When Google alum Scotty Allen went on YouTube to show the world how he built an iPhone 6S from parts he scrounged up in Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei market, it became an overnight internet sensation. His remarkable how-to video has been viewed more than 13 million times.
Allen’s wildly popular technology travelogue, Strange Parts, chronicles his adventures around the globe, though inevitably many of his videos are made in China. But Allen is not the only — and certainly not the first — Western vlogger to show the outside world about what goes on inside China.
China vlogging has become a popular cottage industry. Some of the best Western vloggers in China not only reach massive audiences but do a great job fostering intercultural communication while actually making a living from YouTube ads and Patreon sponsorship. It is now maturing to the point where it can support serious creative work.
The undisputed “original” Chinese YouTube vlogger is SerpentZA, whose earliest videos out of China in 2008 focused on motorcycle repair and catered mainly to hardcore gearheads. SerpentZA (and that’s Z for “zed,” said the British way) is the unlikely screen name of the South African expat Winston Sterzel. “Serpent” refers to his upbringing on a Cape Town reptile farm and ZA is the two-digit international code for South Africa.
Today, Sterzel’s videos, which typically attract several hundred thousand views, feature a mix of walk-and-talk commentary shot straight to camera and soaring vistas of the Shenzhen skyline filmed by drone. He seamlessly weaves interrupting bystanders into his videos, most of which feature a charmingly cynical take on life in urban China.
High production values make his drone work breathtaking, even as his more down-to-Earth street shots lazily jostle along. He videos usually open with a cassette-tape musical montage of serious street photography, then feature him roaming semi-tropical Shenzhen in a suit and tie, and close with the trademark catchphrase “stay awesome.”
Matthew Tye, AKA laowhy86, AKA “C-Milk,” vlogs from the industrial city of Huizhou, 60 miles (100 km.) inland from Shenzhen. His screen name is a pun on a Chinese slang term for foreigners, laowai, which literally means “perpetually foreign,” plus his birth year. At 31 years old, he is six years the junior of Sterzel, with whom he often collaborates.
Tye’s vlog started as a series of motorcycle travelogues in 2012, but his five most popular videos, with more than 1 million views apiece, are all lighthearted commentaries on transnational family life featuring his wife, Vivienne Wei, who also vlogs under the handle Vivi Vlog.
Tye and Sterzel collaborate on a helmet’s-eye motorcycle travel vlog called ADVChina (as in “adventure China”). In a more journalistic vein, they have also produced a short documentary on China’s border with North Korea, along with two feature film travelogues called Conquering Southern China and Conquering Northern China.
Wisconsin native Collin Rodefer vlogs from the ancient city of Hefei in Anhui province, 300 miles (500 km.) inland from Shanghai. His YouTube channel, Collin Abroadcast, has more than half a million subscribers. His most popular videos feature him haggling to buy Chinese knockoffs of brand-name watches and shoes.
Rodefer’s videos emphasize humor rather than offering deep intercultural insights or remarkable photography, but there’s no doubt he’s good at what he does. His videos are short, funny, and garishly titled. They may lack the production values achieved by Sterzel and Tye, but they are incredibly popular.
A host of popular young vloggers (and they all do seem to be young) are widening the trail blazed by Sterzel a decade ago, including YouTubers like Prozzie, Panpan Xplore, snarkyguy, and (youngest of all) the kids at Raising Shanghai. Many of these young vloggers are connected in a community around Sterzel and Tye, often appearing in each other’s videos.
Farther north, in Beijing, some enterprising expats are turning the foreign vlogger model inside out, vlogging on Chinese video platforms in Chinese for Chinese audiences. Casting himself as the director of the Foreigner Research Institute, Israeli student Raz Gal-Or hosts weekly videos on Yukou and other Chinese platforms in which he interviews fellow expats.
With more than 5 million followers on Chinese social media, Gal-Or’s viewer numbers are astronomical. His interview with California native (and apparent master of Chinese slang) Lila Kidson turned her into an instant internet celebrity in China.
Now that Western vlogging out of China has become an established genre, Western vlogging into China — in Chinese — may be the next big thing. Or perhaps it will be some of the 800,000 Chinese students overseas who become tomorrow’s YouTube (or Yukou) sensations. Either way, intercultural exchange is a big hit, and China is at the heart of it.