Normally, people would not spare her a second glance.
There is nothing striking or remarkable about her. She is small, plain looking with a weather-beaten face typical of a woman from the countryside, wears no makeup or fancy clothes, and carries no sophisticated airs, in speech or gestures.
But to say that this petite, older rural woman is a national celebrity today would not be an understatement.
Grandma Tan has gone viral on social media, and therefore, mainstream media is paying attention, too.
Tan, 58, has become a familiar face to millions of Vietnamese fans. Her YouTube cooking channel, called Ba Tan Vlog (Mrs. Tan’s Vlog), was a hit from the get go.
The native of the northern province of Bac Giang has made a name for herself with tutorials on cooking huge amounts of one dish or beverage – 200 sausages or 60 liters of milk tea.
In less than 20 days it attracted one million subscribers and 41 million views, becoming one of three channels with the fast-growing numbers of subscribers in the world.
It has received the video-sharing platform’s coveted Gold Play Button, and earlier this month, Ba Tan Vlog was officially approved by YouTube to be monetized with advertising.
Having been monetized at a record pace, Ba Tan Vlog has joined two other popular channels in Vietnam that showcase the cashable charm of older rural women when they take the trouble to present themselves on the world’s most popular site after google.com.
Tan makes a huge pizza.
Big, but no free lunch
These days, within one or two days after Tan’s tutorials are uploaded, they are seen by 2.6 million subscribers and get around 3 million views each. Experienced YouTubers estimate that the old woman may collect US$15,000-17,000 every month as YouTube pays about $2 for every 1,000 ad views in Vietnam.
At 58, Tan, considered one of the oldest YouTubers in Vietnam, has attracted a lot of media attention for her phenomenal success that may make younger and more technically savvy YouTubers envious.
Having a monetized channel on Google-owned YouTube isn’t easy. Quite the contrary. According to the creator of Craftfornaught, an aspiring channel featuring artistic miniatures made by reusing daily waste who is awaiting YouTube’s approval, the current requirement of achieving 4,000 hours of viewing and 1,000 subscribers is extremely difficult to meet.
Once YouTube’s basic challenges are overcome, content creators have to wait for one month for administrators of the video-sharing website to judge its creativity and quality to see whether it meets the platform’s community guidelines regarding copyrights, sexual and violent content and other issues.
And after their channels are monetized, this status can only be maintained by creators uploading new content regularly and keeping public interest.
According to industry experts, creating content to become a YouTube Partner began to happen in Vietnam in 2007. The platform has since become a stable source of income, generating thousands of dollars every month for the lucky few.
YouTubers can either create original content, which is more difficult and time-consuming, or edit available content on the internet and re-post it.
Over the years, YouTube has changed its policies often, causing headaches for many channels. For instance, it has toughened its stance on filtering out commercial and inappropriate content for children, demonetizing many channels targeting kids worldwide. Earlier this year, it axed more than 400 channels amid concerns over potential pedophile implications.
For Ba Tan Vlog, Ba gia 61 tuoi (61-year-old Old Woman), and Am thuc me lam (Mother’s Cuisine), controversial content is not an issue. These are straightforward channels that depict the genuine charm of Tan and other older souls from rural Vietnam.
For Tan’s fans who comment in the thousands on each video, one attraction is the extraordinary portions she chooses to cook, in contrast to her small size (just 1.1 m in height and 32kg in weight). Then there is her rural dialect and warm and youthful manner of speaking in which she calls herself “grandma” and addresses viewers as “grandchildren.”
But likeable speech is just one way to attract viewers.
With less talk, Ba gia 61 tuoi, which has 210,000 subscribers, wins netizens with hilarious acting by two old women and some smart ideas. For instance, the channel’s two recent clips feature a water filtering system using bamboo tubes and a fruit press made from a tree trunk.
With well-shot short clips of a beautiful countryside, Am thuc me lam, with 224,000 subscribers, features 55-year-old Duong Thi Cuong, a farmer from Phu Binh District in the northern province of Thai Nguyen.
It cashes in on the ageless appeal of quintessentially Vietnamese dishes like sweet rice balls, boiled snails, and crab and vegetable soup. This visually attractive channel has attracted many foreign viewers who ask for English subtitles.
It is not just in Vietnam that older people are realizing the potential of making an impact, using the video-sharing platform and other social media outlets.
An Indian channel called Grandpa Kitchen, which has 5.2 million subscribers, also features dishes made in gigantic portions, like Ba Tan Vlog. However, the loveable 73-year-old Narayana Reddy from Telangana State in southern India, who cooks huge meals over an open fire, goes further than Tan.
In China, where homegrown platforms other than YouTube and Facebook are used, many old folks from the countryside are also reported to be going online to showcase their rural life and produce and make some money.
For instance, since the Chinese counterpart of Amazon, Taobao, introduced a live-streaming application in 2016, about 100,000 farmers have used it to promote their products, according to Taobao’s owner, Alibaba.
Taobao works like a home shopping channel, showing links to farmers’ products, combining e-commerce and live-streaming. Viewers can order items without having to click away from the videos. This is different from the Western model in which live-streaming is just entertainment.
Though YouTube pays lower ad rates in Vietnam, which may just be one-tenth of what is paid in more advanced markets like the U.S., Vietnam seems to be a promising market for content creators.
Indeed, according to Ajay Vidyasagar, YouTube’s Asia Pacific regional director, Vietnam is one of the top 5 countries that watch YouTube the most, thanks to increasing smart phone ownership.
Vietnam also has a large dedicated social media user base. According to social media agencies We Are Social and Hootsuite’s 2019 report, the country has 62 million active social media users and spends an average of over 2.5 hours on social media every day. YouTube has also replaced Facebook to become the most frequented social media platform in Vietnam.
Industry experts say that to become successful YouTubers, creators should offer high-quality, original content rather than reused materials; find new viewers by sharing their channels on fanpages, groups and forums; and use Search Engine Optimization (SEO) methods.
For her part, despite all the rumors and calculations about the money she must be making, Tan hasn’t received her first monthly payment from YouTube yet.
Yet, according to Tan’s son, Hung, who also has his own monetized YouTube channel with 1.5 million subscribers and helped kickstart his mother’s success, what matters most is that since she started working on YouTube, Tan has been enjoying her life more.
Hung told local media that earlier, his mother used to working hard every day in the field or as a mason’s assistant. But now, she can stay at home and has many guests who come to visit her from far away.
“She is happy,” he said.