Meet the ‘big stomach’ internet celebrities behind China’s live-stream eating craze

Heilongjiang native Hu Tongtong is a record-devouring competitive eater whose ability to consume enough food to feed a family has made her an online celebrity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 November, 2017, 11:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2018, 2:20pm

“Hello everyone! I’m Tongtong, the big stomach.”

Smiling into the video camera, 25-year-old Hu Tongtong is dwarfed by mountains of food. Today, it might be 200 dumplings. Tomorrow, perhaps 93 eggs, or several dozen kebabs.

As the camera rolls, the 43.5kg Heilongjiang native consumes enough food to satisfy a large family, pausing only briefly to wash down her meal with a soft drink or water.

Introduced from South Korea and Japan in recent years, “eating broadcasts” have rapidly gained popularity in China. The hosts are nearly all young, slim women. Some attract audiences with their exaggerated expressions and gestures, others are known for using quirky ways to make food, while those like Hu raise eyebrows because of their bottomless stomachs.

Hu’s single-sitting consumption records include 93 eggs, 200 dumplings, 76 egg tarts, 5kg of hamburgers and 48 lamb kebabs.

At an eating competition held in Chongqing in May, Hu chalked up a convincing victory over her four rivals – three men and one woman – by eating 17 bowls of noodles in 10 minutes. The rest of the pack struggled to finish between five and seven bowls each.

Hu began streaming her ordinary meals on a live broadcasting app in July last year after seeing videos of other “big stomach kings”.

“I can eat a lot, too. Since I also need to have supper, which on average contains much food, why not show it online?” Hu told the South China Morning Post. She said her goal was to let more people share the joy of delicious food.

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Her experience is similar to that of many of her broadcasting counterparts who use their big appetites – sometimes seen as an embarrassment for girls in traditional Chinese culture – to achieve fame and fortune.

Online broadcasting apps, a rapidly growing industry in China over the past few years, allow the big eaters’ videos to reach millions.

A survey by Qq.com last year found that more than half of the people born on the mainland after 1995 aspired to do online broadcasting in hopes of becoming an online celebrity.

Zhang Yumi, better known on the internet as Mi Zi Jun, is one of the most successful eating-broadcasting hosts in the country. She was among the first Chinese people to live-stream themselves eating, and her single-meal records include 4kg of rice, 10 bowls of pineapple rice, eight bowls of rice noodles and 10 pig’s feet.

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Zhang weighs less than 50kg and stands 1.58m tall. Fans compliment her on her sweet smile and girl-next-door looks.

With more than 4.7 million followers at Weibo, Zhang has established a studio with her boyfriend for producing food-related videos. Many companies have approached them about doing product placement, offering hundreds of thousands of yuan per broadcast.

Other “big stomach” stars include Kinoshita Yuuka, a Japanese woman, and a South Korean man only known as Banzz.

Hu and other slim hosts with prodigious appetites have sparked speculation on the internet that they force themselves to vomit after broadcasts, something Hu and Zhang have denied. “I have such a body that I will never get fat no matter how much I eat,” Hu said, adding that she does not diet.

“There are many things that cannot be explained by science, I think.”

But eating to excess produces a host of long-term issues, according to Sun Jianyong of the digestive department of Shanghai’s Zhongshan Hospital.

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“It’s bad for the stomach, liver and pancreas,” he said. “Actually, the whole digestive system will be affected badly. In the long term, eating too much will lead to fatty liver.”

For Hu, a big stomach has been a reality since she was a youngster. “I think my stomach has been expanded little by little,” she said. “I remember when I was a primary school pupil, I could eat four packs of instant noodles a time. Each pack is 90 grams.”

Her food consumption for each meal approximately matched that of 9-10 adults. Her parents are accustomed to her inordinate eating.

“They don’t object to me [eating so much] since medical examinations show I am healthy,” she said. “My parents also hold a traditional mindset that a person able to eat a lot is an auspicious thing.”

Hu is engaged to a man whose waistline already is showing the effects of her lifestyle. “He gained 15kg in weight in the first two months after we were together,” she said.

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When she is not working at her parents’ Tianjin cosmetics company, she does broadcasts in her spare time. With her video work earning her up to 20,000 yuan (US$3,000) a month from advertising, barely covering her food costs, she regards it more as a hobby than a career.

Hu also said she had no desire to turn this pastime into a vocation because at some point she intended to take over her family’s business. Her videos were designed to “share good food” with others, she said, adding she feels happy with the growth in her supporter base.

One fan wrote on Weibo, “Watching [Hu] Tongtong’s video makes me feel hungry even though I have just eaten.”

“What do these people’s stomachs look like? It’s beyond my imagination!” another netizen wrote.

Gu Jun, a Shanghai University sociologist, said people watched the eating broadcasts out of curiosity.

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“In ancient times, people watched acrobats [perform] stunning feats on the street,” he said. “Now thanks to the new technology, people are watching the performance of big stomach kings.

“It’s humanity that does not change. Those fans are fairly bored.”