Food bloggers transform Hong Kong food writing
by John Cheng
Exquisitely presented dishes are placed on the table in a fine dining restaurant. The food smells as inviting as it looks, yet none of the diners make the tiniest attempt to enjoy the feast before them. They are too occupied with taking pictures. For several minutes, the only sound is of the snapping of camera shutters.
This is a typical scene from the world of food blogging, where cameras and smartphones are whipped out before the food is touched. After these dinner gatherings, reviews will be uploaded the very next day. Every day, food bloggers repeat the cycle of visiting different restaurants, taking photos and writing online food reviews.
It has become a way of life for Supersupergirl, currently the top ranking food reviewer on Hong Kong’s leading online food review platform OpenRice. The food enthusiast who works in creative publishing often scouts the city for new restaurants to try out. At other times, she attends food tastings with fellow OpenRice reviewers. After a hectic day of eating, Supersupergirl goes home and blogs about her foodie adventures.
“Eating good food is partly luck, at the right place, at the right time and moment the food is served,” she says. “Try anything on the menu. If it’s new, try it out as you might be surprised; if there is something you don’t like, try it out as well.”
Supersupergirl has been a foodie since childhood. She started writing on OpenRice in 2006, inspired by a bad food experience. “I went to this restaurant in Discovery Bay and I drank this smoothie. What happened was they blended the plastic lid into the smoothie,” she recalls. “I was really angry so I went home and wrote a bad review.”
Many food bloggers start off as food enthusiasts like Supersupergirl. Through blogs and online food review websites they gradually gain fame and popularity. More and more people have joined the ranks of food bloggers in recent years, changing the way food reviews are written and received in the foodie heaven of Hong Kong.
It can take years of experience in the media, the food industry or both, celebrity or impeccable connections to become a food critic in the traditional media. In contrast, anyone can become a food blogger.
“The so-called online food critics are no different to ordinary people. You can become one if you open an OpenRice account. No job interviews required, you just need your taste buds,” says Lung Siu-yeah, another popular local food blogger.
The internet has become a platform for any average foodie to write about food. Every year, OpenRice records a 20 per cent to 30 per cent growth in the number of food reviewers. To date, the website already has over 800,000 registered users.
The proliferation of online food reviews has completely revolutionised the practice of food writing. Restaurants are only too aware of the influence food bloggers have on consumer tastes and choices. Now, food bloggers are the first group of people restaurants approach when they want comments on their newest dishes. They either contact a food blogger to spread the word among the blogger circle or go through public relations companies to gather bloggers.
In the past, the latest food trends were usually determined by food writers for newspapers and magazines. However, the stories and reviews they write can often be de-facto advertorials as these reporters and writers have good relations with the restaurants they review. As a result, the real food trends in the market may not be accurately reflected. Nowadays, with online food reviews, the situation has changed.
“OpenRice users have their personal opinions, and when these opinions merge they become a form of collective wisdom,” says McCarthy Lee Cham-lun, marketing manager of OpenRice.
K.C. Koo, widely acknowledged as the godfather of Hong Kong food bloggers has no doubt that food bloggers have become arbiters of popular taste.
“[Online] food reviews can stir up new food trends in the market. Since food bloggers are customers as well, the more they write about a certain food the more popular it will become,” he says over a cup of Hong Kong-style coffee in an old-style Hong Kong diner in Wan Chai.
Koo has been writing online food reviews for over 10 years and has reviewed over 1,500 local restaurants. He takes it so seriously that he quit his job in the finance industry to devote all of his time to food writing, making him Hong Kong’s only full-time food blogger. He now explores new restaurants, attends food tastings and writes an average of 4,000 to 6,000 words on a daily basis.
The blogger has also set up Fancook Production, a company that organises special food tastings for foodies in various restaurants. While the company is a commercial venture, Koo also wants to promote food culture and encourage more newcomers to join the food-writing industry.
In other parts of the world, there have been tensions between food bloggers, established food writers and even celebrity chefs. Bloggers are said to have democratised food criticism and writing, and have also provided direct competition for traditional food writers in the mainstream media. But for Koo, there are fundamental differences between the two groups. “If you want someone to comment on Korean fried chicken, you’re not going to seek out Chua Lam(蔡瀾), you’ll look for me,” he says.
Renowned columnist, food critic and restaurateur Lau Kin-wai also thinks such worries are unnecessary. Sitting in his Michelin-starred restaurant, Kin’s Kitchen, Lau says food bloggers and traditional food critics cater to different audiences.
“They [food bloggers] are more mass-oriented, while we traditional food critics who write in newspapers and magazines talk about different aspects of experiences,” Lau explains.
“If you ask me about egg waffles or cart noodles, I can’t answer you. But I travel around the globe to try the best [food]…and try to bring food writing to a cultural level, not just commenting on the taste or price of the food.”
When everyone and anyone can be a food critic, the independence and credibility of food bloggers comes into question, especially as more and more restaurants latch onto them as a means of promotion. Through public relations companies, restaurants invite food bloggers to free tastings and subsequently require bloggers to give them positive reviews online.
However, gourmet writer and restaurateur Lau Chun, who happens to be Lau Kin-wai’s son, reveals that traditional food writers also face the dilemma of free meals. The younger Lau says it is almost impossible to be free from the influence of advertisements and other vested interests. In order to uphold the independence of food criticism, he thinks it is important for all food writers to declare their interests.
“Foreign critics put much emphasis on this [declaring interests] — whether the meal is self-paid and is there any collaboration between [food critics] and restaurants,” Lau says. He cites the example of prominent overseas food critics, like the American food writer Ruth Reichl, who make anonymous visits to restaurants and pay for their own meals to ensure their reviews are more objective.
Acclaimed gourmet, food critic and consultant in Hong Kong, 78-year-old Willie Mark Yiu-tong, says the spirit of food writing is truthfulness and honesty to oneself. Ultimately, whether a food review contains good photos or whether it is timely or trend-setting enough are not the fundamental elements that differentiate good food writing from bad. Mark says all good food writing begins with a deep-rooted love for food and the reviewer’s own truthfulness. Good food writing should not pander to the restaurants or to chefs but give them real food for thought.
“Like any commentary pieces, what matters the most is truthfulness,” Mark says. “Food reviews should serve as a mirror for the food industry, allowing them to see the real side of themselves.”
Edited by Frances Sit