Hong Kong’s tourism is roaring ahead with might in 2024, rivalling a tumultuous start as compared to the early 2020s. The streets are a maze of tourists crowding around cosmetic shops, luxury stores, funky bars, and cool restaurants. Business is coming back.

The city saw 81% of Hong Kong’s tourists visiting from the mainland in 2023, a familiar figure reflected in previous years. What was once a steady fixture of tour groups manned with selfie sticks, matching hats, and loudspeakers blaring out explanations of Hong Kong sites has turned into a new style of travel for the Chinese.

Younger, predominantly female, and manned with smartphones to guide them through Hong Kong, Chinese tourists now direct their itineraries using Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book), a 10-year-old social media app founded in Shanghai – and China’s answer to Instagram, according to many industry opinionists. 

Xiaohongshu Hong Kong F&B

Similar to Instagram, users on the app can endlessly scroll on posts structured in two columns with titles and bright pictures. Posts are categorised into “following“, “discover”, and “nearby“. Hashtags, user pages, and Instagram reel-like content exist on the platform.

Head to % Arabica in Kennedy Town, COA in Soho, LINLEE in Central, and other hotspots and you’ll catch a string of young Chinese Xiaohongshu users kneeling and racing for the best pictures to upload onto the app. Many restaurants, bars, and bakeries in Hong Kong have been rendered a 打卡位 (translated to “clock-in place”), a must-visit location on city trips to check in and upload on the app.

Take a stroll on Hollywood Road on any weekday and you’ll catch the crowds surrounding FINEPRINT, framing the perfect shot against Peel Street’s graffiti-laden walls or the backdrop of the coffee chain’s shop. Emblematic of a growing trend in Hong Kong producing wannabe models “checking in” on a fashionable and tasty side of the city, founder of FINEPRINT, Scottie Callaghan, was taken by surprise by the Xiaohongshu wave.

 “FINEPRINT on Peel Street has been a very busy shop for some years now, but the vibe was very different; it was more expats, locals, and a bit more relaxed. One day, post-COVID, soon after the Chinese border opened, I received multiple messages from regular customers saying, ‘Dude, there is a line out the door,’ with photos attached,” Scottie replies in an interview on WhatsApp.

Xiaohongshu
Photo credit: Facebook/FINEPRINT

“I was very surprised and didn’t know what was going on. I had never heard of Little Red Book. One of our shareholders sent me screenshots of many posts about FINEPRINT and a short video by a mainland Chinese influencer who has 200,000 followers. I definitely could never have predicted what happened, and it is still going.”

From opening through to sundown, FINEPRINT is awash with a constant queue of Xiaohongshu-crazed tourists buying sourdough sandwiches and coffee, whilst using the café’s grey wall as a cool backdrop for pictures.

“My reaction is very much one of an astonished and amazed onlooker. I am blown away that this has happened to us. And doing what we can to support our amazing Peel Street team who deal with the regular onslaught of customers. It is very difficult working in a pressure-cooker environment like that where the customers just don’t stop coming.”

Asked if FINEPRINT has adjusted its F&B offerings to cater to the tastes of the Chinese market, Scottie is honest, replying, “FINEPRINT is all about staying true to an authentic Australian-style café, and that will never change, because that is our core offering. We are so popular because [FINPRINT] delivers a genuinely good-quality Western-style product without compromise.” 

Xiaohongshu
Photo credit: website/Google Maps

“It does not matter what country you are in, any F&B business that stays 100% authentic and not aggressive with low costs – so long as it is in the right location – will always thrive. Chinese restaurants in Australia are authentically Chinese in their execution of food or the most popular Italian restaurants in China [are] authentically Italian. The Chinese love FINEPRINT because of the authentic quality of our food.”

The popular search term “citywalk”, referring to user-generated walking itineraries and restaurant recommendations, picks up 3.05 million results on Xiaohongshu, with suggested search results for Hong Kong, Singapore, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, amongst other city routes.

Bakehouse bakery’s Soho location, a viral spot for queuing up for artisanal sourdough and pastries, has sparked the Xiaohongshu craze. Founder Grégoire Michaud welcomes his newfound Red virality.

In early 2023, a long line began to snake around Bakehouse’s Tsim Sha Tsui shop, with Grégoire noticing a lot of customers speaking Mandarin Chinese. “We had no idea what was happening, but people began to tell us we were trending in the Little Red Book,” Grégoire tells Foodie. “This was completely organic, and we wanted to address our fame, so we opened an account in September [2023] to connect with this new audience.” 

“[The new account] is a great move, and we have a lot of support. At the same time, we have gotten comments telling us about inconsistencies or the service wasn’t up to expectation. We began engaging with the people and working on it on our side, as well [as] from an operational perspective.”

