In June, our reporters covering China, Viola Zhou and Meaghan Tobin, began working on a story about the disappearance of ultra-popular livestream salesman Austin Li. On the night of June 3rd, Li had been in the middle of his nightly promotion on Taobao Live when his assistant held up an ice cream cake that appeared to be shaped like a military tank. Almost immediately, the video feed cut out. Li, who at the time had millions of followers, vanished from the internet overnight.
Li’s unexpected disappearance was compounded by the fact that it occurred on the eve of June 4, the date of the Chinese government’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square — an event that the government has worked hard to erase all traces of. Commenters online speculated: had Li knowingly made a reference to the date? Had he been set up in an act of sabotage, or was it an accident? Viola and Meaghan decided to try to figure out what happened.
Early in their reporting, our visuals team talked about elements that were key to the story, and the conversation kept returning to that cake shaped like a tank. The original video had been scrubbed from the internet, but we were able to track down a few grainy images taken as screenshots from the livestream. We researched and found that the cake Li was promoting was a 1990s classic — the Viennetta ice cream cake — that seemed to have been custom decorated. We decided to try and recreate it to make a still-life photo, like a high-end commercial product shoot. It was, after all, ultimately a story about e-commerce.
We talked through concepts with esteemed still-life photographer Margeaux Walter at her studio in Joshua Tree, California, and then set about finding a specialist able to recreate the infamous cake. Rest of World’s Operations Associate Tess Pfister reached out to a couple of bakers in California before eventually finding Lisa Provenza-Bebar from Fine Art Cookies who was eager to work on the project with us.
Lisa and Margeaux coordinated for a baking and delivery time and set about creating the visual that now leads the article, complete with buttercream tank tracks running over an image of Li.
As far as we can tell, the main difference between the original cake and our recreation is that we couldn’t stay true to the ice cream. It turns out that ice cream will melt in a matter of seconds under photo studio lights.
If you haven’t had a chance to read Viola and Meaghan’s story, you should certainly make time for it.