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Solo Mastication

Mukbang, the livestreaming trend of watching people binge eat online, is providing food for comfort among China’s growing number of lonely urban youth

By NewsChina Updated Oct.1

Wang Lin has a wide smile on her face. Before her are 500 crayfish on a big round table. She casually chats with her audience while gorging on the copious spread of crustaceans. You can hear the sharp crack of the shells as she extracts the juicy meat.  

The 26-year-old vlogger from Beijing is better known online as “Foodie Piggie,” whose baby face and petite figure belie her bottomless stomach. Her meals usually involve multiple courses and abnormally large portions. She livestreams her feasts in three-hour sessions to a loyal fanbase of more than a million, who tune in daily for her Olympic-sized appetite and funny commentary. 

Wang does a specific form of food vlogging – “mukbang,” a portmanteau of the Korean words muk-ja (“eating”) and bang-song (“broadcast”). Like the name, the trend of stuffing your face on camera originated in South Korea around 2010. It’s now a global internet phenomenon, and in China, mukbang hosts perform their food-fueled sideshows for millions every day.  

Sharing food creates bonds between people. But as more single young people in big cities live and eat alone, many find that having a meal in front of a computer and chatting with mukbang hosts is a way to break bread, socialize and deal with their loneliness. 

A family dines in front of a camera at home

Super Eater
In one of her most-watched videos from October 2018, Wang broadcast from the campus cafeteria of Chinese internet giant Baidu.  

“Let me tell you guys what I’ve ordered,” she says, hovering over more than 20 plates spread across a long table. “Steamed chicken, roast duck, stewed pork shank, grilled grass carp, beef steak, stewed mutton, meat pie...” She then stuffs a large spoon of curry rice into her mouth.  

People seated next to her could not help but stare. Viewers commented how four rounds of diners had come and gone during her livecast. By the time Wang had worked through the 20 plates of food and slurped up every drop of sauce, the cafeteria was empty. 

Before she started making videos, Wang had a reputation among friends for her capacity to consume. Her personal record includes seven enormous bowls of noodles, 100 mutton skewers, 300 oysters and an entire salmon. 

“I once had a blind date at a restaurant, and the boy told me I could order whatever I wanted. So I gladly accepted his offer and ordered a full table of food,” Wang said. “And that was the end of the story. He disappeared after that.”  

Since May 2017, Wang has posted more than 570 mukbang videos on Weibo and Bilibili, one of China’s largest video-sharing platforms. She has over 1.39 million followers on Weibo and 204,000 fans on Bilibili.  

“I love to tell viewers everything I know and feel about the food - the taste, the ingredients, the cooking method, whether the crust of the egg tart is crispy or not, the steamed bun is stuffed with minced beef or minced pork, the dough is leavened or unleavened… I will grind my thoughts and feelings into crumbs to share with my followers, instead of saying nothing but, ‘oh, it’s yummy!’” Wang told NewsChina.  

During the Covid-19 lockdown, she made food at home. Wang’s “quarantine menus” include delicacies from home and abroad: stewed drumsticks, Beijing fried sauce noodles, Yunnan steam pot chicken, Chongqing hotpot, cheese baked rice, beef burgers, Japanese omelette rice, Thai shrimp curry and Malaysian roti canai. Of course, the servings were enormous. 

“Many people who love watching my videos seek vicarious satisfaction. Since they cannot eat the food they want, for whatever reason, they enjoy watching me eat it. Also, my videos are guides for foodies. Many viewers try the restaurants I visit,” Wang said. 

Food vlogger Wang Lin, also known as “Foodie Piggie,” livestreams from a restaurant in the Gulou area of Beijing, July 27, 2020

Vlogger “Miss Foodie” eats a gigantic serving of food for her fans during a livestreaming session

Sounds Delicious
Wang is just one of China’s thousands of mukbang video makers.  

Popular host Mi Zijun from Chongqing went viral after she finished 10 bowls of spicy roast chicken noodles in less than 16 minutes. She stunned viewers when in one sitting she downed four kilograms of rice, 10 kilograms of crayfish and 10 bowls of noodles. She now has 16 million subscribers on Weibo.  

Mukbang transgresses traditional norms infood culture such as nutrition and healthy diet. In most mukbang videos, hosts simply consume high-calorie, greasy and spicy foods that cater to their fans’ palates. 

Table manners are also not on the menu. Mukbang hosts talk with their mouths full, chew with their mouths open, and exaggerate the sounds for added stimuli. They moan, cough, burp and curse, especially when eating spicy foods.  

Many hosts seldom speak while broadcasting. Instead, they amplify the sound of their dining and take close-ups of the food. Boki, a popular YouTuber in South Korea, usually has two microphones placed under the table to better capture her chewing sounds.  

