A uniquely American tradition of wolfing down as many hot dogs as humanly possible landed in China for the first time last weekend, where locals relished the challenge and spectators looked on in a mixture of bewilderment and awe.
For the first time this year, the 96th annual Nathan's International Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every Fourth of July on Coney Island, took their qualifying circuit internationally to Beijing, China where competitors took to the podium last Saturday for the chance to win an all-expenses paid trip to New York and compete against the world's best competitive-eating champions.
To help inaugurate the first hot dog eating contest in China, four-time champion Joey Chestnut, a professional competitive eater, also participated in the dress-rehearsal to the big event July 4, eating 39 hot dogs in five minutes. Chestnut, a native of San Jose, California, holds the record for eating 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
By comparison, starter attempts by the Chinese contestants were described by media accounts as novice at best: the winner, Chris Lam, 32, ate 16 hot dogs in 10 minutes, runner-up Lu Mingkui downed 13 hot dogs, and Wang Ranglong came in third gobbling 12. They will be flown to New York to compete against other qualifiers from the US.
In his report for CNBC News, reporter Ed Flanagan also noted that China's first-time competitive eaters were on "unfamiliar ground."
When Lam began using a technique employed by veteran competitors and dunked the buns in water before stuffing the wet bread in his mouth, Lam's rivals simply stopped eating to watch him, much to the chagrin of the Major League Eating representative who tried in vain to egg the competitors on, Flanagan reported.
He also noted that one competitor only managed to eat three dogs, while another managed six or seven before throwing in the towel.
"Nobody ever said Rome would be built in a day," he concluded.
The staging of the eating contest in China was also to build visibility in the country, as Nathan's plans to set up 80 to 100 stores in the next 10 years, reports China Daily. They currently have four locations in Beijing.
Nathan's serves fast-food fare like its signature hot dogs topped with chili and cheese, hamburgers, Philly cheesesteaks, corn dogs on a stick, and chicken tenders.
The event on Coney Island draws about 40,000 attendees every year. For the first time this July, Nathan's will host a separate women's division. Organizers drew fire, however, when they initially offered just $2,500 for the grand prize female winner - a fraction of the men's prize. The ensuing uproar prompted organizers to up the pot to equal their male counterpart at $10,000.
The Fourth of July contest will be aired live on sports channel ESPN.
Nathan's Famous started on Coney Island and now has 234 restaurant locations across the US. Their hot dogs are also sold in 18,000 locations worldwide.