Foreign YouTubers Based in Southwest Hub in China

“Let’s check this out, It’s Trevor James, I’m in Leshan, deep Sichuan, we’re going for a full-on Chinese street food experience, I came here to eat and I’m hungry,” in a popular video titled “Chinese Street Food Tour in Sichuan, China” on the YouTube channel “The Food Ranger” with more than 1.5 million of subscribers, a men named Trevor James passes by tasty-looking local street food with exciting expression of curiosity and passion on food and travel. Whenever he discovers appealing food stalls or restaurants during traveling, he would have a try.

After ordering food by speaking fluent Mandarin, he cannot wait to taste authentic meals as camera zooms in to the detailed food making process. When dishes are served on the table, he introduces first, then has a feast, giving vivid comments on its flavor and texture, normally starting with “oh wow, look at this, this is crazy, Tai Hao Le!” and ending with a cheerful thumb up and subtitles of his personal rating of every dish he tried.

“Tai Hao Le” is Mandarin expression of “Amazing”, becoming the most common catch phrase in food ranger’s video. James used “Tai Hao Le” slogan into designing his brand T-shirts with selling price between 25 US dollar and 35 US dollar. Now he is full-time traveler, traveling and shooting videos with his fiancée, Ting Ting. They run different platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and his own blog website. Since YouTube, Instagram, Facebook are blocked in China, they have to use stable Virtual Private Network (VPN) to keep uploading and updating, combining other Chinese online platforms like social media Weibo and Wechat, popular video websites Bilibili and Youku to attract Chinese audiences. He named Chinese channels as “Chi Huo Laowai” in Chinese meaning foodie foreigner. “Chi Huo Laowai” has about half a million subscribers on Bilibili and more than 6 million total views in video series on Youku.

It was not unpredictable that a Canadian in his twenties started his full-time adventure and settled down in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province located in the southwest part of China, well-known as the heaven of spicy and numb Sichuan dishes. According to his website, in 2006, when James was a teenager, he opened up a new world of joys of eating and traveling by taking 4 months’ trip to Thailand, he dreamed his lifetime jobs as traveling and eating food around world when he studied in university. But not until he found another interest in learning Chinese, he had the motivation to explore China and shot his first food video there in 2013.

“Two years ago when I hadn’t move to here yet, I just stumbled upon this place, I ordered the Hong You Chao Shou (dumplings dipped in red chilli oil) and tried it, I thought, I’m gonna move here,” in 2016, James said in a joint filming video to his friend, Kelvin Cook, a YouTuber based in Shanghai, when they enjoyed classic Sichuan dishes outside a local restaurant in Chengdu.

Unlike the popular Chinese YouTuber Ms Yeah based in Chengdu, a creative “office lady” mastering cooking in the office, who has a team to manage channels with more than 1.6 million subscribers in YouTube, James runs his booming YouTube business by himself and Ting Ting. According to one online interview podcast with James, he taught English in China and created video contents during holidays, holding a backup plan to finish his master degree of International Trade in China. But when he had up to around 300,000 subscribers on YouTube channel in 2016, he could afford meals and travel fees through revenues from advertisements or brands endorsement. “Traveling is what we’re going to do for sure, it didn’t matter about backup plans,” he said to Ting back then. He then dropped out of university at summer and went forward on traveling across Asia. Finally, his dream came true.

In a rented apartment in Chengdu, James works and edits his videos, he spends about one or more days shooting and one more days editing. However, his apartment in Chengdu is more like a hostel, last year they spent only one or two months living there due to packed travel schedules taking up rest of time. “We got more China and Hong Kong coming up in June, July is Vietnam and Malaysia, August is Indonesia, September hopefully to Sir Lanka, back to India in October, after October we are thinking about 2 or 3 months trip to Mexico,” James said about work plans in a video to YouTuber “Far West China” last year. Plans went on well – food series were uploaded on “The Food Ranger” and soon reached millions of views.

“I could remember last time when I hang out with him, he said to me, ‘dude, I haven’t hang out with anybody for like three months except work,’ and I thought, this guy was crazy,” Trevor James’ friend, Austin Guidry, from Texas, America, 28, is another YouTuber based in Chengdu. They made acquaintance when working together on a video about exploring Chengdu.

“YouTube is quite a small world, but unlike him, I’m too lazy to become so famous,” Austin works as a full-time English teacher in Sichuan University, named his YouTube channel as “Austin in China”. About three years ago, he moved to Chengdu. Something similar happened for Austin, he fell in love with this city quite soon.

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(Austin Guidry, left, with his colleague in local restaurant“Chen Shi Liang Fen”)

He invited his colleague, James Mire, 27, from America as well, to have dinner after work in a hole-in-the-wall Sichuan restaurant “Chen Shi Liang Fen” on the northern outskirts of Chengdu, he regarded it as one of his favorite restaurants recommended by “The Food Ranger”. This restaurant is distinctive for its dishes are served in there-wheeled cart drove by one chef from kitchen to dining table, and most dining tables are set outdoor. “This place is fantastic, we don’t need menus, we can have any dishes we like when they are served, let’s go get some food first,” he introduced to Mire in a same cheerful tone as he was filming videos.

“The whole picture here is beautiful, If you want to talk to someone about classic Sichuan dishes, this is the right place to go,” sitting around a table outside on a bridge, a connection between several tea houses and restaurant, Austin enjoyed dishes while described his routine life in Chengdu, “When I come here in the afternoon I’ll go to tea house thereby, I just drink tea, play cards, when it starts getting dark, I come over here to eat, chill, and then I might go back to tea house, then I go home, that’s my Chengdu day,” after finishing dinner, he decided to go one of tea houses to keep chatting.

11(Restaurant Chen Shi liang Fen)

Last year, Chengdu became the top happiest city in China ranked by Oriental Outlook magazine. Although Chengdu is representative of leisure and happy lifestyle, it is developing towards global. For policy incentives, Chengdu government encourages foreign investments, creates open environment such as high-tech zones for start-up companies. Plenty of international cultural events such as international extreme sports competition were held in Chengdu last year. This slow-paced city even targets hosting 2036 Olympics according to a report by China Sports Insider.

In 2011 Austin came to Lanzhou, capital city of Gansu province located in northwest of China, as an only foreign exchange student in Lanzhou University of Technology to finish senior thesis about Chinese history and ended up living in China.

Austin believes he was one of first YouTubers based in China, he regards filming videos as diaries, so-called “Vlog” (video blogging), most are shorter than 10 minutes, focusing on how is like to be a foreigner living in China. Its topics include food, culture, travelling and teaching. In his YouTube channel, he walks or cycles around neighborhoods, eats multiple Chinese dishes or snacks, travels in country, illustrates development in China, and gives personal perspectives about China. Since number of views and subscribers rose, he also build up local video channels on Chinese websites Youku, Acfun and Bilibili, called them “Lan Duo Laowai” (lazy foreigners) and “Pang Laowai” (fat foreigners) in Chinese, with help of his Chinese wife named Crystal Guidry since married to Austin.

He noticed the trend that more expats expect to go to China as he received plenty of questions from YouTube or Facebook asking about China, common comments on his channel includes “Oh my god I have no idea China looks like this”, “I want to go China to live or experience”. He said China is becoming more important in worldwide consciousness, “It’s quite cool to meet people talking to me that they watched my videos and I’m one of the reasons they moved to China.”

Foreigner, called “Laowai” in Chinese, becomes an identity of expats living or traveling in China. According to report from China Briefing, the overall number of expats working in China has increased dramatically since the launch of “reform and opening-up” in 1978, they came China due its unique culture, vast geographic size and fast-growing economy. According to Chengdu Public Security Bureau, in 2017, Chengdu has total 17,411 foreign residents with an annual growth rate of 14.9%, becoming the second most attractive destination for “Laowai” in southwest China.

Foreigners join booming video blogging business in China. Unlike foreign video bloggers who speak Mandarin in videos and base more on Chinese video platforms, such as Fu Lingfang or “Ychina” on Bilibili, Austin relies more on YouTube, despite number of his Youku subscribers (more than 90,000) surpasses that of YouTube (around 17,000). “I’m too lazy to do business, and I don’t feel the same when I speak Mandarin, I have to switch from English and it takes time to think of saying something, it’s not fit in fast and natural style in my video,” and he was annoyed to find his few videos were taken down from website Bilibili without clear reasons. “I’m down with them now.”

