Friday, April 9, 2021

Riding The Instagram Wave


As those of you who have followed me for a period of time know, I am not a traditional foodie as I don't talk about Chinese food per se on a micro level, but rather more on a macro level with Chinese food being discussed in a historical and cultural context and in the environment we live in.  The reason is that I began my amateur writing career some 50 years ago not about food, but about the history and culture of Chinese Americans.  My interest in Chinese food developed much later, although borne of my interest in Chinese-American studies.

Even as I was eating at thousands of different Chinese restaurants over the decades, I did not take pictures of my meals.  Even when I started reporting what Chinese food I was eating back in 2009 when I joined Twitter, I was only posting descriptions, not pictures of the food, and even despite the complaints of Twitter followers who wanted to see what I was eating.  It was only in 2016 when the complaints about no pictures got louder, and my old smartphone which had a inferior camera broke down, that I bought a new phone capable of taking pictures worth posting on Instagram.

When I started on Instagram it was only with a few dozen followers who knew of me from Twitter.  Occasional mentions in various media articles enticed the more curious observers to seek out my Instagram account, such that in three years I had accumulated 500 followers.  Not as many as the 1,500 or so Twitter followers I had built up over 10 years, but still a number I considered impressive since I was making no effort to increase my follower base.  

However things were about to quickly change.  Clarissa Wei, who first introduced me to the world in 2012 as the crazy lawyer who had eaten at over 6,000 Chinese restaurants, had moved on to be a senior editor at Goldthread 2, the video arm of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.  Two years ago Clarissa was coming from Hong Kong to do some video interviews in the Los Angeles area, and she thought it would be fun to do an update on my eating adventures and present them to a more international audience (although her 2012 profile of me certainly did spread to the four corners of the world).  So we spent a day touring San Gabriel Valley dining spots, and two months later Goldthread released her 10 minute video interview with me.  BOOM!  Not that there was a link or anything to my Instagram account, but new followers started appearing out of the woodwork.  In two weeks time I had added 1,000 new followers, pushing me up to 1,500 followers.

After that things settled down.  Basically my experience with Instagram paralleled that which I had with Twitter, meaning on a daily basis new followers and unfollowers cancelled out each other, but whenever I received some kind of media attention there would be a corresponding increase in followers.  Doing regular self-Googles would pinpoint the triggering event for an increase in Instagram followers.  However with the onset of the pandemic, I pretty much hit the sidelines as food writing and other media attention as traditional food writing topics became irrelevant and/or unimportant.  But a couple of times during 2020 there were surges in my follower base.  With no current publicity coming to my attention I was puzzled.  So I decided to contact a few new followers asking how they managed to find my Instagram account.  The answer turned out that Clarissa's Goldthread video was being rediscovered over and over on different Facebook groups, such as Subtle Asian Traits, Asians Never Die and San Gabriel Valley eats.  So that explained the total number of new followers despite the apparent lack of any new exposure, pushing the total of Instagram followers early this year to about 2,300.

By then most of the members of the Facebook groups were already aware of the Goldthread video, so I expected things to revert to stability.  But after a brief pause, there was another a new surge of followers.  Again I was puzzled, and with unproductive Google searches I once again turned to polling new followers.   The first response was "Oh I saw the video on YouTube."  Well, the video was posted to YouTube back in 2019, but it had only garnered 40,000 views in two years, mostly when the video was first posted, with most viewers catching the video on Facebook, where there had been nearly 800,000 views.  But then I noticed the YouTube count for the video started going wild, jumping by 4,000 to 5,000 views every day.  Refining my inquiry of new followers, I found that the new followers were watching Chinese food videos on autoplay and that my interview just happened to show up.  So being part of a YouTube autoplay rotation I was gaining a hundred new followers on some days.  The number of new views on YouTube have settled down to perhaps a 1,000 a day now, bringing the YouTube cumulative views up to 250,000.  My Instagram follower count is now 3,400, with another 100 followers coming on board every two to three weeks.  All this is amazing since the new followers have to take it upon themselves to find where my Instagram page is.

