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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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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.

China Food & Drinks

‘Baozi Burgers’ as ‘Insult’? Global Times Editorial Attacks Western-Chinese Fusion Food

“It combines Western with Chinese fast food while ridiculing both food traditions for the sake of a marketing gag for expats with little or no culinary background.”

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“A new fad has flooded expat-oriented restaurants in Beijing,” author Lilian Hamilton writes for Chinese state media outlet Global Times in a recent video news feature. The video criticizes fusion foods such as the ‘Baozi burger’ or ‘Baozza’ (baozi + pizza) that mix popular Western and Chinese fast foods.

The feature was covered by Beijing blogger Jim Boyce on Beijingboyce.com, where he writes that “state-owned medium Global Times just cooked up a heaping serving of culinary cultural appropriation shade with a side dish of WTF. In this slide show, it takes aim at “baozza”, the tasty pizza-baozi combos I have covered here, here and here.”

Culinary ‘cultural appropriation’ has been an online issue of debate for some time now. In this Huffington Post article, for example, the author expresses that she finds it “painful” when, among other examples, the New York Times issues a recipe that features ‘pho’ (a type of Vietnamese soup) with broccoli and quinoa, or when 7Up releases a self-invented kimchi recipe.

 

It combines Western with Chinese fast food while ridiculing both food traditions for the sake of a marketing gag for expats with little or no culinary background.”

 

In the thousands of restaurants in cities such as Beijing or Shanghai there will be new food trends popping up every day. The ‘baozza’ is one of them; it is a steamed bun, called baozi (包子) in Chinese, filled with pizza ingredients.

By whatsonweibo.com.

The full text of the Global Times feature, which was also published as an editorial, is as follows:

A new fad has flooded expat-oriented restaurants in Beijing: BAOZZA (Baozi + pizza). Baozi is a common Chinese breakfast dish or snack. A fluffy steamed white bun with a vegetable or ground meat filling.”

Global Times.

Pizza is brought to life by the Italian thin crust dough and the right sugo (tomato sauce), mozzarella cheese and fresh toppings.”

Baozza claims to be ‘Pizza with Chinese characteristics.’ Instead, it combines Western with Chinese fast food while ridiculing both food traditions for the sake of a marketing gag for expats with little or no culinary background.”

There must be at least a temporary demand. Otherwise, a newly-opened bar in Sanlitun would not offer ‘Burger Baozi’ on their menu. With the bamboo steamer basket being a mere decoration, these grilled ‘baozi’ halves come with beef, chicken, Beijing duck or mushroom filling. While a boazi at your regular street vendor costs 2 yuan, you pay around 50 yuan for a ‘Baozi Burger.’

Luckily, these fusion food fads are usually gone faster than you can flush the remnants of your latest food poisening down the toilet.”

The article text by Lilian Hamilton also says that the ‘baozza’ “seems like an insult,” and is “wrong on just so many more levels.”

 

A growing movement of people call out ‘white people who profit off the culinary ideas and dishes swiped from other cultures’.”

 

At a time when cultural appropriation, in general, is a hot topic, the idea of the cultural appropriation of food has also become more of an issue of debate.

Defining the term and idea of ‘cultural appropriation’ itself is not easy. While the Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture,” the Urban Dictionary says it is “the ridiculous notion that being of a different culture or race (especially white) means that you are not allowed to adopt things from other cultures.”

A recent example is that of the American girl who wore a Chinese-style dress to her prom – something people in US seemed to take offense to, while most commenters on Weibo deemed the critique was silly.

The ‘cultural appropriation’ of food suggests that certain foods can be ‘confiscated’ when people from a dominant culture start to commercialize it.

A 2017 BBC article featured the views of Filipino-American food and travel photographer Celeste Noche, who finds it problematic that food bloggers will posts photos of, for example, Filipino short ribs with chopsticks (“even though Filipinos traditionally eat with spoons and forks or their hands”), or the stylization of Asian dishes on bamboo mats or banana leaves.

A Washington Post article from 2017 also addressed a growing movement of people who call out “white people who profit off the culinary ideas and dishes swiped from other cultures,” one of the names mentioned being Fuchsia Dunlop, a UK-born cook and food-writer who specializes in Sichuan cooking.

 

A “marketing gag”? More like genius and truly innovative..”

