Exploring Laoganma: The Red Kingdom and Its Low-Profile Queen Tao

(Yicai Global) March 24 — Tao Huabi is called the “national goddess” on the Internet by the younger generation born after 1990. Students studying abroad buy ‘Laoganma’ or ‘Old Godmother’ from supermarkets even in foreign countries to taste the “flavor of home” in the fermented black soybean and chili. Some netizens in foreign countries said, “marrying a Chinese woman equals marrying two women: your fiancée and Tao Huabi.”

Chili sauce is a common flavoring in Chinese food, which can be made with either oil or water. The one with oil is made with sesame oil and chili, which is red and easy to store with a layer of sesame oil on the surface; the one with water is made with water and chili, which is red and can be stored for a long time by adding garlic, ginger, sugar and salt, and it is tastier. One company well-known in China and other countries for its hot-selling chili sauce is Guiyang Nanming Laoganma Food Co.

Laoganma’s factory in Nanming is more like a closed red kingdom.

Occupying an area of several square kilometers, the kingdom is seated on the slopes of Yunguan village, Longdongbao, situated in the southeast outskirts of Guiyang city. The factory is located between two highways, where only a road several meters wide is available for people and red oil tank trucks for entry and exit.

The kingdom seems quite plain for its simple decoration. Its outer wall is decorated with white tiles commonly used by farmers or just a layer of white paint, and some of the buildings have only cement walls. The air is filled with the smell of chili. It is said in the summer when southeast winds blow, the smell of fried chili can spread to the downtown area of Guiyang, which is 10 kilometers away.

The more than 4,000-strong workforce work in blue suits. They work more than 10 hours a day, and usually stay in the factory dormitory. The red badge on their collar is the only permit for their entry into and out of the kingdom.

The security guards at the factory gates are always vigilant, stopping anyone from prying into the factory. They will also investigate anyone who takes photos with their mobile phones. Permits are strictly checked and no one is allowed to enter without prior permission, including local leaders.

Red is the major color of the kingdom, as well as the favorite color of Tao Huabi, the only queen in the kingdom.

The red color embodied in chili can be found almost everywhere in the compound. Red silk cloth with a hydrangea pattern in the center is hung up on each door in the kingdom. All rear view mirrors, including the limited edition Rolls-Royce with a license plate “Gui A8888,” as well as dozens of trucks and oil tank trucks are red and have a red cloth tied to them.

The queen Tao lives in the administration building whose outer wall is decorated with blue glass. It is said the 6-story building, which is symmetric both vertically and horizontally, used to be the office building of the local township government.

The decorative cornice above the roof makes the administration building look like a diadem on the queen’s crown. The Chinese characters of “Lao Gan Ma” that rise several meters high can clearly be seen as they shine in the night, even from highways several kilometers away, which seem to shout the power and wealth of the kingdom.

Its queen Tao Huabi started from scratch to create and guard the huge wealth of the kingdom.

In the summer of 1989, Tao, the widow of an accountant surnamed Li in one of Guiyang’s geological teams, opened a bean jelly restaurant in a space smaller than 10 square meters with bricks and asbestos tiles that she picked.

On the very first day of operation, Tao only sold 3.5 kilograms of bean jelly. But what surprised her was that the flavored soybean chili sauce, a free seasoning of the jelly made by her, was instantly consumed by diners. The brand name of “Laoganma” quickly became well known among college students nearby, spread in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces by truck drivers, and finally became popular all across China.

Tao’s red kingdom was formally created seven years later. At first, only 40 workers worked for her, two one-story houses rented from Yunguan village committee served as the factory, and the label on the packaging was designed by her eldest son Li Guishan. The famous portrait was used on the label — Tao wearing a white apron slightly askew, with her eyes showing determination and resolution.

For Tao, who was born in the revolutionary age and respects chairman Mao Zedong, the process of accumulating wealth is a never-ending fight.

Laoganma chili sauce has become an invincible industry leader after 21 years of painstaking operation, but its queen Tao still rarely shows up in public. Her office leads to her bedroom. She lives in the factory without much adornment outside. After each time she goes on a trip arranged by her son and secretary, she would immediately want to go back to the factory, as she “cares so much about the business.” A member of staff working for her for years said Tao seemed to be born for chili.

She gets up at seven o’clock every day, and watches China Central Television’s (CCTV) daily news broadcast every night at 7 p.m. She does not leave the day’s work to the next day, no matter how late she may have to stay up. She eats simple meals every day, without much fish or meat, and she always needs chili with whichever vegetable she eats. She refuses to waste food. Some employees said Tao eats up all her meal when dining with workers in the canteen.

