What you need to know
While spectacular online eating shows – ‘mukbangs’ – are wildly popular around the world and bring fame to the super eaters, some find them unbearable and have decided to quit.
By Story Lab@Heep Yunn School(Natalie Chow, Hayley Leung, Jasmine Lo, Sonia Wong), tutored by Felicity Brook and Joyce Li
Part 1: The pleasure of mukbang
The camera switches to close-up shots, focused on the host, just as she takes in a spoonful of cheesy pasta from the gigantic plate in front of her. The next second, her eyes become wide-open, and she enthusiastically praises the food – the cheesy texture, the glutinous tenacity, and the stunning sauces. Off the screen, millions of viewers around the world watch the video through their mobile phones or computers, enjoying the vicarious pleasure of eating a big bowl of calorie-rich mac and cheese.
These online eating shows are called “mukbangs,” which combines the Korean words for eat (muok-da) and broadcast (bang song). They first appeared in South Korea in 2008. The shows usually feature a single broadcasting jockey (or mukbanger), stationed at their own home (or in a restaurant), consuming a massive amount of food, as many as 100 hamburgers, 100 pieces of cheese toast, 10 gigantic bowls of ramen…all in front of the camera. Bizarre as it seems, mukbangs have become hugely popular across cultures outside South Korea – including Taiwan, Japan and the United States.
Millions of followers have subscribed to the YouTube channels of top mukbang stars like Banzz (of South Korea), Yuka Kinoshita (Japan) and Chien-Chien (Taiwan). During Lunar New Year, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) co-hosted short videos with five famous YouTubers in Taiwan, including the famous mukbanger Chien Chien. The mayor even shared the massive New Year dish with Chien Chien in the video (below, subtitled in English).
The road to mukbang
As a food heaven notable for its street food like braised pork rice and the oyster omelette, Taiwan has begun to feel the mukbang heat. Local mukbangers, like Chien-Chien from the YouTube channel “Chien’s Eating” (千千進食中) and A-May from “The Gobbler” (貪食人) have emerged in the Taiwan online scene.
What is it like to embark on a career as a mukbanger? A-May from “The Gobbler” is a case in point. Today, A-May, a lady in her mid-30s, and her team run the channel “The Gobbler,” one of the most famous mukbang channels in Taiwan with around 50,000 subscribers. Nicknamed as “Cholesterol Queen,” A-May is well-known for her abyss-like stomach and her surprisingly slim body of only 45 kilograms.
A slim and glorious mukbanger
A-May possesses the innate talent of being able to consume massive amounts of food. For an ordinary lunch, A-May says she needs to consume five lunchboxes to feel full and comfortable. On her channel “The Gobbler,” popular videos include her eating 100 pieces of chicken, 54 hairy crabs and 100 rolls of sushi. Unlike the Korean mukbang superstar Banzz(밴쯔), who exercises for 12 hours a day to keep his six-pack abs in shape, A-May insists that she doesn’t have any particular strategies to maintain her body shape nor build up her appetite. She is also uninterested in working out.
Back in high school, however, A-May was troubled by her figure. “I was rather chubby back then,” says A-May, “and got nicknames from classmates. I wasn’t really happy about that so there was a time I was on a rather extreme diet.” After a while, A-May successfully lost weight but at the same time was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (a common digestive condition that causes one to have diarrhoea or stomach cramps easily). She never gained the weight back.
This peculiar quality enables A-May, once again, to resume her “ordinary” diet.
Two years ago, A-May entered the mukbang field by teaming up with her high school buddy Shi-jie (Lion Sister, 獅姐) and her boyfriend Ji-Ge (Chicken Bro, 雞哥) and starting the YouTube channel “The Gobbler.”
The appeal of mukbang: The virtual meal mate and the proxy eater
“I have been watching mukbang videos, like those from Yuka Kinoshita [the most famous Japanese mukbanger), for so long,” says Shi-je, the director of A-May’s videos. “Seeing someone consuming a colossal amount of food from the beginning to the end is healing. You share the sense of achievement with the eater!”