Like many livestreamers, mukbang hosts earn money through virtual gifts from fans.  

Among these generous mukbang patrons is “Monica.” The 32-year-old from Shanghai often gifts hosts with no less than 100 yuan (US$14). She once rewarded a mukbang host named “Alan” with 2,500 yuan (US$359) along with Japanese matcha-flavored snacks, potato chips and 70 packs of Korean instant noodles.  

An employee at a Shanghai-based media company, Monica often works until 10 at night, and rewards herself with some time for mukbang shows. She especially enjoys the aural sensations. 

“The cracking sound as they chew the crispy crust of fried chicken, the sound when they slurp noodles, the fizz when they open an ice-cold soda, and that little swallowing noise… They tease my ears. Watching them eat is much more appealing than eating on my own,” Monica told NewsChina.  

Scholars suggest that mukbang videos provide a sense of liberation, especially in East Asia, where there is considerable social pressure to stay slim and eat healthy.  

“To keep fit, I can’t eat whatever I want and as much as I please. I keep my appetite on a leash, only allowing myself to take a small bite of the high-calorie dishes I love and staying half-full for most of the time,” Jin Ying, a 24-year-old internet company employee, told NewsChina. “When I watch Banzz [another South Korean mukbang host] scarfing down the foods I want to eat but don’t allow myself to, I get a sense of satisfaction, as if I were the one eating them up. I may be only biting an apple, but my tongue tastes fried chicken.”  

One of Wang Lin’s livestreaming videos on a video platform

A Feast for One 
Behind mukbang’s popularity is a modern reality: Many people live and eat by themselves. 

While researching the mukbang phenomenon, South Korean scholar Hong Seok-kyeong found a direct relationship between the mukbang trend and the number of young single South Koreans who live alone and are reluctant to marry due to an unstable career.  

According to South Korea’s 2015 census, there were about 5.2 million single-person households. This accounts for 27 percent of all households and is the first household type to surpass the traditional three- or four-person household.  

“This change is important to mukbang. It is not pleasurable for single-person households to prepare food for themselves and eat alone in silence, as this lacks the cozy atmosphere of a family gathering. They face the TV or computer monitor while eating, with mukbang serving as their ‘meal mate’ to soothe their loneliness during mealtime,” Hong wrote in his research essay “Internet Mukbang (Foodcasting) in South Korea.” 

It is similar in China. In recent years, in a meaning opposite to that in the West, the term “empty-nest” has come to describe young, singles in their 20s and 30s who work and live alone in cities.  

By the end of 2018, there were over 77 million “empty-nest” youth in China, according to statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs. They live alone in rented apartments and work in big cities. In a China Youth Daily survey from 2016, more than half cited the lack of emotional connections as the biggest challenge for empty-nesters. To deal with loneliness, empty-nesters either hide in their rooms watching soap operas or seek escape in video games.  

In China, mukbang hosts and viewers are mostly young people in major cities. According to statistics from video-sharing platforms Youku and Sohu Video, viewers are concentrated in eastern areas, among which Beijing ranks the first, followed by the Yangtze River Delta and Guangdong Province.  

Mukbang host “Virgo Foodie” created separate WeChat groups for mukbang lovers according to region. “The Beijing group is the largest, but groups of some remote provinces like Ningxia almost have no members,” he told NewsChina.  

Many dine with mukbang hosts for a sense of companionship and gathering. “Sometimes I feel so lonely when I eat alone. I even feel sad about it. Then I’ll watch a mukbang video. It gives me a little comfort, as if there was a person at the other side of the table eating with me,” Monica said.  

“Viewers love to talk with me while I eat. They leave messages like ‘your videos give me a good appetite’ or ‘I always watch your videos while having dinner, as if you were accompanying me,’” Mai Zi, a 22-year-old mukbang host from Beijing, told NewsChina. “Some people would say thoughtful things like ‘The weather is pretty good in Beijing today, but it’s getting cold so keep warm.’”  

But not all the messages are heartwarming.  

“You’re as fat as a pig. You’ve got three layers of fat on your abdomen. Do you have a spare tire around your belly?” one viewer said during a livestream session.  

Mai doesn’t let the abuse and trolling bother her. “Some people watch my videos because they want to find a place to vent their repressed emotions. I can both understand and accept it,” she told NewsChina.  

“If hurling abuse on my videos will make yourself feel better, then go ahead, dear. I don’t mind,” she said, responding to the viewer’s insult while livestreaming. “My show is a place that helps people relieve their pressures and feelings however they choose. To some extent, the precise reason for shows like these is to comfort people like you.” 

Mukbang host “Abao” shops for the ingredients she needs for a livestreaming session

An employee with an e-commerce company sells corn during a livestream broadcast, April 9