This and other episodes have given me an interesting insight on how the internet works, one you can't learn just by reading books or even the internet itself.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

John Wooden Picks Baylor to Beat Gonzaga in Monday's NCAA Basketball Championship Game

Of course, John Wooden passed away several years ago and didn't make this specific prediction but the wisdom of his principles live on.  Everybody knows legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden both as one of the greatest coaches ever, and also as one of the most insightful minds ever associated with athletics with sagacious observations both as to life and athletics.  In my opinion the most insightful thing he said, and probably considered heretical by most people with associated sports is that under the proper circumstances, a loss may actually be a good thing for a competitor's experience.  In particular, when a team is on a long winning streak, he noted that the quality of its performance begins to diminish.  Wooden referred to winning streaks as becoming burdensome, which often leads up to an unexpected losing performance. It's not clear exactly why, but it's probably a combination of different factors.    Maybe the team starts playing not to lose, rather than trying to win, with keeping the streak alive becoming a distraction, whether conscious or not.  Maybe the team becomes overconfident.  Maybe opponents dig down deeper.  Maybe it's something totally subliminal.  And even if the team with the winning streak continues to win, quite often it's clear that the team is laboring under the pressure of the streak.   But whatever the reason, it is not unusual for teams on long winning streaks to stub their toe against an opponent that seemingly doesn't match up.  Indeed, this is borne by the fact that no team that has entered the NCAA basketball tournament unbeaten has gone on to win the championship and complete a perfect season in 45 years.  The last two superteams to reach that point, UNLV in 1991 and Kentucky in 2015 suffered stunning losses in the national semi-final game.

Now if the loss is suffered in a relatively meaningless game, the loss can be beneficial, as in today's parlance it's like hitting a reset button and you can again return to your former level of excellence.  But if that loss occurs in the sudden death NCAA tournament, it can't be remedied.  To me it's clear that if that the 2015 Kentucky team, which reached 38-0,  had suffered a loss, say during the SEC tournament, that there's no way that anyone would have come close to them during the NCAA tournament and they would have sailed to the championship.

Of course things are a little more complicated than saying teams are more susceptible to a loss when on a winning streak, as there have been some impressive winning streaks in sports history.  One corollary rule is if you are vastly superior to your opponent, that opponent won't beat you no matter how badly you play.  Given that the college basketball season ends with the sudden death NCAA tournament, entering the tournament on a long winning streak is not a good thing, as the team will be facing a string of high calibre opponents.   Another corollary is that consecutive wins from a prior season probably shouldn't count because each year's team is a different entity.  And of course, if two teams with long winning streaks meet, one of them will have to win.

So yes, a loss can be therapeutic.  In John Wooden's last season as UCLA coach in 1975, they suffered a humiliating 21 point loss to a mediocre Washington team near the end of the regular season.  Now they weren't on a long winning streak at the time. But after that loss many observers concluded that the 1975 UCLA team wasn't that good and it wasn't going far in the NCAA tournament.  But indeed that team did win it all with some great play in the NCAA tournament.

So based on this, 31-0 Gonzaga is ripe for a loss,  Indeed it could be argued that UCLA' close loss to Gonzaga was made possible in part by Gonzaga being weighted down by their winning streak, and had Gonzaga suffered a loss, perhaps in its conference tournament, it would have been refreshed and played better against UCLA.  

In addition, Gonzaga's win over UCLA was highly emotional, and with a quick turnaround to the championship game there could be a reduction in focus further increasing chances of a win by Baylor.

Spotlight On Uighur Food

With all of the attention being given to the treatment of Uighurs in Mainland China, it's not surprising to see that focus is also being drawn to Uighur cuisine.  This was evidenced by a message recently received from my friend and food journalist Clarissa Wei, who asked me if she might add some quotes from me on the topic for an article she's writing on Uighur restaurants.  I'll leave Clarissa's article for a substantive discussion of Uighur food in Southern California, but it did bring back memories of my earlier quest for Uighur food when I first heard about it roughly 15 years ago.

