The global reach of a quirky office chef as China’s internet celebrity economy booms

From pancakes fried on a computer case to fire extinguisher ice cream, savvy Ms Yeah is following a recipe to bring in the money

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 July, 2017, 11:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 July, 2017, 11:02am

At just 23, Ms Yeah is already a celebrity chef with millions of fans. But the Chengdu native is known not so much for what she cooks – it’s how she cooks it.

Ms Yeah, who also goes by the name Xiaoye, whips up elaborate meals at work using cooking equipment improvised from whatever she can find in the office, and posts videos of the process online.

Her antics – cooking spicy Sichuan skewers in an electric kettle, frying a pancake on a computer case, making buns from scratch in a standing steam iron – have catapulted her to internet fame.

Ms Yeah’s colleagues at online content producer Onion Video can be seen in the background as she takes over the water cooler to make hotpot, or makes ice cream with a fire extinguisher. The programme planner has fast become the company’s biggest money-spinner.

Want fame and fortune? China’s internet celebrity business offers both

“The other day, I was at a construction site picking up some bits and pieces to use as tools in my video. A girl appeared out of nowhere, called me Xiaoye and asked to have her photo taken with me,” Ms Yeah, who did not want to give her real name, told the South China Morning Post from her office in the Sichuan capital. “Some people have worked out which is my office building from the videos and they they’ve come to talk to me. I guess I must be famous now.”

China’s ‘wanghong’ economy

Ms Yeah is one of China’s newest wanghong, or internet celebrities. But her videos are not just about fame – this is a business. “Sponsors are queueing up to have their products placed in my videos,” Ms Yeah said, adding that her company charges 500,000 yuan (US$73,600) to feature a product in one of the cooking clips.

“I’m very careful in selecting the right products based on the principle that the sponsors won’t interfere with our creativity and harm the interests of our fans,” she said.

Ms Yeah is an example of how internet fame can be turned into cash. In China, the sector was worth some 52.8 billion yuan last year – double the figure for 2015, a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said. That number is expected to top 100 billion yuan next year, according to Beijing-based research firm Analysys.

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Chinese internet celebrities are reaching legions of fans – on Weibo alone they had some 385 million followers last year, the academy’s report said. That accounted for 28 per cent of all users on the site, which is China’s version of Twitter.

More than half of those online stars make money by featuring sponsored products, while one in three do so by selling their own products.

With 2.55 million fans since she started posting videos on Weibo in January, Ms Yeah is popular – but she’s not one of the top internet celebrities. Comedian Papi Jiang, for example, has some 23.5 million fans on the microblog, but she’s been making videos since 2012.

Beyond the Great Firewall

The office chef has, however, built up a far bigger overseas following than internet celebrities such as Papi Jiang – in less than six months.

On Facebook, Ms Yeah is followed by some 2.8 million people from around the world – from Southeast Asia to Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. That’s more than her following on Chinese social media. Her fans leave words of encouragement and comments, mostly in English, marvelling at her latest creations.

She has about 380,000 YouTube subscribers and her top video, posted in March, has chalked up over a million views. But the numbers are still in the hundreds on her Twitter account.

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are all blocked in mainland China, and the accounts were all set up over the past few months.

In comparison, Papi Jiang has just a tenth of the number of Facebook followers, while her YouTube subscribers are about half the number of Ms Yeah’s. She also has about 200 Twitter followers.

Last year, it was reported that several Chinese venture capitalists planned to invest a total of 12 million yuan in Papi Jiang. While Ms Yeah hasn’t drawn this level of interest, Onion Video said it was negotiating with potential investors, without elaborating. And its online strategy suggests an ambition that extends beyond mainland China.

Ms Yeah’s popularity overseas can be attributed to her social media posts and comments being written entirely in fluent English, the fact there is very little spoken language – if someone speaks, there are subtitles – and her use of the universally understood emojis, making her videos far more accessible to a global audience than other Chinese internet stars.

Popularity pays

The marketing and retail industry has been quick to embrace the sales potential of internet stars.

Yue Peng, a marketing executive for Chinese cosmeceutical brand Dr Cell, said his firm had diverted almost all of its marketing resources towards hiring internet celebrities to promote their products. And it’s paid off.

“We used to sell our products only in pharmacies until a year ago, when we started to promote them online and worked with Tiffany, the No 1 live-broadcasting host on Taobao,” Yue said. “Since then, from almost nothing, our online sales have shot up and they now account for 20 per cent of total sales.”

Taobao, China’s biggest online shopping platform, belongs to the Alibaba Group, which owns the South China Morning Post.

Tiffany, a 24-year-old with 1.54 million followers on Taobao, is paid to try products for sponsors and sometimes earns commission on sales.

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Others choose to sell their own products, such as Cherie, who is 27 and started a fashion shop on Taobao when she was at university in 2011. Then, Cherie had just a few hundred followers on Weibo. Now she has 3.9 million fans, who tune in to see regular videos and posts of her trying on new clothes and offering style tips. Her online shop had revenues of 608 million yuan last year and she said in May she expected that to grow to 1.04 billion yuan this year.

Internet stars have even been enlisted to encourage Chinese tourists to visit South Korea, after Seoul’s deployment of a US missile defence system that angered Beijing and saw visitor numbers from China plummet. South Korean duty-free shops invited several Chinese internet celebrities to Seoul in January to broadcast their shopping experiences back home, according to a Korea Times report.

Behind the scenes

The internet celebrity business is so big in China that a college in Zhejiang province started a three-year associate degree course in 2015 on the art of becoming an online star. At the Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College, students are trained in online hosting techniques, how to perform in front of the camera to win over the audience, as well as fashion and make-up.

Behind the scenes, some of these performers have worked hard to rise to the top. Feng Langlang, for example, who was recently named Weibo’s No 1 live-streaming host, says he works six days a week.

The 23-year-old has about one million followers who send him virtual gifts for his singing – he’s made 3.65 million yuan in this way since he started in 2014.

When he’s not working, Feng is coached on dance, performance and broadcasting skills.

“I once had to broadcast live for three days for a contest. I sang 10 to 20 songs in an hour and at some point I just had to sleep with the camera on,” Feng said. “It’s damaging my voice. Now I try to keep my broadcasting time to within five hours.”

“As a man, I’m already at a disadvantage because the good-looking women are naturally more popular hosts,” he said. “I’ll have to work and train harder if I want to move on from hosting. I want to be a real star.”

Ms Yeah the office chef says she often works through the night on her videos as she has to travel for business during the week. She usually has just two days to put together a video – from brainstorming ideas to food preparation, filming and editing the footage.

And she sometimes finds herself in potentially dangerous situations as she tries to come up with videos to amuse and entertain her audience. In a recent episode, she ignited foam in her bare hand to fry a fish.

Another video featured an old-school Chinese popcorn maker – a hand-operated, coal-fired machine which she used to cook crayfish. The machines are known for making a deafening bang when the popping chamber is opened – hence “explosive Chinese popcorn”.

“When I was a child, I was always too scared to watch when it was popped. For my video, I had to look calm and kick the oven for that final bang – but I was really, really scared,” she said.

For fashion maven Cherie, the job wasn’t always so lucrative. She recalled getting drenched in a downpour while she was collecting stock because she didn’t want to pay the 100 yuan taxi fare. She also spent hours with her business partner laboriously copying out delivery addresses by hand to save on printing costs – they would get so tired they would often fall asleep on the floor.

“For us wanghong, you start at the bottom but you have the possibility of realising your dreams,” Cherie said. “But it’s a case of no pain, no gain – just like any other job.”