Hong Kong Gen Z, Part I: The Camera Eats First

This article is the first in a series about Hong Kong’s Generation Z, born between the late 1990s and early 2010s. Comprising 22 percent of the population, these 1.6 million people were raised with a milk bottle in one hand and a smartphone in the other. While this makes them more entrepreneurial, worldly and digitally savvy, they are also well aware of the pitfalls of their online existence. In this series researched and written by Gen Z writers, Zolima looks at how this generation is coming of age.

Come on, admit it. If you clicked on this article because of the #foodporn title image, you’re probably a little bit obsessed with food. Our world is consumed by food mania, from the breakout success of Buzzfeed’s bite-sized cooking videos in 2015, which put the world on a streaming diet of cream swirls and butter melts, to the proliferation of Instagram food accounts and professional food bloggers. Then there is the galaxy of celebrity chefs and food gurus: Gordon Ramsay, the late Anthony Bourdain, Samin Nosrat. Ever since 1980, when food critic Gael Greene coined the term “foodie” in the pages of New York magazine, the world has inexorably marched towards culinary compulsion. Which means it’s finally beginning to catch up with Hong Kong.

Food has been central to Chinese culture for nearly as long as Chinese culture has existed. One of the most famous proverbs is “man4 ji5 sik6 wai4 tin1” (民以食為天), meaning “food is the first necessity of the people.” It was first attributed to Guan Zhong, a politician from the Qi state during the Warring States period (723-645 BC), who used it to make the point that monarchs must feed the people well to win their hearts. 

Since then, food has never been far from anyone’s minds. In Hong Kong, the typical greeting from the stout lady behind the cashier at your favourite bakery is “Sik6 jo2 faan6 mei6 a1 (食左飯未啊, “Have you eaten yet?”), an oddly intimate expression of care in an otherwise aloof, isolating city. Every kid is bound to have had “lap1 lap1 gaai1 san1 fu2” (粒粒皆辛苦, “every grain [of rice] is toiled for”) screamed at them if they dared leave half a grain left in their bowl. Chinese food culture is also mindful of balance, with different types of food playing different roles, the way sugarcane juice is meant to counteract the heatiness caused by hot pot.

This heritage has conspired with social media to create a foodie culture like none other. A recent survey conducted for Booking.com reported that 48 percent of Hong Kong respondents had the goal of taking even more food photos on their trips abroad—whenever Covid travel restrictions are lifted—compared to a global average of 30 percent. It’s no wonder Hong Kong has witnessed a proliferation of Instagram food accounts dedicated to restaurant reviews. They range stylistically from loud collages of dishes bordered in pink and overlaid with comical fonts, to dishes showcased at an artful 45-degree angle and shrouded in half darkness – a common style of photography in Hong Kong’s foodie circle. 

This wealth of content is lapped up by a willing audience, as Ruby, the woman behind the Instagram foodie account @rbylife can attest. (She asked to keep her surname private.) Her account, born out of a desire to share food from her travels to Israel, gathered 12,100 followers in its first year. “Running this account is easier than you think,” she says. For each meal she eats out, she snaps a quick photo and writes up a review in colloquial Cantonese, usually completing it by the time she gets home from the restaurant. “You just have to be consistent with your posts. At least three of my friends started their own accounts a few months ago, and now they have at least several thousand followers each.”

Much of this easy success revolves around trends. In the world of Insta foodies, how food looks counts more than how it tastes or who made it. “Hong Kong people are quite superficial compared to what I’ve experienced while living in Western countries,” says Wil Fang, founder of Cookie DPT, a chain of bakeries that make gooey American-style cookies. Black sugar bubble tea, Japanese soufflé pancakes and ice cream toast have all had their moment in the smartphone spotlight, to name just a few recent trends. Because there are always so many restaurants competing for a limited number of eyeballs, says Fang, “this makes Hong Kong incredibly competitive. If you can make it here, you could make it anywhere else.”

Jason Cheung, co-founder of Apt.coffee, says that has made Hong Kong an attractive destination for overseas businesses, although it’s not clear what the impact of the pandemic and the associated economic recession will have on this. “Food trends like these are often created by foreign restaurant brands coming to Hong Kong,” he says. His café—whose name stands for “a personal tailor”—is homegrown, but its offering of toasts and coffees that are heavily customisable is an Insta-bait formula if there ever was one.