In 2012, Austin started using Weibo, one of most popular social media in China, similar to Twitter, his Weibo account “Lazy Laowai” has more than 100,000 subscribers, outnumbering subscribers of James’s Weibo “Chi Huo Laowai” (around 90,000). He loves Weibo, where he found his wife since she was one of his early Weibo followers; he can block swearing comments and ask for local guides in Weibo when traveling. He did several times of live streaming shared on Weibo, speaking Mandarin and sharing his life to Chinese audiences. However, he would separate different videos to different platforms based on video’s contents; The video about “What I will talk to my future sons or grandsons about my life in China” was uploaded only in Youku and Bilibili because he thought it resonated more with Chinese subscribers, video involved controversial topics such as “White Monkey jobs in China”, a type of job in China with sole requirement for white foreign race, is only available in YouTube. Light and positive contents such as food are most popular on Chinese websites while opinions about China are in demand on YouTube.

Latest video in Youku “Pang Laowai” was filmed one year ago, while latest one in YouTube “Austin in China” was uploaded recently. There was even a hash tag meaning “Austin please come back” in Youku comments. To keep updated with YouTube contents, some Chinese fans downloaded his videos from YouTube and uploaded them on Chinese websites, not asking Austin’s permission, not considering any copyright problems, and giving the process a name “Ban Yun” (means transporting videos from YouTube via VPN). Since Trevor James did not updated his Weibo Channel for several months, comments bellow his latest post argued that some of Chinese video platforms randomly uploaded his videos.

Local food media “Chengdu Cuisine” once uploaded Food Ranger’s video on Weibo without any permission, one employee from “Chengdu Cuisine” said copyright of online video is not a legal but moral problem to social editors, who do not care much about it, unless original bloggers find out and report it to Weibo. Austin also did not care about copyrights issues, “I would be glad if my videos gain more views in other platforms, I understand this is China, people can do whatever they want if there’s no strict regulation.”

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(screen shoot of Weibo post of “Chengdu Cuisine”)

Austin thinks Chinese people are obsessed with opinions from rest of world and especially what foreigners think of China, he was asked “Do Americans really hate China?” by Chinese subscribers. But he avoids any sensitive topics related to politics in his channel because he understands risks he will take if talking sensitive politic issues, even on YouTube. So does his friend Josh Summers based in far west China, Xinjiang, one of the most sensitive and controlled areas in China, wrote in his website, “I will not go on record about any politically sensitive topics, because I live here in Urumqi, Xinjiang and my real name is closely tied to this website, I have to protect myself and my family.”

Instead, he complains about smoggy weather and traffic congestion in city, but not exaggerates worry towards them, and he believes problems can be solved gradually. PM2.5 is the major cause to air pollution in Chengdu, especially in the winter of 2016, public were aware of how severe air pollution in Chengdu that average annual index of PM2.5 (72.01) edged out Beijing (72.86). Asthma requires Austin to take an inhaler everywhere he goes, “It’s not ideal, but, everything I got here in exchange of air quality is totally worthy.”

In terms of common worries towards food safety, Austin’s colleague Mire came to China three years ago, giving one solution to the problem is following locals or browsing restaurants rating website like Dianping, “I saw locals eating in restaurants, and they don’t die, if they got sick or food poisoning, they probably won’t go there again, or leave bad comments on the website Dianping.”

Apart from chronic problems in China, they discovers more recent ones. When enjoying the convenience of shared bikes and wide-spread delivery food ordering systems, they hate the mess of bike misplacing on pavements, and they feel guilty to produce plastic wastes by ordering delivery food. After all, Austin is glad he became one member in China to experience its rapid development and he thinks part of 21 century in the future would be China’s century.

Austin went through the difficulty to conquer language barriers, when he had to order the same food every day in university canteen until he referred to dictionary about its Chinese menus. He had a fight with his wife’s uncle when her uncle said something racist to his wife and him, and it was hard for him to have heart-to-heart conversation with his Chinese family. He visited his friend’s home few years ago, a cave located in rural area of Gansu, where there were no skyscrapers, no highways, no electricity until year 2008, even no tap water that local people collected water from wills. If he chose Hong Kong on his exchange program in 2011, he would never have so much diversified experience in China. “You never have to worry about running out of your stories here in China.”

Although his camera was stolen in town, he recently updates few travel episodes shot by phone. Austin is working on getting an international teaching certification allowing him to teach in Madrid, where his friend owns an international school. He would be back to China after spending few years in Spain. “Hope at that time, public transports in Chengdu will be more mature to ease traffic jams.”

As for “The Food Ranger”, James updated few episodes about local food in Chengdu on YouTube, recently he is on his journey to Japan, he said to YouTube subscribers in an Q&A videos that one year later, he will marry Ting, “I would keep traveling and keep creating contents for you, I make stories for you guys, try to show you how friendly this world is, and how amazing the food is.”

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