“Having an ‘eater’ friend like A-May, we simply think that we should produce our own mukbang videos!” says Shi-jie.
The curious appeal of mukbang has elicited interests in the academic world as well. Sojeong Park, a researcher from the Department of Communication of Seoul National University and the co-author of a report on mukbang in 2017 (with Prof. Seok-Kyeong Hong of the same department), offers an explanation more depressing than Shi-jie’s.
“Many young people live alone nowadays,” she says. “It is not pleasurable for single-person households to prepare food only for themselves and eat alone in silence. Facing the computer screen, with mukbang serving as their ‘meal mate’ and ‘chatting’ with them, it soothes one’s sense of loneliness during mealtime.”
Park also believes that the element of ‘eating’ is a big pull. “Eating is the most basic realm that everybody is engaged within their everyday life,” she says. As such, shows related to eating are always hugely popular across different media platforms.
The industry of online massive eating
Be it a pure entertainment or a quick fix to loneliness in modern society, to mukbang producers, it is everything but leisure eating.
Each mukbang show requires prudent calculations and planning. Take “The Gobbler” as an example. A-May specializes in eating, while Shi-jie handles most of the communication with stores or restaurants, press requests, scriptwriting and directing. Ji-Ge specializes in the post-filming editing.
They do not accept restaurant invitations, nor do they film sponsored content too casually either. A-May’s preferences (for example, she enjoys oily, savory food but resists creamy desserts) and video types (mukbangs or food recommendations) have to be take into consideration as well.
When it comes to presentation skills, A-May, the cheerful eater, needs coaching from Shi-jie too. To engage the viewers, the hosts need to detail the food – its texture, flavors and matching sauces. Yet, A-May may run out of words and keep using monotonous expressions like “very tasty” and “very good.” As the director, Shi-jie needs to guide her to describe the food in vivid and specific ways, for example, pointing out if the mixed sauces balance well or create a conflicting flavor.
Facial expressions are another serious matter on camera. From time to time, Shi-jie needs to remind A-May when she looks too relaxed or blank in front of the camera – she must have her brows slightly lifted to show amazement, or eyes wide-open to convey satisfaction. “You cannot deny it. The viewers want to look at pleasant faces. They need to be convinced that the food is enjoyable,” says Shi-jie.
Mukbang as an institution
Dealing with both administrative matters and production matters is simply too much for a single mukbanger. Therefore, it is very common for mukbang stars, like A-May, to work with a team. In many other cases, mukbangers even sign contracts with management agencies (just like other YouTube celebrities) to enjoy the institutionalized support from the companies.
In recent years, many Multi-Network Channels (MNCs) have emerged in South Korea. These private companies offer contracts to YouTubers, and provide public relations and business management services, in addition to technical assistance (such as providing shooting studios). Even the government is eager to assist content producers. The Seoul Business Agency, a non-profit organization established by the Seoul government, has been supplying technical facilities and props to content creators for free.
In Taiwan, private agencies which help content creators manage administrative matters have started to flourish. Chien-Chien, the most famous mukbanger with more than 990,000 subscribers, for example, is now under the management of the agency Press-Play. Unlike the smaller teams of A-May and Shi-Jie, who are willing to share their experiences directly, Chien-Chien receives full protection from the agency. All our interview requests were handled by her representatives and answered by email. In one formal email reply, Chien-Chien explained that having an agent to help out makes collaboration easier, as she is inexperienced in dealing with commercial contracts. As the agency plays the role of negotiator between vendors and the creator, she can focus more on her work as the mukbanger.
Mukbanger: Super eater or glutton?
In the brutal online world, instant comments are a main source of pressure for mukbangers. Hurtful comments on A-May’s looks and age are common – in this youth obsessed age, mid-30s seems to be too old to be a mukbanger star for some commenters. “It is good that the three of us are good friends and we feel much better talking with each other and letting off the steam,” says A-May, “Now, when I see comments about my ‘old’ age, I would make fun of it and yell at Shi-jie, ‘Hey, so why don’t they pay me for derma treatment!’ I think the support in the team is essential.”
