In 2015, then 25-year-old Charlene Zhang was working at her family’s pork stall selling meat when a customer secretly snapped a photo of her. That image was immediately plastered online, with tabloids crowning her Taiwan’s pork princess—some even crudely referring to the size of her breasts. She went viral on Taiwanese media for being a photogenic and young outlier in an industry usually populated by older men and women.
Zhang was mortified. “In the beginning, the headlines were calling me pretty and young, and I felt this was really pointless. They were just taking advantage of the fact that I’m a woman,” Zhang told VICE World News. “I hid at home and refused to go out because every time I went to the stall, there’d be a journalist there.”
The attention was both unexpected and unwanted. It was only after consulting friends and mentors that she decided to lean into her fame. “My teachers told me I didn’t do anything wrong and to just keep on doing what I was doing,” she said. “My hope is that the media exposure will help the family business.”
Six years later, Zhang has become one of the most visible pork mongers in Taiwan, though she much prefers the title “butcher” to “princess,” noting that the term princess makes it feel like her job is meaningless. She’s especially quick to push back on gender stereotypes. During a 2015 interview with Zhang at her stand, a reporter asked if she was concerned about getting her hands and clothes dirty while working with meat. “I just wash my hands and change my clothes,” she dead-panned.
A third-generation butcher, Zhang didn’t grow up wanting to take over the family business. She only got roped in when she was in between jobs; it was supposed to be a temporary gig. “At that time my grandmother just had surgery and we were just short of help,” she said. While her siblings have also worked at the stall during various periods of their lives, Zhang has stayed in the role simply because her fame has helped the family sell more pork.
The family business is located at Dongmen Market in Taipei—a central morning bazaar in the thick of the city, where fresh vegetables, seafood, and meat are sold daily by individual, family-owned vendors. Six days a week, at least three whole pigs are slaughtered and carted to Zhang’s stall from Shulin, a district in New Taipei City about a half an hour drive south. The carcasses arrive at 2 a.m. in the morning, are deboned, and broken down piece-by-piece entirely by hand.
Zhang works the front-of-house, and was initially just taking orders until it got too boring. She decided to become an apprentice and learn how to break down the pig. “There are ten different types of knives and they all have different functions,” she said. “Even though my family was doing this, I didn't know where all these different parts were and the names were difficult to remember. So I started from the beginning and learned.”
Through the job, she’s become fluent in the nuances of pork. Younger generations of consumers, she noted, like leaner cuts and tend to stay away from fatty and oily chunks of meat—which was preferred by the older generations. Her personal favorite is a section which is called “mouse-meat” in Chinese—a fat-free ball found inside the hind leg of the pork. “It’s the softest cut of lean meat in the pig. It’s good for dieting. Usually for lean meat, if you cook it wrong, it gets too firm. You can cook this however you want though and it won’t do that,” she said.
Because of her fame and expertise, she’s become an informal spokesperson for the local pork industry, which has recently been caught in the midst of a heated political campaign against imported pork from America. Local pork producers are against imported swine, with some citing ractopamine—an animal feed additive—as a reason for banning American-raised pork.
“People can have a choice on what they want to buy,” she said. “If you don’t care about the flavor or are making processed pork products, you can buy imported pork. It’s easier that way. But if you really want quality and freshness, you can come to traditional markets.“ Because of the competition from supermarkets, traditional butchery is now a fading art in Taiwan. In supermarkets, meat is sold all day long and has a longer shelf life because it’s refrigerated. Traditional markets are at a disadvantage because they’re only open in the morning and the meat is sold fresh.
Yet in a world where being an influencer can easily be a full-time job, Zhang is still quite reticent about her role as a pork celebrity. “In Taiwan, a big problem is that people look down on butchers,” explained Jason Cheung, a popular Taipei history blogger who documents the evolution of Taipei’s urban landscape. “Vendors who sell at the traditional markets are on the lower rungs of society. Even if you were selling pork, you would never want the younger generation to take over.”