When recalling her efforts in starting the business, the word that Tao commonly uses is “fighting.”

When operating a restaurant earlier on, Tao used to get angry and fight whenever government cadres dined without payment or asked for money. “You may ask for money, but you have to give me a justified excuse. Are you going to be a freeloader, as you don’t wear suit or carry your certificate on Sunday? And I will beat you if you bully me,” she used to respond.

A famous story usually cited by local entrepreneurs in Guiyang is that Tao also “argued” with local taxation authority about tax-payments. It was claimed the authority made a mistake about a payment of CNY300,000 (USD43,000) in statistics, pushing Laoganma factory into second place as the largest tax payer in Nanming district. Tao went to the authority and shouted, “You must make it clear for me!”

The queen adheres to an extremely simple commercial concept, and the website of Laoganma only has one short sentence for its introduction. She rejects listing, financing, loans or advertisements, and thinks that “going public is a financial scam and the company may go bankrupt soon after being listed.” Some officials persuaded her to invest in real estate, but Tao said she just need to do one thing well in her lifetime — making good chili sauce, and is not greedy for excessive wealth.

Laoganma chili sauce priced at CNY8 per bottle is the lifeblood of the kingdom, which creates wealth for the queen day and night. The media have reported that 2.3 million bottles of chili sauce are delivered from the kingdom each day, generating an annual revenue of CNY4.5 billion. Tao ranked the 487th in the Hurun Rich List China 2016, and 1,819th in the global rich list.

Tao Huabi is called as “national goddess” on the internet by the younger generation born after 1990. Students studying abroad buy Laoganma or Old Godmother from supermarkets in Chinatowns of foreign countries to taste the “flavor of hometown” in the fermented black soybean and chili. Some netizens in foreign countries said, “marrying a Chinese woman equals marrying two women: your fiancée and Tao Huabi.”

In stark contrast to the rapid growth in the kingdom’s wealth and popularity of Laoganma, its queen Tao still keeps very low profile to this day.

It has almost become a consensus in Guizhou’s media circle that Tao never accepts any interview. During the past 10 years and more, few journalists managed to interview Tao, and the reason to turn down interview requests is surprisingly consistent — Tao is in poor health, and has a lot of work to do. Some journalists tried to communicate with Tao through the publicity department of local government, but Tao’s company replied, “Tao says she is illiterate, so she does not know what to say in the interview. In addition, she is afraid of saying something wrong or improper. Therefore, she will not accept any interview.”

During the two sessions (Lianghui) in 2008, Tao, deputy to the National People’s Congress who seldom makes public appearances, became the focus of media. In 2012, a photo of Tao in fur coat and fur cap was popular in the social media. Netizens who have been used to the Laoganma chili sauces made comments with excitement: “The woman who turns so many men on finally shows herself!”

However, Tao still tries to avoid media exposure if possible and seldom speaks. Surrounded by the media, “She just sits like a Buddha — no matter what the journalists ask, she would just say nothing.”

Tao also rarely takes part in official activities. A local official in Guiyang recalled that he had met Tao at an important meeting, and the provincial leader asked Tao to give a speech. However, she refused to talk, but let her secretary answer questions for her.

Tao has not taken part in the Lianghui since 2016, citing “her cervical vertebrae and shoulder being in poor condition” as the reason for absence. A person who has known Tao said that she often carried over 50 kilograms of goods walking in the mountain areas in Longdongbao for sales in her early years of business. She got serious shoulder and cervical spondylosis problems due to the heavy loads, and still needs to use plasters to alleviate the pain.

However, the low-key queen and her closed kingdom are typical associations of Guiyang. Guiyang local entrepreneurs once conducted a survey on “outsiders’ impression of Guiyang,” and the most frequently mentioned three words were “poor,” “remote” and “Laoganma.”

Li Yun’e, a local writer in Guiyang, has never seen Tao in the flesh, but has collected so many stories about Tao and written a 300,000-word-long novel, Stories about Yunguan Village and Laoganma. Li said that Tao was once offered an advance of CNY5 million to find people to write a book about her, but she ultimately failed to do so because of her heavy workload.

The story of Tao’s entrepreneurial rise has spread by word of mouth among Guiyang locals. Tao’s neighbor in the community of the geological team said Tao was the one who got up the earliest in the community. Moreover, the secret reason why illiterate Tao became a trillionaire lies in her diligence and sense of responsibility. A librarian at the Guiyang Library said that Tao was honest and never evaded taxes, which became Tao’s powerful weapon against the complex local relationships.

