view/117848.htm#reference-[1]-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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©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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“A Hundred Reasons to Eat Bamboo Rats”: The Story of Two Farmers Who Became Internet Celebrities

Within days, the vlogs of two farmers using ridiculous selecting criteria for animal consumption racked millions of views.

Gabi Verberg

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In the past months, two farmers called “the Magnificent Farm Brothers” (华农兄弟) have become an internet sensation by vlogging their day-to-day life on a bamboo rat breeding farm in southern China, where these rodents are served as a delicacy. Their propensity to always find a pretext, no matter how ridiculous, for eating their own animals, has amused millions of netizens.

They are China’s most popular farmers of the past year: “The Magnificent Farm Brothers” Liu (刘) and Hu (胡).

It all started a few months ago when the two started vlogging about their day-to-day life on a bamboo rat breeding farm in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province. The script hardly changes and is loaded with clickbait potential: Hu films his 29-year-old companion Liu doting on a cute-looking bamboo rat before finding an excuse to mercilessly execute and eat it.

Under the hashtag “A Hundred Reasons to Eat Bamboo Rats,” (#吃竹鼠的一百种理由#), with over 160 million views on Weibo, netizens have compiled countless scenes of the duet’s rat-gobbling.

There is no doubt that the comical value lies in Liu’s excuse-making. In one scene, a rat hasn’t eaten for three days due to a depression – Liu, feigning mercy, hastily concludes that he should put it out of its misery by eating it. Be it heat stroke, internal injuries, or some other health problem, Liu’s diagnosis for every rodent is always the same.

Aside from the gales of laughter incited by such provoking scenes, the duet’s vlog has also provided a business boost. In an interview with a local TV station, the two farmers stated that they started vlogging with the intention of turning the bamboo rat into a popular culinary delicacy.

Since going viral, the two farmers have been receiving orders for their bamboo rats from all over the country. The spike in demand for bamboo rat consumption has also benefited the two farmers’ co-workers – according to an article in the China Daily, the wages of other bamboo rat breeders have also increased thanks to the duet’s online following.

But the vlogs show more than just the farmer’s arbitrarily deciding which rat to kill next. To spare viewers, Liu kills the rodent off-screen, after which he resumes vlogging, explaining how to prepare a succulent meal of bamboo rat –marinate the dead rodent, stuff it with vegetables, then roast until cooked throughout.  The devouring of the meat is not left out, as viewers get to see the two farmers tuck into the so-called delicacies.

The false pretexts for animal-killing apply to anything that moves, not just bamboo rats. In one vlog, Liu catches a chicken, saying he’d better eat it since it might have caught a cold from last night’s rain. Ducks and pigs also receive a similar treatment. In some vlogs, Liu’s dogs make an appearance – but these he doesn’t eat (yet).

Netizens’ Reactions

The video channel of the “Magnificent Farm Brothers” on Bilibili, a Chinese video streaming website, has over 150 million views and 2.1 million subscribers to date.

A series of gags and memes have emerged from these viral vlogs. Some netizens joke that their own lives have a lot in common with the tragic fate of the little rodents that end up in Liu’s belly.

The text next to farmer Liu’s head reads “life” (生活) while the character on the rat reads “me” (我).

Others joke that Liu’s tendency to praise his livestock as “beautiful” or “cute” before devouring them highlights the danger of being deemed attractive, to the point where refusing to accept being complimented as good-looking is a necessary survival measure.

(Image below: “You are very beautiful!”, “No, I’m not, I’m really not, I’m not pretty.”)

One Weibo post with over 64 thousand likes reads “these are the scariest moments of my life,” followed by pictures of farmer Liu saying “you are so cute,” “I heard you got wet in the rain last night,” “I heard you got injured,” etc.

The two farmers may have become one of the biggest internet sensations this past year, but they have reacted calmly to their popularity. During a TV interview, the two commented:

At first, we were somewhat afraid that our popularity would perhaps disturb our quiet life on the farm. But fortunately, this is not the case.”

In any case, the duet has publicly expressed gratitude towards their fans, vowing to continue making videos of their skit-like, countryside life.

With animal activists nowhere to be seen, the success of the “Magnificent Farm Brothers” shows yet again the Chinese Internet’s magnetic attraction to gruesome content and irony-packed humor.

Want to judge for yourself? Check out some vlogs (no English subtitles) on Youtube here, here, or here.

By Gabi Verberg, edited by Eduardo Baptista.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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China Food & Drinks

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.

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The Food Chain by the BBC investigates the rise of eating disorders in China. What’s on Weibo editor Manya Koetse talks about some of China’s disturbing internet food trends in this recent episode.

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.

Also read: Anorexia in China, and our article on Extreme Eating Trends.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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