Even Zhang’s late grandmother, who started the stall at the age of 12, was against her working there. “Her thought process was more traditional. She thought that when a woman gets to a certain age, she should find someone, get married, and take care of the family,” said Zhang. “She was worried [this job] was too tiring and would affect my future prospects.”
While Zhang’s fame has brought over more business, sexism and cyberbullying is still an inherent part of her life. “In the past, when I first was photographed, I was wearing a tight shirt and everyone kept on talking about my figure,” she said. “So now when I work, I wear really ugly clothes. I wear loose clothes, like pajamas. I don’t even wear makeup, unless I need to be photographed.”
According to Fang Nianxuan, a journalism professor at National Chengchi University who served as a member of a committee on gender equality in Taiwan’s legislature, this type of sexist commentary is a systemic problem across media platforms in Taiwan due to the low cost of journalism in Taiwan. “The total advertising volume of [media] has continued to decline in the past three years,” she noted, with 2020 seeing the worst revenue drop in recent years. Clickbait titles sell, and editors are pressured to keep up. “The quality of news has deteriorated due to competition between news outlets on the internet,” she said.
While there have been efforts to report gender stereotypes to the Taipei City Press Association, there hasn’t been much tangible change. “We are concerned about how to avoid sexism in the news, especially due to the boom in digital news in recent years. It’s a challenge,” Fang said. “News media take advantage of the rapidness of the internet and will use materials like sex and nudity to catch the attention of readers.”
The obsession with Zhang as a beauty icon is not a one-off, but instead part of a larger phenomenon in which photogenic strangers—mostly women—are unknowingly photographed and sexualized online.
“It started from PTT,” explained Sydney Yueh, referring to a popular bulletin board-style forum in Taiwan. Yueh is a professor of communication studies at Northeastern State University who specializes in Taiwanese culture. “There is a beauty forum on PTT, and it’s become somewhat of a popularity contest. That started from around the early 2000s,” she said.
And what may be construed as mere admiration for a woman’s looks has evolved to become somewhat more sinister. In the Mandarin speaking world, there’s a form of doxxing called “human flesh search engine,” which refers to when people band together online and crowd-source information about a certain individual. “Originally it was used to search for criminals and find out their personal information,” she said. “Then it became used to find pretty girls.”
Women who work at markets are especially vulnerable. “People can just go to the market and find them and take more photos. They can’t refuse. For those girls in the market, they have to just deal with the harassment. They become a landmark,” Yueh said.
The heightened visibility also comes with real-life risk. A couple years ago, Zhang tried live-streaming at her stand to help increase sales. The pork industry rallied behind her, she quickly became one of the most popular Taiwanese livestreamers, and sales skyrocketed. But she was forced to stop when stalkers would show up at the market and try to follow her home. “For other live streamers who stream at home, people can’t find them. But I’m easy to find. Just Google me and you’ll see where I am,” she said. “So said I forget it, even if there is more money, this sense of fear is too great.”
Instead, she’s slowly upgrading the family’s stall, installing features like mobile pay and writing cookbooks that explain how to best utilize different cuts of pork. She’s also much more selective about her TV spots and media appearances, preferring to control the narrative herself through her own social media account. “Her youth is a way to market the stall and it sets her apart,” said Cheung the blogger, whose grandparents were also butchers. “Past generations of butchers never had to think about marketing. They just relied on old customers and neighbors. But now there’s a lot of competition with supermarkets.”
Despite her marketing advantage, Zhang said she doesn’t see herself continuing the trade when her family members retire from the stall. The job is exhausting—an operation that starts at 2 a.m. in the morning, and lasts until the early afternoon when the crowd fades. Leftovers are the biggest problem. Cuts like pork skin, feet, and bones are especially hard to get rid of. “We have to find a large warehouse and see if they’re willing to use or process it,” she said. In the past, these parts were easy to sell off; they’re high in collagen and great for making broth or gelatin. But because of the competition of the import market—where products are refrigerated and much cheaper—traditional butchers can’t compete and have to give away these parts for free.
“The boss of this stall is my dad. If my dad doesn’t want to do this, then I don’t think I will do this. Unless there is a better and more direct way to sell,” she said.