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People visit a market with barbecue restaurants on May 2, during the five-day Labour Day holiday, in Zibo, in China's eastern Shandong province. In March, the small city received 4.8 million visitors.STR/AFP/Getty Images

Fame has been both a blessing and a burden for Zibo.

Home to about 4.7 million people, the city in China’s eastern Shandong province was once best known, if it was known at all, as a manufacturing hub, close to the port of Qingdao, on the Yellow Sea. After work, many locals would grab a snack – scallion pancakes and meat skewers cooked over charcoal – at the thousands of small outdoor barbecue stands that dot Zibo.

This year, seemingly overnight, those barbecue stands became an online sensation, making Zibo one of the most famous cities in China. In March, the city received 4.8 million visitors. Hotel bookings went up 800 per cent, and tickets for the two-hour train ride from Beijing sold out minutes after going on sale. Even more guests arrived during the five-day May Day vacation, and so far the city’s popularity shows no signs of waning.

Steven Cao, a 33-year-old real estate agent from Weihai, a small city up the coast from Qingdao, made the six-hour-plus drive to Zibo for the holiday.

“I took my parents with me. They’d seen an ocean of Zibo content on social media and lobbied me every day about how much they’d love to go there,” he told The Globe and Mail. Despite growing up in Shandong, Mr. Cao said he’d never really heard of the city until now but was happy to join the craze and experience a new place after years of pandemic lockdowns and isolation.

But when all of China decides to go somewhere at once, there can be issues. Mr. Cao said he and his parents arrived in Zibo at about 10 p.m. and tried to grab some food at a barbecue stand near their hotel – not one of the famous ones blowing up social media, he was quick to note. They were told it had stopped handing out queue tickets two hours earlier and there were still “at least 50 to 60 people lined up.” The family ended up ordering takeout in their room.

The following day, Mr. Cao researched a stand that didn’t seem to have many reviews online, suggesting it wasn’t too popular. It opened at 4 p.m., so he and his parents arrived an hour earlier, only to find dozens of people waiting in line.

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“I waited for two hours, and at 5 p.m. we finally got a table,” he said. “I sent my parents back to the hotel to rest and killed time swiping TikTok.”

Others have complained of similar experiences. Zibo barbecue stalls are tiny, typically only serving a handful of customers at a time, and many have been overwhelmed by the sudden demand. A video that went viral this month showed a vendor on his knees, explaining that he can only serve 200 people a day and begging an angry customer – number 201 – for forgiveness.

Another stand was swamped after someone posted a photo of its owner taking a break during a slow period: People figured that if he had time to rest then the wait time probably wasn’t too long. For days afterward, the stand had queues outside starting at 6:30 a.m.

Local banks have even offered low-interest “barbecue loans” to vendors of as much as one million yuan ($194,000) to help them expand, though some analysts have warned the craze may be passing and could leave both lenders and borrowers on the hook.

Not everyone has been impressed by the hype. In a widely shared (and controversial) essay, Liu Yadong, a professor of journalism at Tianjin’s Nankai University, said the Zibo craze was indicative of the flattening of culture caused by social media, with people all flocking to the same thing simply because it is trending online.

“Similar to the intensity of a desert storm, the attention span of a desolate society is also brief, and the pace of the attention economy is fast,” he wrote.

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People eating barbecue during the 5-day Labour Day holiday in Zibo, in China's eastern Shandong province, on May 2.STR/AFP/Getty Images

For all the complaints, however, stands in Zibo remained packed this weekend, months after the craze began, with photos online showing packed streets and queues starting early in the morning.

As for the food itself, Mr. Cao said it wasn’t that special. “What you’re eating is more a sentiment, a feeling,” he said. “I’m sure that in future I’ll find it ridiculous to have driven half a day just to eat barbecue.”

But as a Shandong native, he was happy to see the city doing well and the celebration of street food, which has often been maligned as “uncivilized” and cracked down upon in other parts of China.

“It’s good that Zibo is improving the image of the whole province and that officials understand what people truly want,” he said. “The enthusiasm for Zibo isn’t fake – you feel it when you go there. Even though the experience itself can be good or bad, I’d hope to see this type of atmosphere all across the country.”

With files from Alexandra Li

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