When I first arrived in Beijing in 2006, the city was booming. Everything seemed to be gearing up for the 2008 Summer Olympic games, and the locals couldn’t build fast enough. Part of this insanity was the embracing of everything Western, including Western-style grocery stores. For most of their history, the Chinese have been going to farmer’s markets, or 农贸市场 (nóngmàoshìchǎng) in the local vernacular. The folks here ply their wares selling fruits, vegetables, wheat products such as noodles and bread, or meat, but rarely a mix of them. When I first arrived in the city, we found one lady who wouldn’t rip us off too much, and would sell us vegetables at a fair price so I could cook at home. The arrival of the western-style supermarket looked a direct threat to their existence.
A key example of this was the newly opened 华普超市 (huápǔ chāoshì) or Hypermarket (Huapu is a transliteration of hyper) just up the road from my old house in Beijing’s Soviet neighbourhood. In addition to all the foods that locals were familiar with, there were huge sections carrying new, strange western goods such as cheese, bacon, breakfast cereals, more soda than you could shake a stick at, and candies, candies, candies. There were pretty uniformed girls hawking these goods heavily, and, more interestingly, other uniformed people explaining to the locals just what exactly things were, how you would use them, and why you would use them – “Yes, it’s smoked pigs’ leg. You put it in a frying pan and cook it, and then eat it along with some fried eggs for breakfast”. The locals weren’t sure what exactly they were buying, but with all the hullaballoo in the run-up to the Games, it must be good, so they patiently tried it out.
The French couldn’t open up their massive Carrefour stores fast enough to keep up with demand. All of the locations in Beijing were complete mad-houses on any given weekend, and there too, in addition to roast ducks, pigs feet, or the freshest in local seafood types, were the people helpfully explaining what red wine is and how to drink it, and what the best kind of washing machine and toaster over you should be buying would be.
You can’t touch this
Cue forward three years and one successful Olympic games, and what a difference in Chinese supermarkets today. Not unexpectedly, things have calmed down a lot since the Olympics, and while the local economy hasn’t crashed as hard as those in the west, things are definitely more sedate here now. In nearly all of the supermarkets I’ve been to over the last month, there has been quite the retrenchment in terms of products sold – gone are the breakfast cereals, the huge selections of dairy products and cheeses seen before, and even Carrefour’s wine section seems smaller. Even fruit, produce, and meat all seem to be reduced as well, with the stores now mainly making their money off staples such as rice, pulses, and dry goods (and instant noodles – never forget instant noodles).
The farmer’s markets and fruit stands are doing as well as they’ve ever done, and selling better produce than the super markets. This suits the local’s buying habits well, as they adore haggling over price with the vendors, and the fixed pricing scheme of supermarkets piques the local mindset to no end. Indeed, instead of encouraging the Chinese to adapt to unfamiliar Western dietary habits (sweet? for breakfast?), the large stores have had to really work hard to identify what the produce markets are missing, and focus on those – hence the increase in oils, rice, frozen foods, and cleaning supplies, with a huge decrease in perishable goods.
Does that mean there is no likelihood of the locals’ diets changing any time soon? One clue would be that the size of the soda and candy section at any given supermarket remains large and always looking to expand. Expect larger Chinese children in the near future.
And for those foreigners living in Beijing who simply can’t fathom waking up without a bowl of Frosted Flakes or fresh baguette, there are always the foreign supermarkets catering to them. Just expect to pay Manhattan-like prices for that half-pound of gorganzola cheese.[Read Rest of Article]