Still, there are other legitimate concerns over these bizarre videos – such as the health implications. A-May has to constantly reassure her audience how her body is completely healthy, except for her cholesterol level being slightly higher than average (hence her nickname, Cholesterol Queen).
In terms of food portions, A-May believes that she is clear about her limits. When filming the 5.2-kilogram pork donburi challenge, a Japanese dish where pork is served over rice, the owner of the restaurant originally prepared a 13 to 15-person serving. Knowing that this was beyond A-May's ability, the team requested cutting it down to something less demanding, eventually settling with an eight to 10-person serving.
Nevertheless, her team has received negative feedback suggesting their videos seem to promote unhealthy eating habits such as overeating.
In South Korea, where mukbang originated, the government has its eye on the impact of eating shows on public health. With an ever-increasing rate of obesity, the Ministry of Health and Welfare in South Korea say that they will develop guidelines for the binge-eating media to improve the eating behavior of the public.
But mukbangers generally do not welcome government intervention, “Like A-May and many other mukbangers, they are simply capable of doing this without hurting themselves. After all, a lot of people who have lost their appetite (e.g. pregnant woman or even cancer patients) get comfort from the mukbang videos. We should not take away people’s joy,” says Shi-jie.
While Sojeong Park from Seoul National University feels that it is difficult to completely deny the linkage between mukbang and over-eating, she remains reserved over any kind of official regulations. “People can control their behavior even though they watch someone binge eating in the media,” says Park, “just as not all game players become violent. I believe that some proper guidelines will suffice. Official regulations, however, might hurt the diversity of online content.”
Part 2: Confessions of an ex-mukbanger
Not surprisingly, current mukbangers like A-May, Chien-Chien (Taiwan), and Banzz (South Korea) seldom discuss any unpleasant feelings after filming their mukbang shows, or, as they put it, their unusual appetites, make them natural mukbangers. There is, however, an exception.
In 2016, the already successful Korean-American food and travel vlogger Mina Oh decided to join the tide of mukbang. Yet, after filming 45 mukbang videos in the course of two years, she announced to her fans that she had decided to quit making mukbangs in the video “Why I Stopped Filming Mukbang” in 2017.
Veteran travel vlogger and accidental mukbanger
Since then, Mina Oh has resumed the food and travel vlogging she is good at and does not want to “mukbang” anymore. In her mukbang-making years, on top of making regular food and travel videos, she also produced videos featuring her eating massive amounts of food, like her corn cheese mukbang which featured mozzarella & basil, creamy pesto pasta with zucchini noodles.
Mina Oh, now in her early 30s, has been a food and travel vlogger for around a decade. Currently, she is the sole mastermind behind, as well as the host of, the two YouTube channels “Sweet and Tasty TV” (980,000 subscribers) and “Miss Mina” (650,000), featuring her traveling around the U.S. and Asia.
She first launched her YouTube channel as a college student. In the early days, she produced videos teaching basic Korean but then gradually transitioned to making food and travel videos. “Food and travel have always been my interests so I just keep making them,” says Mina.
Like all the mukbangers in their early days, Mina Oh had been a fan of mukbang shows for a while before becoming one herself. “[I used to think] are they really going to finish eating that? I want to see this happen,” Mina laughs. Besides, she realizes that mukbangers do not only eat, they also answer questions and talk to their viewers. “So I can simultaneously interact with the viewers and do the eating. So I thought I should give it a try.” Soon after, she filmed her first video, “Vegan Mukbang Q&A,” in May 2016, in which Mina is featured eating Indian food in her closet. There was a flow of positive feedback, and she uploaded Part 2 of that video the same month.
