Dianxi Xiaoge: Exclusive interview with China’s viral cooking sensation

Ep.1/Feb 11, 2020

For her 11 million fans, Dianxi Xiaoge’s soothing cooking videos offer a glimpse into life in rural China.

In three short years, a young woman in rural China became an internet sensation, with over 11 million followers worldwide. The video that made her famous? An instructional on how to cook hamburgers for her grandparents in the countryside.

“My grandparents and relatives have spent their entire lives in the countryside,” says Dianxi Xiaoge, a vlogger whose videos of life in rural China have a devoted following online. “I really wanted to take them to the city to try hamburgers because in their eyes, hamburgers are Western food and a novelty.”

But they were getting old and travel was difficult, so she decided to experiment and make her own rendition of the hamburger.

“While I was making it, I was worried that people might think my hamburger wasn’t authentic,” she recalls. “But when the video came out, no one commented on whether or not my methods were good or how it tasted. They were all saying ‘I also want to take my grandpa and grandma to eat a hamburger.’”

There’s a way in which people relate to Dianxi Xiaoge’s videos—which are all shot in her childhood home in rural Yunnan Province in southwestern China—that transcends distance and cultures. Perhaps it’s her accessible presentation of traditional Chinese cooking methods or her seemingly idyllic life that harkens back to simpler times.

On camera, she presents herself as a countryside jane of all trades. She cooks with basic tools, including a strikingly reliable cleaver and large wood-fired stove. Relatives and neighbors from her village wander in and out of the frame, as does her giant Alaskan Malamute, who has become a star in his own right.

Many say her videos offer a temporary escape from the modern stresses of the city. But how did she get started, and is her life really as idyllic as it seems? We traveled to Baoshan, a city in the western reaches of Yunnan Province, and drove an hour out to meet her.

Dong Meihua, better known as Dianxi Xiaoge, at her home in Yunnan, China.
Dong Meihua, better known as Dianxi Xiaoge, at her home in Yunnan, China. / Photo: Hanley Chu

Dianxi Xiaoge is not her real name. She was born Dong Meihua and took up the online moniker when she started making videos.

“Dianxi is the name of this region,” she explains. And xiaoge 小哥 means “little brother,” a cheeky name she adopted because the alternative, xiaomei 小妹, or little sister, sounded too cheesy.

Before she started her video career, Dong was a police officer in Sichuan Province, just across the border from Yunnan. But she moved back in 2016, the same year she started making videos, to take care of her father, whose health was deteriorating.

“I was looking for something that would give me an income so I could stay in the village,” she recalls. “So I started making short food videos.”

She was especially inspired by the success of early Chinese internet stars like comedian Papi Jiang, who went viral in 2016 with her satirical videos skewering contemporary Chinese life.

“After watching her videos, I figured we could use videos to promote some of our products in the countryside,” she says. “But at that time, we weren’t sure where this industry was going.”

(Read more: Behind the scenes with Li Ziqi, China’s most mysterious internet celebrity)

The media landscape was very different in 2016. Although there are many Chinese internet celebrities today, the concept of vlogging was still new at the time. There was no formula for Dong and her family members, who learned everything on the fly. They started off filming with a phone camera and picked up skills as they went.

“When I look at my work from two or three years ago, a lot of the shots have blatant errors,” she says. “A lot of shots were overexposed or underexposed, or the camera was shaking. I was constantly learning and adjusting.”

A still from one of Dianxi Xiaoge’s earlier videos.
A still from one of Dianxi Xiaoge’s earlier videos. / Photo: Courtesy of Dianxi Xiaoge

For a year and a half, Dong and her family built a small fanbase of no more than 10,000 followers. They continued to experiment with formats and angles. Then she dropped her now famous hamburger video.

“We grew extremely fast,” she recalls. “In three months, we gained over a million followers.”

(Read more: The Chinese ‘village supermodel’ who can make couture dresses out of anything)

Her fanbase continued to grow from there. In 2018, she crossed the Great Firewall and started a YouTube channel, where she now commands a following of over four million subscribers. To date, she has made more than 200 videos, mostly featuring traditional dishes from western Yunnan.

“They're all dishes I grew up with,” she says.

Dong continues to maintain a full-time shooting schedule that can be grueling.

“Even if a dish takes just one day to make, we have to work from 6 or 7 in the morning until 11 or midnight,” she says. “That’s how long it takes for us to finish a video.

“Sometimes the first attempt doesn’t come out right, and we have to redo the dish.”

Now that she’s finally hit her stride with video-making, what’s her next move?

“I want to discover more of Yunnan’s specialities,” she says. “Right now, my videos are still limited to my little village and to this house. Yunnan has a lot of rare dishes. There’s a lot worth discovering and seeing.”

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Credit

Host and Producer: Clarissa Wei

Videographers: Hanley Chu and Shirley Xu

Editor: Hanley Chu

Mastering: Victor Peña

Additional Footage Provided by: Dianxi Xiaoge