Yelp might list R&G Lounge far down in its ratings, but the social media app Little Red Book (Xiaohongshu) ranks things differently. It puts the Chinatown restaurant right at the top, with soya sauce duck tongue, princess chicken, and baked black cod listed as must-try dishes.
And, while Tripadvisor may point visitors first to Alcatraz Island, the Little Red Book sends them to the Golden Gate Bridge and Lombard Street.
Increasingly, the Little Red Book, founded in 2013 in Shanghai as a Chinese-language social media app for users to share beauty and fashion product reviews in China, has become a trusted source of tips right 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 an aspiring influencer. “As for the Chinese community in California, I’m sure at least half of them use Little Red Book.”
The almost-all-Chinese content on Little Red Book has turned it into a parallel universe unknown to non-Chinese speakers. “How often a person uses Little Red Book depends on his level of Chinese,” said Chen, who posts on Little Red Book on an almost daily basis. “My younger sister uses Little Red Book much less than me, because she grew up in America.”
Today, a search on the app turns up more than 151,000 posts related to the Bay Area, where much of its American user base is clustered. Growth was particularly rapid during the pandemic; by October, 2021, the app boasted 132 million monthly active users worldwide, leading to a current valuation of $20 billion.
Zoey Han, 26, was one of those pandemic users.
“I wanted to share videos of my pandemic life with family and friends in China,” said Han, who became an influencer in October, 2020. “But they needed to climb the firewall to reach 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 I used during the pandemic” have drawn 1,350 followers, a decent number for an influencer who focuses primarily on life in California. Her favorite delivery apps: yamiMeal, Weee! and Yamibuy, all apps that cater to a large Chinese user base.
Hao Li, a 42-year-old male driving instructor, has been using Little Red Book to attract students for the last four months. “I hadn’t heard of it until half a year ago, but I know it’s been very popular recently,” said Li. According to him, the target audience of his Little Red Book posts, with the app’s largely female user-base, are female programmers in the Bay Area who come to America without knowing the local traffic laws.
For users, the app is a modern encyclopedia of all aspects of life, but with an Asian twist. The most recommended Mission restaurant is Stonemill Matcha, a Japanese dessert shop on Valencia Street with an elegant interior design that makes it especially suitable for Instagram. A popular post on the app consists of advice on flying from Shanghai to San Francisco, with the poster documenting his pandemic-taken trip. The article includes extensive information on preparing the right documents, buying the ticket and doing it all while traveling with a dog. No doubt the cute photos added to its appeal.
“There are a large number of Chinese living here, so almost any information I want can be found on Little Red Book,” said Leiyu Chen, a 25-year-old structural engineer working in San Francisco. “Chinese people feel similarly in many things,” she said, so she finds the advice spot on.
On Black Friday, she checked out users’ photos on the app before shopping for clothes online. “These posts are much more helpful than those on the official fashion brands’ websites,” she said. “You know, Asians normally have different body shapes from Caucasians.” So mainstream American sites might advise hunting down deals at Farfetch, whereas Little Red Book pointed her to Dealmoon.
But the scope of the app extends far beyond product recommendations. This year, Chen paid a high price for hairy crabs, a Shanghai delicacy, but didn’t know how to prepare them. Posts on Little Red Book taught her which parts to eat and saved the crabs from dying in vain. She also used the app to look up the ingredients for egg tart filling, and whether wontons should be put into the water before or after it boils.
For many, 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, Asian-centric world.
“It has a lot of bits and pieces of information to help me make decisions,” said Jenn Huang, who spends more than an hour every day on Little Red Book and relies on it for career and emotional advice.
Since coming to San Francisco for her master’s degree two years ago, the data scientist has been following influencers with more professional experience. She’s learned from them and also gotten tips on self-discipline, career opportunities and advice on salary negotiations.
Sometimes when she is confused in her love life, she also turns to posts in Little Red Book as a reference. “I think people my age all have this kind of confusion,” said Huang, who is turning 25 next year. “I wonder if what my boyfriend has done is something everyone does, or if it’s really a problem, so that I can know how to respond.”
In the “Love section” on Little Red Book, some women consult articles with titles like “a really effective way to compliment your boyfriends,” which emphasizes that women should always make their boyfriends feel competent even when he isn’t.
Another article on whether it’s “good to have sex too soon” emphasizes that couples shouldn’t sleep together until they have committed to the relationship.
Other posts featuring distinctly Chinese topics are also gaining traction. One article investigates the question: “I like the wedding dress on the left, while my mother-in-law likes the one on the right. How should I choose?” Overwhelmingly, the commenters suggest that the poster should listen to her mother-in-law.
In the “Nearby” section on Little Red Book, a more localized picture of Chinese life in San Francisco is displayed: Now that people are allowed to take the GRE at home, will they really take the test on their own? Who can get me into the Bay Area programmer’s family member’s WeChat group?
Looking through so many of the posts, one detects a faint longing for China, a desire to bring the country with them even while living abroad. And perhaps some users do feel this way. Seeing these two visions of life side by side on the app, Zoey Han, a successful Silicon Valley programmer, sighed: “Compared to life in China, life here is still rather boring.”