Taxi drivers around the Guiyang Longdongbao International Airport can tell a lot of stories about Tao’s entrepreneurial process. Though it is hard to tell whether the stories are true or not, they are the same in essence while differing in minor points. When passing Guiyang Nanming Laoganma Food Co., the taxi drivers would point to the plant near the expressway and speak with pride, “The factory of Laoganma is right here and Tao just lives inside this place.”

Tao and her red kingdom were shrouded in mystery for so long that the media did not know that Tao did not own shares in Laoganma up until three years ago, a situation which changed only during the last Spring Festival.

At present, the ownership of Laoganma is held by Tao’s two sons. Her eldest son Li Guishan is in charge of marketing, while her second son Li Hui looks after production. Tao still serves as the chairman of Laoganma.

Tao’s two sons seem to have inherited her low-key lifestyle. Through public data, people only know that Li Guishan once worked in the vehicle fleet of №206 geological team after finishing his service in the army. Then he quit his job and started up business with his mother. Later he served as the first general manager of Laoganma. In 2008, Li Hui took over the post of general manager, which he currently holds.

As the queen with absolute power, Tao seems to be ready for retirement.

Currently, 70-year-old Tao possesses assets worth CNY7 billion, but she still keeps the routine she had when she ran the bean jelly shop. Aside from playing mahjong with neighboring elderly ladies occasionally, she barely has any other hobbies.

Yunguan villagers believe that Tao is a senior player of mahjong with incredible insight into victory, and she is good at memorizing the cards, so she seldom loses the game.

It is hard to tell whether the stories are true or false, but people who are familiar with Tao said that she does have a good memory. She can remember many workers’ names and birthdays. She is capable of reciting a speech correctly after listening to it several times. Moreover, she can memorize the financial statements and calculate the general ledgers in her mind quickly.

The queen still needs to manage the daily operations of her kingdom. The company has clear accounts, including what amount of chilies, soybeans and oil they buy, as well as how much chili sauce they sell. Tao needs to draw a circle on the upper right corner of the file for each account. Born to a poor family in Meitan County, Zunyi City, Guizhou Province, Tao is illiterate. She later learned to write her own name. When she needed to write an official reply to the files, she would write her name in a careful manner.

People said Tao still presides over the development of new products. She has always shown an incredible sensitivity to chilies. To maintain her keen senses of taste and smell, Tao does not drink tea or beverages. She is also in charge of the procurement of chilies. She can tell whether the chili is of good quality or not through smelling it. In addition, after tasting the chili sauce produced by rival companies, Tao is capable of making her sauce with the same flavor.

The queen’s fiery temper and forthright character is also like chilies. A worker who has followed Tao for years said Tao would rebuke the staff when she gets angry, but she does love her staff, and treat them like her own family. She once presided over a marriage for a worker. A security guard’s mother got a serious disease and had to receive dialysis. After finding out about it, Tao immediately gave the security guard money, saying, “Do not worry about money, I’ll pay for the medical expenses until your mother recuperates her health.”

Providing free food and accommodation as well as CNY500 higher wage than the local average for general workers, Laoganma has attracted a large number of workers. Bus №78 runs from the train station directly to Yunguan Village. The bus drivers have been used to seeing young people with luggage coming here for jobs from the remote mountain areas of Zunyi and Bijie.

In the middle of every month when workers get their paycheck, they will soon withdraw all the cash of the ATM at the gate of the factory. It is also the busiest time for small shops and vendors around the factory, and soon their snacks, cigarettes and toiletries would be sold out.

Near the female dormitory is a small shop that sells cheap bedding to new employees. The workers can get a set of bedding for CNY100 if they are keen bargainers. The shop owner said she and Tao’s youngest son Li Hui were junior high school classmates. Now she often sees Li Hui passing by her shop, but never do they greet each other. “Li is successful now, so I have no idea what to actually say if we had a talk.”

Yunguan Village has lost its original look due to the demolition and most of the villagers have moved out. It will be built into a food industry park under the overall economic planning of Nanming District. However, the shop owner is still holding on to her shop, trying to get more compensation for demolition. During the past 10 years and longer, she has witnessed the continuous expansion of the kingdom across the road bit by bit.

When it is sunny, the shop owner often finds Tao walking around in the factory with a serious expression, like she is trying to guard something.

This article originally appeared in the public WeChat account (Everyday Figure) of the Portrait magazine.

Follow Yicai Global on Facebook @yicaiglobal and Twitter @yicaichina.

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Bringing you the latest on business, finance, economy, IT and TMT in China, plus minute-by-minute stock market updates @chinastock. 中国最大财经媒体第一财经英文资讯服务的官方账号

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