Mukbangers craving hawker fare

When it pays to just eat it: Singaporean mukbang stars (clockwise from top left) Ow, Chuah and Leow sinking their teeth into delicious hawker fare. — The Straits Times/ANN

These Singaporean mukbang broadcasters make sure you never have to eat alone again.

Mukbang is a portmanteau of the Korean words for “eating” (meokneun) and “broadcast” (bangsong). It refers to live-streamed or pre-recorded videos of content creators eating while interacting with audiences.

On Instagram, the hashtag #mukbang has been used on more than four million posts.

Mukbang’s popularity began growing worldwide in 2015, when popular American YouTube channel React uploaded a video of YouTube stars reacting to mukbang clips. In 2016, American live-streaming platform Twitch introduced “Social Eating” as a video category.

In Singapore, mukbang has gained wide traction, with many content creators choosing to highlight Singapore’s unique hawker culture in their eating shows.

Zermatt Neo, who turns 36 in December, is a forerunner in Singapore’s competitive eating scene, with over 337,000 YouTube subscribers and 127,000 Instagram followers.

Other popular local mukbangers like Sarah Ow, 35, have audiences in the tens of thousands.

Gregory Leow of Greg’s Big Eats has almost 40,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, which has garnered over 8.3 million views.

Typically, one home-grown mukbang video upload draws up to 10,000 views within the first week, eventually reaching hundreds of thousands.

On why these social eating shows appeal to so many, social sciences lecturer Jeremy Sng of Nanyang Technological University says: “Watching mukbang videos can give viewers a sense of presence and connection, feeling as if they were dining together with others, especially if they are also eating while watching the mukbang videos.”

Sarah Ow: Powerhouse eater

Ranked first among women in Food League Singapore’s 2021 list of competitive eaters is Sarah Ow, 35, who stands at 1.68m tall and weighs 55kg.

The married mother of one shot to popularity in 2016 when she made headlines for various competitive eating feats, such as consuming 2.2kg of rice and 800g of chicken in 27 minutes and seven seconds in the Xiang Ji Mega Chicken Rice Challenge.

Formerly a flight attendant with Singapore Airlines for 11 years, she now works as a full-time talent creating mukbang and food review content on Facebook and YouTube for home-grown media and events company Food League SG. The latter has almost 14,000 subscribers and over 471,000 views.

Ow’s videos typically feature a range of Asian delights found in Singapore, such as dishes from Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and China. However, her personal favourites are more modest: scrambled eggs, and macaroni and cheese.

The biomedical science diploma holder from Ngee Ann Polytechnic got into the business because of her voracious appetite. But her decision to switch from competitive eating to creating mukbang videos in 2020 was not entirely voluntary.

“There are phases and trends for competitive eating. In the early years of my competitive eating career, there were a lot of eating competitions you could participate in. Now, it’s more difficult because not a lot of food companies want to arrange these,” she says, adding that there are just not enough Singaporeans who want to participate any more.

Her last such contest was a mee sua eating competition organised by Food League SG and Seng Kee Black Chicken Herbal Soup in September 2022. Only six competitors showed up.

She finished second to Malaysian competitive eater Rainbow Kumi, who wolfed down eight bowls in 10 minutes, beating her six bowls.

The most memorable contest, in her book, was the 2016 The Beast Challenge from American-style restaurant-bar The Beast. She was one of two Singaporeans (the other being competitive eater Zermatt Neo) to complete the challenge, which required chowing down a 3.2kg burger with fries within an hour. That is the equivalent of about 14 Big Macs.

Ow is game for all kinds of eating challenges, as evinced by her scarfing down everything from hot dogs and lotus leaf buns to waffles and pancakes. Only spicy foods daunt the veteran.

Gregory Leow: Earning beer money

Gregory Leow, owner of the YouTube channel Greg’s Big Eats, which boasts 39,500 subscribers, is a self-proclaimed “full-time dad”. The 49-year-old – whose mother is local veteran food writer Sylvia Tan and stepfather, home-grown thespian Lim Kay Tong – made his first foray into creating mukbang videos in December 2016.

Then the hawker editor of HungryGoWhere, a Singaporean food review site, he intuited that food-related content was shifting towards the video medium. He made his first mukbang videos just to familiarise himself with video editing skills.

His flagship channel has now amassed more than 8.3 million views. His second channel, Greg’s Small Bites, which features shorter videos, has garnered at least 35,000 views. He uploads about three videos a month.

His most-viewed video, on how the dish or luak (oyster omelette) is fried, has over 186,000 views and focuses entirely on the cooking technique of hawker Issac Lau at Newton Food Centre.

Leow is completely silent in this video, letting Lau’s kitchen skills do the talking. A viewer commented that the “roar of the gas fire, the sizzle, the clanging of the ladle” were comforting “sounds of my childhood”.

Leow’s videos, centred on hawker centre fare, often delve into ingredients and food preparation. He usually takes a day or two to prepare a script for his videos and eats every dish at least twice – once to taste it and again to record video footage.

Leow is judicious when it comes to selecting hawker stalls to feature. He does not include those under two years old and bases his choices on both the dishes’ nutritional value and taste.

Some videos weave in the backstories of the hawkers.

“I don’t have any agenda, to be honest. There is an element of wanting to preserve your own heritage. Actually delving into it gives an accurate portrayal of what hawker culture is. I wanted to portray an accurate view of it,” he says.

Leow, who graduated from Middlesex University London, understands these motivations. He himself was retrenched from HungryGoWhere in June 2021 as the pandemic took its toll. His wife, 47, who was also retrenched around that time, landed a job in the pharmaceutical sector in July that year.

Due to the hectic nature of her new assignment, she asked him to stay home to take care of their then eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son, instead of looking for a full-time job.

While his YouTube channel does not yet earn a “proper pay cheque”, it does provide him with “very handsome beer money”, Leow says, half in jest.

Yew Wei Chuah: Hawker heritage champion

Up till 2020, Yew Wei Chuah was specialising in regulatory compliance at several international banks in Singapore.

After Covid-19 hit and the pandemic gave him time to take stock, the 50-year-old realised he was disillusioned with the corporate world. He decided to throw in the towel and try something new.

In March 2020, he began creating mukbang videos on his YouTube channel, Piggypuggy. Named after his dogs, it now boasts 24,200 subscribers and has accumulated more than 11.7 million views.

His most popular video, with over 275,000 views, sees him touring Hougang’s Hainanese Village Centre and trying dishes like carrot fingers, Ipoh hor fun and nasi lemak. He uploads about five videos a month.

On why he made the switch to content creation, the graduate of Murdoch University in Australia says: “I had been working in the corporate world for many years. But it’s not something people will remember you by. There is no lasting legacy.

“Now, I get to capture some of Singapore’s hawkers. If some image or video captures them while they’re still working at our hawker centres, it gives them a bit of context and history for people to remember them by.”

Chuah, who previously earned a “comfortable” five-figure monthly salary, makes less than a tenth of that from his YouTube channel. However, he says his wife Wenny Chuah, 47, who works in banking, and their 14-year-old son Jonah are supportive of his career move.

“In terms of monetary sustenance, anybody would think I’m crazy to give up the corporate world,” he says, but adds that showcasing local hawker centres is its own reward, and he has no regrets leaving the rat race. — The Straits Times/ANN

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