food / travel

China On The Tongue: A New Documentary Discovers Chinese 'Foodie' Pangs

Food-related news in China in recent years has been mostly about toxins and scandals. A new documentary is a pleasant reminder of the richness of Chinese culinary culture.

The timelessness of the dumpling (Stewart)
The timelessness of the dumpling (Stewart)
Liu Tong

BEIJING - Never before in Chinese history has a documentary film aroused so much public enthusiasm. Everybody is talking about a series of films called China On The Tongue, broadcast late at night, depicting various gourmet items across the vast Chinese culinary landscape.

According to Taobao Marketplace, China's biggest web shopping site, just five days after the series began to air, nearly 6 million buyers went to its site in search of local specialties, particularly those mentioned in the documentary. More than 7.2 million deals were concluded. A ham producer from Yunnan Province saw his sales grow 17-fold in five days.

Ironically, one can't help but believe that the documentary's popularity is probably linked to China's endless and horrific food security issues in recent years. In one well-received article, a netizen wrote: "I wonder how many felt so empty-hearted and sighed after watching the film. Blue-vitriol watered chive, formaldehyde sprayed cabbage, Sudan Red colored salty eggs, restaurants using recycled oil from the ditch ... The list is long."

A varied, profound, and ancient food culture that is famous world-wide and which should have made the Chinese proud ends like this: One can only lament.

Food is the most vital thing in people's lives. Yet China's food industry is a typical portrayal of "bad money driving out the good." The market is huge while the cost of faking and cheating is so low for unscrupulous businessmen; and the punishment is too light. Take the milk industry as an example. Although Sanlu, the company that sold the melanin-adulterated infant milk, is now gone, thousands of other dairies took up the slack, continuing to produce milk with illegal additives that can cause cancer or poison children.

And to allow national brands to survive, Chinese authorities are happy to loosen their regulations, which have become even lower than the national standards set 25 years ago.

As the documentary shows, what people consider gourmet are not luxurious items like matsutake, a species of rare mushroom grown naturally in remote virgin forests, but common Chinese dishes like barley, lotus root or tofu. They are what maintain our basic needs.

This explains why people are so excited about China On The Tongue. It is a reminder that there is still a world out there where food is decent and people have dignity.

Read the full story in Chinese

Photo: Stewart

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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