“Master Kong” brand instant noodles were once the best-selling instant noodles in China by a wide margin, but have since fallen out of favor.

When Taiwanese and Japanese instant noodles first entered the Chinese market in the 1990s, the local competition wasn't impressive. Brands like “Huafeng” only had salt and MSG for flavoring — they could allay one’s hunger, but you couldn’t really call them delicious.



A primordial instant noodle packet.

When the Japanese brand Nissin entered the Chinese market, they had better-tasting products, but were a few times more expensive than Huafeng, not heavily flavored and were generally viewed as not worth the price.

Master Kong had a different strategy — they tested thousands of different flavors and found that Chinese people liked a heavier flavor and that they viewed beef as a more luxurious meat. They introduced a “braised beef flavor” noodle with three different packets; one for sauce, one for powdered seasoning and one for vegetables.

They also produced flashy TV commercials during a time when marketing in China was in its infancy; many commercials still showed walls of text scrolling over a still image. Master Kong advertisements, however, showed cooks lovingly skimming broth and cooking fresh chunks of meat and peppers.

Calling Master Kong Taiwanese is tricky: it was started by two Taiwanese businessmen, is headquartered in China, incorporated in the Cayman Islands, listed on the Kong Kong Stock Exchange and is ultimately owned by Taiwan's Ting Hsin International.

Master Kong dominated the Chinese market for 20 years. By 2013, they reported revenue of US$3.9 billion, accounting for half of China's instant noodle market.

However, the face of Chinese consumption has changed and Master Kong has not been able to keep up with the times.

The rise of takeaway

People don’t seem to like instant noodles as much as they used to. In 2016, the sale of instant noodles dropped 6.75 percent; the fourth consecutive year that sales have declined. In China, instant noodles had become a punchline on television — a gag-inducing relic of the past.

The real threat to instant noodles came from the takeout market, which caters to the same midnight audience and promises a healthier, less artificial meal. In 2016, Chinese consumers placed 256 million food orders online, an industry worth RMB160 billion (US$25 billion). Takeaway companies like Meituan have become the new food giants.

The 2014 Taiwan food scandal was another blow to the noodle industry — products from around the country were found to be adulterated with industrial dyes, recycled oil and carcinogens. Between 2013 and 2016, the Master Kong saw their steepest drop in sales in China — over 25 percent.

In late 2017, Taiwanese food conglomerate Uni-President's chairman Lo Chih-hsien (羅智先) paradoxically announced that they would eventually withdraw from the Chinese instant noodle market, but would remain in the noodle market — perhaps an upscale rebranding effort mixed with an admission of defeat.

It was during this time that South Korean competition turned up the heat. Master Kong wouldn’t reappear in the top five noodle brands after 2015, but in 2017 South Korean brands Nongshim and Samyang had both doubled their Chinese sales.

"Buldak Spicy Chicken Ramen" was a turning point; a boiled sensation that was not expected to be very popular when introduced in 2012. Park Jung Seok, a marketing manager for Samyang, was quoted as saying, “From the beginning, we developed this product to target a very niche segment in Korea.”


Photo credit: eBay

But in 2014, a foreigner living in South Korea put a video of himself on YouTube struggling to eat the spicy noodles, bringing international attention to the brand. Seeing a business opportunity, Samyang launched a series of new noodles: cheese, curry, black pepper, as well as increasingly spicy noodles to capitalize on their initial success. The Buldak flavor alone sold 400 million packets in 2017.

Samyang has been aggressive in entering the United States, Europe, Australia and Southeast Asia. They launched Halal buldak noodles, positioning themselves for the Muslim market. According to the Korean Customs Agency, instant noodle exports passed the US$300 million dollar mark in January 2018, a remarkable achievement for such a simple product.

If you catch a Chinese tourist abroad, the odds are that they have a packet or two of ramen stashed away in the corner of their suitcase somewhere, but these days it's likely to be a Korean import.

Read next: Fast-Food Chains Thrive in Taiwan

A Chinese-language version of this article can be found here.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston