The Ingredients of Success

September 5, 2019
Editor: Ling Xiao

The Ingredients of Success

Zhou Xiaohui, better known as Ms Yeah, is the most popular Chinese vlogger on the video platform YouTube. [For China Daily]


Online food celebrities cook up a menu of imagination to whet our appetites.

Zhou Xiaohui has cooked up a surefire recipe for success. The ingredients are a dash of hard work, a spoonful of imaginative cooking, a good stock of personality, sauteed and spiced up with popularity.

Zhou, 25, is one of a growing number of Chinese gourmets who have successfully served up a feast of content on YouTube. Based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, Zhou boasts more than 7.3 million online followers, making her the most popular Chinese food blogger.

Best known for her hit series of "office cooking" videos, published under the moniker, Ms Yeah, Zhou's most famous video is one that she released in July 2017, which notched up a total of 100 million views within a week.

In the video, Ms Yeah, a female office worker, carries a cup and seems anxious as she waits in a long line to get a drink from a small soy milk machine stationed in her workplace. Suddenly she gets a flash of inspiration, and goes outside to buy watermelons from a vendor instead.

She then skillfully carves them into enticing offerings of flowers, dragons, and even Angry Birds. She tempts her colleagues, still waiting in line, to gorge on the succulent sculptures. None can resist and, minutes later, a giggling Ms Yeah has the soy-milk machine all to herself.

Versatility, ingenuity and the solving of conundrums are part of her cooking appeal. She can conjure up treats in the most unlikely of settings. Making hotpot with a water dispenser, barbecuing meat with a garment steamer and cooking jianbing guozi, a snack consisting of deep fried dough sticks rolled in a thin pancake, on a computer mainframe case.

"The novelty combination of cookery and the office setting appeals to curious audiences and foodies around the world," explains Zhou.

Another advantage is that the short video is devoid of any dialogue, so there is no language barrier. "The lack of words makes my videos popular with foreign viewers," says Zhou.

Instant fame is nothing new. Many have tried, few have succeeded. Being able to cook is no guarantee of success and will not necessarily make someone an overnight sensation like Zhou, Jin Xu points out. Jin is president of the international department of the Onion Group, a leading multichannel network operator in China.

The group has signed up more than 200 vloggers in bid to help them to become influencers, Jin says, pointing out that Ms Yeah is one such example. Zhou has been working at the company since graduating with a broadcasting and TV directing major from Sichuan Normal University. The creation of Ms Yeah is the result of careful and calculated teamwork by the company.

Zhou is the leader of a 10-member team who creates the office cooking videos, each episode of which has garnered about 6 million views on YouTube.

She also serves as a "chief career planner" for the vloggers that are signed up with the company. "I feel so excited that I could explore more possibilities in fields that once were unfamiliar to me," says Zhou, who admits that the work helped her acquire more skills, such as logical thinking and better communication, which fit well with her appealing, down-to-earth personality.

Last June, she became the only Chinese vlogger invited by Facebook to attend Vid-Con in the United States-a major multi-genre online video conference for digital content creators worldwide. "I am proud that I could represent Chinese creators and share my ideas about how to produce hit videos at the conference," she says. "Meanwhile, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to produce work featuring Chinese characteristics with an international outlook."

Many viewers leave comments, hoping to interact with their favorite vloggers. One of them, Tabassum Shaikh, says: "Hi, Ms Yeah, your videos are just amazing. They give me a sense of relief from the stress and hard work of my day and keep me going."

Ms Yeah's "office cooking" videos, Jin says, show creativity, humor and a sense of rebellion against a dull, boring office atmosphere.

The Ingredients of Success

Li Junling usually cooks in the wild and lives off the land. [For China Daily]


Feeding a common interest

Ms Yeah's most recent effort to "further secure a larger foreign fan base" was a video released last month in which she spends a day with Gavin Thomas, a widely-known 9-year-old boy from the US whose meme-worthy "fake smile" has made him an internet-famous celebrity. When he gets hungry, she makes him a burger utilizing a USB-powered "heating pad" that people use for keeping warm in areas of China where offices are not centrally heated.

Like Zhou, other online personalities with significant domestic appeal have also sought the spotlight of the global stage.

The secret to success, though, lies in food. "Food emotionally connects us. For instance, people will often choose to enjoy food with their friends or family members," says Jin.

Chinese cuisine has a unique appeal in the West, Jin adds. "That explains why culinary videos produced by Chinese creators are popular among foreign audiences."

Cooks, like food, come in many different flavors. One plump character clad in a gray cotton suit, with eyes hidden by a wide-brimmed straw hat boasts 1 million subscribers on YouTube. He was initially created by a duo working under the user-name Shyo Video.