Xiaohongshu
Photo credit: Facebook/Bakehouse

Just like Scottie, Grégoire wants to stay true to his brand and not adjust products or recipes based on what might suit a younger Chinese demographic. They heavily promote the “citywalk” hashtag and curate custom content on Xiaohongshu.

In the face of fine-dining crippling in Hong Kong and Shenzhen standing as a cheaper dining alternative, Grégoire points to Xiaohongshu as key to growth in 2024. “Business at our Soho shop has been better in the past three to four months than ever before! We are affordable, hipster, and trendy. That’s why we’re successful with the Chinese crowd.”

For some chefs, the Xiaohongshu fever breached before international borders opened in the city. Chef Edgard Sanuy Barahona, of Spanish tapas restaurant Pica Pica in Sheung Wan, noticed the trend spike starting March 2022, a year prior to masks being waved in Hong Kong and tourists returning.

“We began to hear more Putonghua spoken at lunch and dinner. [Diners] would not disclose much and order using photos found on Xiaohongshu,” he says. “Our menu is not very explanatory, the dishes are written in Spanish, and little English is found to describe them.”

Xiaohongshu
Photo credit: Edgard Sanuy Barahona

“I downloaded Little Red Book and found our posts on Pica Pica would reach 100 times the engagement we have on our own Instagram posts! We have never reached 3,000 likes on a tapas plate that many would show on the [Xiaohongshu] app.”

Like Scottie and Grégoire, Edgard is reluctant to cater to his growing audience of Xiaohongshu-wielding Chinese diners. “We are an original Spanish restaurant. When opening Pica Pica, the owners wanted to open a restaurant that we could open in Barcelona. We can serve this tapas in Spain. I don’t need to adjust anything.”

As Edgard and Pica Pica enter their third year of Xiaohongshu fame, he keeps his winning formula the same: authentic and controlled. He doesn’t want to become a tourist melting pot “offering burgers, pasta, pizza”, but to continue to be a top Spanish restaurant in Hong Kong. 

“I can’t tell you how we became popular or what restaurants need to do to attract the Little Red [Book] crowd. Just stay authentic.”

Xiaohongshu
Photo credit: Facebook/Pica Pica

Two F&B marketing agencies based in Hong Kong have adopted Xiaohongshu as a tool to promote local restaurants to the Chinese market and consumers. Katie Forster, founder of Amara Communications, which specialises in hospitality public relations, assists on digital marketing and content creation with a number of clients on Xiaohongshu.

“Xiaohonshu’s main influence is certainly on the mainland Chinese audience, but more and more Hong Kongers look to the platform, and its impact on shaping consumer behaviour is undeniable,” Katie shares.

Katie signals that the audience of millennial women hailing from tier one and two cities in China are “thorough researchers, particularly when it comes to travel”. Employing marketing efforts on the app means that her agency can “capture an active audience of affluent visitors”.

However, the founder indicates that whilst her agency is “prudent to ensure front-of-mind presence with this audience [on Xiaohongshu]” with her clients, “the impact on profit and loss may not make or break a business”.

In line with a strong “Little Red Book aesthetic”, featuring comic-book-like text and picture collages, Katie says it’s “necessary to edit imagery within the app with text overlays”.

Xiaohongshu Hong Kong F&B
Katie Forster

Communications agency Voltage X has jumped on the Xiaohongshu marketing bandwagon, introducing a range of services to restaurants seeking penetration in the Chinese market, including public relations, digital marketing, videography, and creative design. 

“We proactively encourage [our clients] to take advantage of the China-based social media platform, while adopting a range of strategies, including influencer marketing and content planning,” says Dan Lun, CEO of Voltage X.

“There is a significant necessity to market our Hong Kong clients to the Chinese market. China […] represents a massive consumer base with diverse preferences and purchasing power. Hong Kong brands often enjoy a favourable perception in China, due to their reputation for quality and innovation.”

Expanding the marketing presence of restaurants to Xiaohongshu means that Voltage X’s Hong Kong clients can “diversify their revenue streams, reduce dependence on a single market, and seize new growth prospects”.

In 2023, Voltage X worked with Henderson Land Development on Xiaohongshu to launch an e-dining voucher campaign for four of their commercial properties. By collaborating with over 20 influencers on both Instagram and Xiaohongshu, the agency generated more than 370,000 impressions.

Rubin Verebes is the Managing Editor of Foodie, a culinary connoisseur, and guiding force behind the magazine's delectable stories. With a knack for cooking up mouthwatering profiles, crafting immersive restaurant reviews, and dishing out tasty features, Rubin tells the great stories of Hong Kong's dining scene.

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