 

So are the ‘baozza’ or the ‘baozi burgers’ the next targets in the campaign against the ‘cultural appropriation’ of food?

The American inventer of the ‘baozza’, Alex Cree, evidently does not see anything wrong with it. He came up with the idea of stuffing a Chinese steamed bun with cheese, tomato, or other pizza toppings, during a trip with clients in southern China.

On Weibo, the only comments relating to Baozza are those of people who are curious to try out the ‘fad’ food. New or original food items such as these are often (temporarily) popular; another recent food item that attracted the attention of Chinese netizens was the Zang Baobao, a Chinese-French chocolate croissant product.

On Twitter, the attack on fusion snacks is also does not receive much understanding. “A “marketing gag”? More like genius and truly innovative! Way more tasty than traditional baozi,” @XiaoLan17 writes.

Damien Ma (@damienics) is already thinking of the next food fad; a ‘moonut’ that mixes Chinese moon cake with donut products.

Although Global Times‘s Lilian Hamilton and others might object, the rise of fusion food trends shows that snacks such as the Baozi Burger, the Baozza, or the potential ‘Moonut’ will not disappear from China’s big-city restaurant scene anytime soon.

By Manya Koetse

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

Yangzhou Man Found Dead after Drinking, Friends Pay 1 Million RMB Settlement

Is Chinese drinking culture to blame for deaths related to alcohol?

Chauncey Jung

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The recent death of a 30-year-old Chinese man at the Jing Hua Metropark Hotel (京华维景酒店) in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, has triggered discussions on Weibo.

On Friday, May 19, the man was discovered in his hotel room bathtub by his friends. The following day, Yangzhou Police officially confirmed the man’s death, China News reports.

The man, who was from the nearby Gaoyou County, allegedly died of a heart attack after drinking during a formal dinner with friends at the hotel.

Local media later reported that the friends present during the night reached a 1 million yuan (±US$157,000) settlement with the man’s family. The cost of the settlement will be shared among the friends who were drinking that night.

In February of this year, two similar stories made headlines in China. In one case, a young migrant worker died after excessive drinking at a company lunch and dinner in southern China.

The man, according to SCMP, drank the equivalent of 600ml of baijiu (白酒), a popular spirit that contains around 50% alcohol.

The other case involved a man who died when he was left by his friends at a hotel in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, after heavily drinking at a banquet.

Surveillance cameras in Jinhua captured how the man was unable to stand or walk after drinking with his friends.

Those friends also paid a compensation together of 610,000 yuan (US$96,000) to the man’s family.

Earlier this month, organisers of an alcohol drinking contest in Henan province were also ordered to pay a compensation of over US$70,000 after one participant died due to excessive alcohol intake in July of last year.

 

“We’d better bring our medical records before drinking with friends.”

 

The most recent 1 million yuan settlement became a heated topic on Weibo, where one commenter stated that perhaps it is time to sign a legal waiver with all friends who drink together before they become legally responsible for potential settlement costs.

Another commenter suggested that alcohol manufacturers should be responsible for such deaths. The majority of the commenters, however, blamed Chinese drinking culture (中国酒桌文化) for these incidents.

In the Chinese traditional drinking culture, people are usually encouraged to drink as much as they can, or to exceed their limits; the goal sometimes is to literally “take someone to the ground by drinking.”

When someone proposes a toast, everyone at the table is required to finish their glasses, sometimes at a very high pace.

Since Chinese drinking culture usually involves drinks with a high alcohol percentage, such as the aforementioned baijiu, heavy drinkers have a higher risk of alcohol poisoning.

Despite some claiming that the ‘long, traditional’ drinking culture is meant to strengthen people’s relations, critics argue that China’s coercive drinking culture is a toxic practice that is harmful to people’s health.

The pressure to drink sometimes goes beyond friendly relations, as those who decline a drink can be verbally attacked or looked down on by others participating in the event.

Especially during formal business dinners, the amount of alcohol one can drink is taken as a sign of their strength of character or abilities; those who can consume the most are regarded as the best candidates and may receive financial benefits or better business relations with others because of it.

“It would be better for us to bring medical records with us before we started drinking with friends,” one Weibo netizen jokingly comments.

“It’s good they have to pay compensation [to the family],” another person writes: “This might put an end to the Chinese drinking culture where people are basically forced to drink alcohol.”

By Chauncey Jung

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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