The character is acted by Li Junling, 29, a former worker at an optical fiber manufacturing factory in Chengdu. In the videos, he cooks in the wild, out among the trees and sunshine, before devouring his food with gusto. The dialogue-free videos show him running around, living off the land, and catching fish, chickens or rabbits to cook and eat.

Rise of a factory worker

These hit videos are the combined effort of Li and his high school classmate, Li Guilong, a freelance photographer who initially invited him to shoot videos in 2017, because of Li Junling's "offbeat sense of humor".

Li Junling used to labor for 12 hours a day in the factory. "Although I earned a stable salary, it was a professionally fallow period during which I could hardly make further progress or get promotion," he recalls, adding that, with a pregnant wife, he hoped to earn more money. He decided to quit the factory and started to make short videos with his friend.

The two then went back to their hometown Mianyang, and searched for rural settings in which to film.

Initially, they just focused on cooking in secluded places, but this failed to impress audiences. "It was a tough beginning for us. We only made 300 yuan ($42) for a month back then," recollects Li Junling.

Like their food, they had to spice up the series. Humorous plots, special effects and inspirational background music were added. "We could see from the increasing numbers of followers and comments on each video platform that these adjustments worked well," he says.

During the process, he learned how to add music, edit videos and cook authentic local Sichuan province dishes, such as suanlafen, or sour and spicy rice noodles and laziji, chicken with chili peppers-in scenic areas in the mountains or by the river.

The countryside-oriented visuals have helped propel them to global recognition.

"I seldom traveled to places outside of Sichuan before," says Li Junling, but now, due to their newly acquired fame, he has been to California and shared stories with foreign counterparts, which "broadened both my horizons and my circle of friends".

Li Guilong adds that the Shyo Video team has grown from the pair of them, but still consists of friends who were mostly high school classmates. The money has also started to come in.

"The team's monthly income has reached 200,000 yuan, mainly from advertisement and offline activities," says Li Guilong. "I'm so delighted that I can buy a big apartment in Mianyang for my family now."

The many languages in the videos' comments show Shyo Video's global appeal. English, Thai, Korean, Japanese and Chinese are just a few to be found offering feedback. Timing, like good flavoring, is of the essence when creating something that appeals to a wide variety of tastes, as one comment encapsulates. It reads: "I like your videos for two key reasons-always a theater-scene-styled opening, and in five minutes the video is complete, compared to other vloggers who go on for longer. Fight on."

According to Jin, it's easy for high-quality video producers to make a profit on YouTube, which counts over 2 billion monthly users. "And the platform has a system that helps to match suitable advertisers with vloggers' content, which in turn offers them more time to concentrate on creating better videos," Jin says. "However, the priority for vloggers always lies in ensuring the quality of the content and trying to break through the noise in a very populated space."

The Ingredients of Success

Li Ziqi, who has garnered over 6 million subscribers on YouTube for her pastoral lifestyle, peels beans to make tofu.[For China Daily]


A modern view of ancient China

Li Ziqi, 29, another vlogger has also tapped into the appeal of rural settings. Li has garnered more than 18 million followers on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and boasts more than 6 million subscribers on YouTube. These numbers make Li the second most influential vlogger from China on the international video-sharing platform.

Li started shooting short videos in 2016, inspired by the self-sufficient lifestyle of ancient Chinese people. A young woman of the post-1990 generation, she looks elegant with long braids in her hair and always clad in exquisite traditional dresses. In her short videos, she has picked ripe cherries to make jam and has harvested peaches to make sweet wine. She has also showed how to grind beans to make soy milk and then condense the liquid to create tofu.

Most viewers found that the lifestyle depicted and the picturesque landscapes displayed in Li Ziqi's videos help them find inner peace and give them a psychological break from their stressful and busy urban routine.

One subscriber, Liam Lowentha, comments: "I have insurmountable respect and admiration for this woman. Not just from what I see in the videos, but the fact she's bringing back to life an archaic way of doing things. Because of her I've learned a lot about culture, process and reaction. I've also gained several new skills."

Aside from showcasing how to cook, Li Ziqi has even demonstrated other ancient skills, such as embroidery, movable-type printing, dyeing cloth and making furniture. She has impressed her viewers with both her manual dexterity and the charm of China's traditional handicrafts and techniques.

She has spent two years making paper from tree barks, brushes out of rabbit hair, and other stationery with natural materials.

"As an increasingly influential vlogger," she says, "I hope I can show the world the wondrous cultural heritage of China."


(Source: China Daily)

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