Yelp might list R&G Lounge quite low in its rankings, but social media app Little Red Book (Xiaohongshu) ranks things differently. It puts Chinatown right above the top – with Soya Sauce Duck Tongue, Princess Chicken, and Baked Black Cod listed as must-try dishes.
And while Tripadvisor may direct visitors first to Alcatraz Island, the Little Red Book sends them to the Golden Gate Bridge and Lombard Street.
Little Red Book—founded in 2013 in Shanghai as a Chinese-language social media app for users to share reviews of beauty and fashion products in China—has become a trusted source of advice here in San Francisco and other cities with large Chinese populations.
“I’m sure every Chinese student around me has a Little Red Book account,” said Stephanie Chen, 24, who now considers herself a heavy user and aspiring influencer. “For the Chinese community in California, I’m sure at least half of them use the Little Red Book.”
Turn all the Chinese content in Little Red Book into a parallel world unknown to non-Chinese speakers. “How often a person uses the Little Red Book depends on their level of Chinese,” said Chen, who publishes in Little Red Book almost daily. “My younger sister uses the Little Red Book a lot less than me because she was raised in America.”
Today, a search of the app turns up more than 151,000 posts related to the Bay Area, which is where a lot of the US user base is aggregated. Growth has been particularly rapid during the pandemic – by October 2021, the app boasted 132 million monthly active users worldwide, resulting in a current valuation of $20 billion.
Zoe Han, 26, was one of those users of the pandemic.
Han, who became an influencer in October 2020, said: “I wanted to share videos of my epidemic life with my family and friends in China, but they needed to climb the firewall to get to YouTube, so I chose Little Red Book.”
So far, her weekly quarantine video blog and posts like “An Evaluation of the Bay Area Delivery Apps She Used During the Pandemic” has attracted 1,350 followers, a decent number for an influencer who primarily focuses on life in California. Her favorite delivery apps: yamiMeal, Weee! And Yamibuy, all apps that cater to a large base of Chinese users.
Hao Li, a 42-year-old driving instructor, has been using the Little Red Book to lure students over the past four months. “I only heard about it half a year ago, but I know it’s been very popular lately,” he told me. According to him, the target audience of his Little Red Book posts – with the app’s user base largely female – are Bay Area programmers who come to America without knowing local traffic laws.
For users, the app is a modern encyclopedia of all aspects of life, but with an Asian touch. Mission’s most recommended restaurant is Stonemill Matcha, a Japanese sweet shop on Valencia Street with an elegant interior that makes it particularly Instagram-friendly. The popular post on the app consists of advice on traveling from Shanghai to San Francisco, with a poster documenting his journey through which the pandemic has traveled. The article includes extensive information on preparing the correct documents, buying a ticket, and doing it all while traveling with a dog. No doubt the cute pictures add to its allure.
“There are a lot of Chinese living here, so almost any information I want can be found in the Little Red Book,” said Liu Chen, a 25-year-old structural engineer who works in San Francisco. “The Chinese feel the same in a lot of things,” she said, so she found the advice spot on.
On Black Friday, I checked users’ photos on the app before shopping for clothes online. “These posts are much more useful than those on official fashion brand websites,” she said. “As you know, Asians usually have different body shapes than Caucasians.” So major US sites might advise chasing deals at Farfetch while Little Red Book directed it to Dealmoon.
But the scope of application extends far beyond product recommendations. This year, Chen paid dearly for hairy crabs – a delicacy in Shanghai – but didn’t know how to prepare them. The publications in the Little Red Book taught her which parts to eat and saved the crabs from dying in vain. I also used the app to look up egg tart filling ingredients, and whether lemon tarts should be put in water before or after boiling.
For many, the Little Red Book is a more valuable resource than Google, Wikipedia, or YouTube. Even if the advice on some questions is the same, it offers a more complete world centered on Asia.
“It has a lot of bits of information to help me make decisions,” said Jin Huang, who spends more than an hour each day on the Little Red Book and relies on it for professional and emotional advice.
Since coming to San Francisco for her master’s degree two years ago, the data scientist has been pursuing influencers with professional experience. I learned from them and also got advice on self-discipline, job prospects, and advice on salary negotiations.
Sometimes when she is confused in her love life, she also turns to the publications in Little Red Book for reference. “I think people my age are all suffering from this kind of confusion,” said Huang, who will turn 25 next year. “I wonder if what my friend did is something everyone else does, or if it’s really a problem, so I can figure out how to respond.”
In the love section of the Little Red Book, some women consult articles with titles like “A Really Effective Way to Complement Their Boyfriends,” which stress that women should always make their boyfriends feel competent even when he isn’t.
Another article about whether “it’s OK to have sex so early” emphasizes that couples should not sleep together until they are committed to the relationship.
Other posts featuring featured Chinese topics are also gaining momentum. One article examines the question: “I like the wedding dress on the left, while my mother-in-law loves the dress on the right. How do I choose?” Commentators overwhelmingly suggest that the publisher listen to her mother-in-law.
In the “Neighbourhood” section of the Little Red Book, a more local picture of Chinese life in San Francisco is shown: Now that people are allowed to take the GRE at home, will they take the test alone? Who can access me in the WeChat group of Bay Area programmer family members?
Looking at several publications, one discovers a faint longing for China, a desire to bring the country with them even while living abroad. Some users may feel this way. Seeing these two visions of life side by side on the app, Zoe Han – a successful programmer in Silicon Valley – sighed: “Compared to life in China, life here is still rather boring.”