All of this has served to displace the authority once wielded by traditional media such as the Michelin Guide and food celebrities like Choi Lan, who works as a newspaper columnist, author and a presenter on television food shows. Instagram and other social media platforms allow anyone to be a restaurant critic – and at least according to Ruby of @rbylife, these influencers hold more weight than traditional critics. 

That’s a lot of responsibility. Tess Yuen and Emilie Chan, the duo behind the account @foodsearchers boasting 118,000 followers, describe feeling pressure from the influence they wield over their substantial number of fans. “We have to recommend responsibly – we can’t risk people getting sick because of us,” says Yuen. “So a lot of shops that sell bagels or cakes through Instagram are off our radar because they don’t have food safety certifications.” Despite their Insta fame, Yuen and Chan consider their opinions to be less than authoritative. “We’re not connoisseurs. We started our account just to share foods that we liked amongst our friends,” says Yuen.

But the influence goes both ways. Taking a quick scroll through the foodie accounts of Instagram, recurring themes are evident. Evenly marbled Japanese beef, fine strands of white standing out against ruby-red flesh. Poached eggs perched atop a fanned-out avocado rose sitting on sourdough toast. It is clear that these kinds of food photos get more likes than others. So do Instagram foodies eat for their own passion, or for the double-taps and bright red hearts?

Chan says their top performing photos are usually “talking points” like new restaurants and trendy foods. “But we’re young people too, like most of our audience, so we are curious about these talking points. They just usually look good on camera.” 

“We also have full-time jobs, so we don’t have to eat for the numbers,” Yuen adds.

There are ethical questions at play, too. It is common for restaurants to invite food influencers to a free meal with the expectation that they will then post about it on Instagram. Ruby, who describes her following as “very small,” gets around five invitations per month. Yuen and Chan, who have a following more than ten times larger, receive five per week. Some restaurants make the trade-off explicit, requiring foodies to rate the food positively, which raises questions about the influencers’ credibility. But all Ruby, Yuen and Chan all stress that they only share their honest thoughts. “We want to be as credible,” says Yuen. “If the food is bad, we’ll say it’s bad.”

Instagram has also levelled the playing field for aspiring new entrants to the restaurant industry. “It allows people without culinary background or training to enter the market,” says Fang. He started Cookie DPT two years ago as a side gig while working in the fashion industry. He began by posting photos of his inch-thick, over-the-top cookies against a plain white background, then shipped his confections to buyers who contacted him through direct message. His audience—and customer base—grew faster than he expected.

“I never thought creating food porn images could be a marketing strategy,” says Fang. “But I realised how much the Instagram page was doing for our brand.” He says 20 percent of his following is from outside Hong Kong—“[They] can’t buy our cookies, so they obviously follow us for our content”—so he upped his game by bringing in professional food photographers, who suggested tearing the cookies apart to reveal the unctuous interiors. “Instagram used to be this fun little thing, and now it’s a full-blown marketing channel,” says Fang.

Whether they like it or not, restaurants have had to adapt to this camera-eats-first culture to survive amidst the competition. “We were extremely conscious of Instagram, from the plating of our food, menu layout, and the interior design,” says Cheung, sitting on a sleek sofa in Apt.coffee’s greyscale Central space. “Us Chinese have a saying that good food has to have colour, aroma and flavour – sik1 heung1 mei6 keui1 chyun4 (色、香、味俱全). Globally, restaurateurs are shifting their emphasis to appearance because that’s what people want.”

That has frustrated some chefs, particularly those in the upper echelons of the dining scene. Some, like the three Michelin-starred Waterside Inn in the UK, have even banned food photography in their restaurants. But Cheung considers it a compliment when his customers take photos of their food. “If seeing pictures of Apt.coffee toasts can bring more people to taste our food, I’m happy,” says Cheung. “Even if they come for the photo, I think that the dining experience will still be educational, allowing people to exercise choices and have preferences regarding their food, instead of blindly accepting whatever the chef says is good.”

That’s certainly the cafe in Basehall, a new food hall that opened in the basement of Jardine House this past summer, where Cookie DPT operates a stall. On a weekday lunch hour, chattering office ladies fall in line for piping hot cookies and move quickly to snap photos against the white, tiled walls. It is safe to assume that most of those photos will end up on Instagram, presumably earning double-taps, envy and—presumably—more customers for Cookie DPT. As delicious as those cookies may be, the camera always eats first.

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