At 10 a.m. on a Saturday, all the deep-fried youtiao at Wenzhou Dim Sum are sold out. Customers queuing inside the casual eatery, located across the Rhine river from Düsseldorf’s Old Town, groan in disappointment. Some consider meat buns instead. A cover of Taiwanese star Cyndi Wang’s classic song “Love You” plays in the background.
Shen Chao and Liu Ying, a Chinese couple based in the Netherlands, drove three hours from The Hague to sample Wenzhou Dim Sum’s youtiao — fried dough sticks often eaten for breakfast. They have planned an entire day around eating and shopping for Chinese food: Start the morning with youtiao, pick up pre-cooked dishes at the Hao You Duo Supermarket, and then get da pan ji (“big plate chicken”) at Tengri Tagh Uigur Restaurant for lunch. Their plans, marked out by Shen Chao on Google Maps, were curated by Liu Ying on the Chinese social media and e-commerce platform Xiaohongshu.
“It’s a good day-trip,” Shen, a finance executive, told Rest of World. “We can eat Chinese food that we don’t get in the Netherlands, and pick up cheaper groceries.”
Xiaohongshu has inspired a wave of travel by the Chinese diaspora in Europe to unexpected destinations like Düsseldorf, Germany, in their quest to find Chinese comfort food and regional specialties. Instagram might have suggested local restaurants in The Hague or a short trip to Amsterdam, but Xiaohongshu’s recommendations algorithm sent Shen and Liu about 250 kilometers away. They were more than happy to make the journey.
In Europe, Xiaohongshu has become central to the lives of students and young professionals in the Chinese diaspora. With its trove of reliable crowdsourced information on everything from visa procedures to home decoration to regional travel, the app functions like a search engine for daily practicalities.
A guide-centric ethos is baked into the platform’s user experience, reflecting Xiaohongshu’s origins as a PDF guide to Hong Kong shopping. Search results sort posts by how often they’re bookmarked rather than by the number of likes, incentivizing users to post guides that others will save as useful. Travel posts, for example, often offer detailed logistical tips, step-by-step itineraries, and ranked lists — a cross between a niche subreddit, a Tripadvisor page, and a videogame walk-through. Guided by Xiaohongshu, Chinese diaspora users travel across national borders, moving seamlessly between European urban centers to chase comfort foods and cravings.
In late 2021, the “weekend trip to Düsseldorf” became a noticeable trend on Xiaohongshu. It was driven in part by Chinese diaspora users seeking local food options, as Covid-19 travel restrictions had made trips to China difficult. Given the platform’s relatively smaller pool of creators based in Western Europe, Xiaohongshu users across the continent — from Amsterdam to Warsaw — tend to see similar posts and trends. If they were to show interest in food or travel content while using the app in Europe, Düsseldorf, a long-standing hub of East Asian immigrants, would likely pop into their feed.
Since the 1970s, Düsseldorf has been home to a significant East Asian community that included employees at Japanese multinationals, Korean miners, and Chinese textile workers. Until the 1990s, the city had the highest concentration of Japanese residents outside of Japan, Christian Tagsold, who researches Japan and Germany at the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, told Rest of World. In the 2010s, a new wave of expatriates arrived — Chinese tech workers in the European offices of Huawei and Xiaomi.
These waves of immigration have given rise to a vibrant pan-Asian culinary scene — in Düsseldorf’s historic Japanese neighborhood around Immermannstrasse, for instance, it is possible to find not only ramen and okonomiyaki, but also a Korean corn dog deli, a soju izakaya, and a Chongqing noodle house, much like a cosmopolitan restaurant quarter in Shanghai or Seoul. Xiaohongshu has amplified the popularity of the city’s culinary offerings among the Chinese diaspora.
“Düsseldorf [has been] famous for having a variety of East Asian food for quite a while,” Jasmin Chen, a regular Xiaohongshu user who’s lived in the city since 2021, told Rest of World. “We’ve had friends come here all the way from Karlsruhe and Munich just for food.”
This mix of East Asian cuisines is a key part of Düsseldorf’s draw on Xiaohongshu. Many users use the phrase yimiaohuiguo (“like being back in China in a flash”) to describe the feeling of hopping between the city’s Chinese, Korean, and Japanese restaurants, where they are able to find a measure of comfort and a glimpse of home. “[Düsseldorf is] my third hometown 😢,” an Amsterdam-based Chinese student posted on the app. “My Asian stomach is always so happy here.”
Thanks to Xiaohongshu users, demand for restaurants in Düsseldorf that cater to diaspora tastes has surged. Local Chinese restaurants have expanded their offerings in response, with many diversifying their menu options or opening new locations. DongWu Chinese Kitchen, a local Chongqing restaurant, opened its second branch in November 2022, across the road from one of Düsseldorf’s oldest ramen shops. “Düsseldorf is special, we couldn’t do this elsewhere in Western Europe,” co-founders Liao Yun and Li Xiang, both former ballet dancers, told Rest of World. “This city recognizes, appreciates Asian food culture in all its complexity.”
Instead of going out of its way to accommodate a European palate, DongWu’s menu uses Pinyin for dish names, rather than translations. During lunch service, Liao and Li switch seamlessly between Chinese, German, and English as they ask customers for their preferred “spice level” for bowls of Chongqing noodles. Anything above 7/10 is gently discouraged.
DongWu is a popular recommendation on Xiaohongshu, and according to the owners, new customers from the platform contributed to the surging demand that drove them to open their second branch. “I would say we get quite a lot of customers via Xiaohongshu,” Li said. “It’s made a noticeable difference.”
None of the restaurants that Rest of World spoke to could pinpoint the exact number of new visitors Xiaohongshu had brought them. But popular local restaurants have noticed an uptick in reservations, and longer queues on weekends. “We get a lot of customers who recognize me from Xiaohongshu posts,” Ablat Guelnar, the proprietor of Tengri Tagh Uigur Restaurant, told Rest of World. “I just tell them to spread the word and talk about us online.”
At Boaobao, a Chinese-style bakery that opened in September 2022, demand is so strong that their business and marketing model is supported entirely by Chinese internet platforms: WeChat to handle payments, marketing, and supplier coordination; and Xiaohongshu to promote their products and create buzz. According to founder Xiao Cao, Boaobao’s customer base is 90% Chinese and 99% women — perhaps a reflection of Xiaohongshu’s majority female user base.
To encourage posts on Xiaohongshu, some restaurants have tried to appeal to Chinese internet users’ preferred visual sensibilities. 0731 Chinese Skewer Restaurant, which soft-opened in December 2022, features a neon-lit calligraphy wall, characteristic of wanghong or online influencer marketing aesthetics in China. The Three Kingdoms roasted fish restaurant recreates a contemporary urban Chinese eatery down to its smallest detail — from QR code menus to counter displays of baijiu bottles to “please drink responsibly” signage.
Despite the app’s potential as a marketing tool, only one Düsseldorf restaurant — 0731 Chinese Skewer Restaurant — has its own active account on Xiaohongshu. DongWu opened an official account on the platform, but quickly abandoned it. “We realized we didn’t have the capacity to offer the kind of customer service and responsiveness that users expect,” Li said. “We were fine with just being seen.”