I believe my interest in Uighur food started with comments on the old Chowhound food message board, where somebody brought up the topic of these non-Han, Islamic minority peoples in Northwest China, and how some of them had made their way to Northern Virginia, outside of Washington DC.  While there were no Uighur restaurants in the United States at the time, there apparently were events where Uighur food was served.

I caught a break in 2007 when we decided to do a fly and drive vacation starting in Portland, ME and then hitting Quebec City, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and Niagara Falls.  In Montreal we encountered what was then the only Uighur restaurant in the Western Hemisphere, Restaurant Uyghur, in Montreal's Chinatown.  It was truly an adventure, seeing the Central Asian staff, none of whom looked "Chinese" and eating handmade noodles and dumplings.  Indeed that trip to Montreal Chinatown was a real event for me, seeing what, like Los Angeles New Chinatown in the 1950s, was an inauthentic tourist trap (the layout of Montreal Chinatown was eerily similar to the central plaza of Los Angeles Chinatown), yet which boasted the only Uighur restaurant in the hemisphere, along with one of the few dragon beard candy shops in the hemisphere to boot.

As a result, I was well prepared for the arrival of Uighur food in the Los Angeles area.  The first entrant, and still the O.G. of Uighur food today was Omar's Restaurant on New Avenue in San Gabriel which opened in 2010.  To this day I remember that first meal there with the homemade noodles that were at least a foot long, maybe 18 inches, and a proprietress who bore a striking resemblance to HAPA actress and comedian Amy Hill, an observation which was also echoed by a restaurant reviewer.

My next Uighur food encounter was also the most interesting.  Both Restaurant Uyghur and Omar's Restaurant were located in Chinese communities and were classified generically as Chinese restaurants.  However my 2012 visit to Kashkar Cafe in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn was completely different.  Brighton Beach is the most interesting community I've visited in the United States.  Walking down the main drag Brighton Beach Ave. and then over to the beach, nobody was speaking English.  Everybody was speaking Russian.  Now I know how non-Chinese feel when walking around Chinatown, but you hear more English in Chinatown than in Brighton Beach.  Even most of the young people were not speaking English.  I made my way down to Kashkar Cafe.  The waiters and staff were European looking, consistent with reports I had read that it was not a truly Uighur restaurant, but owned by Uzbeks.  I looked at the menu and it didn't look like the Uighur menus in Montreal or San Gabriel.  My guess is that there was more Central Asian food at Kashkar.  Anyway, the manty I ordered filled with equal parts of ground meat and onions was the perfect dish--the best dish of the trip and also representative of Uighur food.  I walked a couple of blocks to the beach and ate them up there.

Since that time Uighur food has begun to spread.  In the Los Angeles area a second branch of Omar opened in Artesia, Silk Road opened in Industry and Dolan’s opened in Alhambra.  Mr. Lamb opened and closed in Rowland Heights as did Kashgar Grill In Irvine, pictured here.   


Kroken opened in San Diego and a number of Uighur restaurants opened in the San Francisco area, including the China based Eden Silk Road restaurants which operate in China under the Herembag banner.  An interesting episode was my visit to Uyghur Taamliri in San Francisco, which was among the most difficult eexperiences I ever had finding a Chinese restaurant.  The directions were simple--it was on Lincoln Way, right across from Golden Gate Park  But when I got to Lincoln Way, there was no restaurant across from the park.  The only business in the vicinity said Chug Pub, but then I saw another sign on the building that said Central Asia Uyghur food, so I thought to myself this was like a pop-up in the bar. However, when I walked in all I saw was a bar with pool tables, full of ordinary looking people  I had walked almost to the end of the bar and was about to exit when an Asian guy asks me if I was looking for the restaurant.  I said yes and he handed me a menu

There are naturally now Uighur restaurants in the Washington DC area, including Dolan’s Uighur which is unrelated to the identically named restaurant in Alhambra.  Apparently Dolan is a common Uighur name.  My greatest regret was never getting to eat at Uyghur Bistro In Houston just based on the incongruity in the name.  And thanks to the Uighur restaurants we now have foot long noodles joining foot long hot dogs and foot long submarine sandwiches.