Looking back, there were struggles for Mina even at the beginning. For one, her sleep schedule was pushed back to midnight. Filming mukbangs is restricted to certain time periods – she could only go to restaurants when they were open. Equally, if there happened to be loud noises outside her flat, filming had to be pushed back. Her diet was another factor. Mina gets a stomachache if she eats overly greasy or cheesy food in the morning, so that left only the afternoon or night time free.
Despite everything, Mina powered through. She had started to gain a small following. Her hard work seemed to be paying off.
Gradually, Mina’s mukbang videos gained steam. She captivated viewers by chomping pesto pasta, tteokbokki, and French pastries. Her most popular video, “Japanese Bento Box & Sushi Mukbang,” has amassed over 1.9 million views since its release in May 2017. Positive comments poured in, left and right, like ‘you made my day’, ‘she has such an awesome personality’, and ‘the way you [chew] food looks like a rabbit chewing, so cute’. Since then, Mina began intensely producing mukbang videos. There was a period in which she released nine mukbang videos in the course of two months.
Mukbanger behind the scenes
But behind the screen, she was struggling and experiencing severe health setbacks from filming mukbangs.
Her “Thai Convenience Store Food Mukbang – Fermented Pork & Spicy Cheesy Noodles,” featured sugary sweet food like jelly drinks, banana rice, and Hello Kitty candy. After filming, Mina developed a headache and cold-like symptoms, and she was unable to function properly in the following three days. For another video, “Homemade Poke Bowl Mukbang ft. Sashimi & Kimchi Natto,” she specially bought fresh fish from the market, yet still felt sick for several days afterwards. That episode even turned her off sushi – she hasn’t had it since.
General symptoms she experienced also included nausea from overeating and insomnia due to being overly full. “You generally feel bad and feel negative after a bad night of sleep,” says Mina. In many cases, Mina needed to take a walk in the park for three to four hours to help with her digestion.
Making things worse, she also needed to face the pressure of online criticism. Some complained that she didn’t finish all her food until the end. Others harshly pointed out their disapproval for her eating habits, with comment such as “You munch so loud! Bad manners” and “You talk a little too much for me and not enough eating – unsubscribed.” Combined with insomnia, colds and fevers caused by over-eating, she experienced a period of lower productivity. “You don’t really function if you are sick. But I don’t feel good for lying in bed and being unable to get my work done,” says Mina. These episodes become more frequent after she started doing mukbang shows.
Her mother, “Mommy Oh,” who frequently appears in her videos, did express her concern. Other friends didn’t dare to reprimand her outright, but through their worried expressions, Mina felt their care and concern for her situation.
Remaining honest and open to her viewers, Mina released a video “Why I Stopped Filming Mukbang – My Health Issues” in November of 2017 to clear the air regarding her mukbang videos. She describes her health struggles. Her last mukbang video, “South Indian Food in Singapore – My Last Mukbang,” was uploaded in December of that same year.
Since then, Mina has adopted a healthier lifestyle. While she continues to produce food and travel videos, traces of mukbangs have ceased on her channel. She has freed up her time and taken up yoga and learned to relax.
“As a creative person, you simply want to explore different genres,” Mina says. “If I never did mukbang, I might still be wanting to do it. So there is hardly regret about producing those mukbang shows.”
Now, she empathizes with the situation faced by mukbangers. “For sure, mukbang videos attract viewers and may boost the views of the channel all of a sudden,” says Mina. “But balance is imperative. No matter what pressures one might face, it’s important to prioritize one’s health. And eating huge amounts of food isn’t the only way to capture the public’s attention. In fact, rare or novel foods can often intrigue as many viewers, if not more. For example, street food tends to perform particularly well.”
Bonfire or fireworks?
The traditional definition of “talent” has been diversified to cater to viewers’ needs – the primitive need to feed the appetite, the contemporary craving for constant stimulation, and the universal need to feel accompanied.
Whether mukbang videos are like bonfires, keeping viewers warm and unharmed as long as they remain distant from them, or fireworks, pleasant to watch but transitory in the passing of time – only time will tell.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall(@TheNewsLens)