Shaxian Snacks Strike Chinese Stomachs with Flair and Flavor
Although Chinese snack foods are almost unheard of outside of the country, some native dishes from southeast China's Shaxian county have made a big splash domestically with the opening of several “Shaxian snack bars” in major cities.
14 years ago, Lin Kaiming and his wife traveled from Shaxian, located in Fujian province, to the city of Zhanjiang in southern Guangdong province to open their first Shaxian snack bar. Although they had to work nearly 20 hours a day in the beginning, their returns were satisfactory.
“We were exhausted after half a year of hard work and had to come home for some rest,” said Lin, 39, who has also opened several snack bars in other locales.
Lin is also the first native of Shaxian to introduce the county's snack foods to Macao, having invested about 2 million yuan (317,460 U.S. dollars) to open two snack bars in the special autonomous region.
Liu's success is just one example of the 60,000 Shaxian natives who have opened snack bars in China, as well as in the U.S., Japan, Germany, Australia and Singapore.
“The Shaxian snack bars produce an annual turnover of more than 5 billion yuan and a net income of more than 700 million yuan,” said Huang Songfu, president of the Shaxian Snacks Guild.
According to Huang, 60 percent of Shaxian's rural workforce, or 23 percent of its population of 2.3 million, have opened or helped to run Shaxian snack bars.
Snack food from Shaxian consists of common Chinese dishes such as dumplings, noodles and tofu balls, although the dishes are prepared in a way that makes them unique to the region. Steamed dumplings, a common Chinese snack food, are prepared using cassava flour to make thinner, more translucent wrappings. They also feature starch vermicelli as a stuffing instead of the usual pork.
Culinary competitions between neighbors and villagers are a Shaxian custom, and the style in which local snacks are prepared is included as part of Fujian province's intangible cultural heritage.
Tang Chunming, the owner of three Shaxian snack bars in the city of Wuxi in east China's Jiangsu province, began to learn the trade from his neighbors in 1998. He traveled between three provinces before settling in Wuxi, where he is now considering buying a house with the profits from his three snack bars.
“Why not? Houses here are cheaper than in Shaxian,” Tang said, noting that Shaxian's housing prices have shot up in tandem with the growing prosperity of local snack bar proprietors.
Equally prosperous are the more than 10 specialized large-scale suppliers of ingredients and kitchen equipment for Shaxian snack bars. Zhang Changchao, the owner of one supply company, stands out among the others with yearly profits of more than 100 million yuan.
Zhang got his start in the supply business in 2000, just three months after opening his own snack bar in the city of Zengcheng in Guangdong province. He produces several commonly used ingredients, including peanut and chili sauces, at his plant in Shaxian county.
The local government in Shaxian has made efforts to help the snack food industry flourish.
“To increase the employment rate and incomes for local residents, the Shaxian government has always played an active role in promoting Shaxian snacks,” said Zheng Xingjing, director of the Shaxian Snack Bureau.
Zheng said the bureau, established in 1997, is the first and perhaps only one of its kind in the entire country.
GROWING TOO FAST?
The rapid growth of the Shaxian snack food industry has resulted in some growing pains.
“There are about as many fake Shaxian snack bars in operation as there are genuine ones,” Huang said. These bars sometimes use the same names and trademarks as official snack bars, Huang added, bringing down the reputation of the industry.
The Shaxian government has carried out several crackdowns on related forgeries and infringement, with the aforementiond Shaxian Snack Bureau taking the lead in protecting local trademarks.
The existing Shaxian snack bars have been encouraged by the government and the snack food guild to integrate and upgrade.
“We encourage them to turn into standard bars or flagship restaurants and implement chain restaurant-style management, with only bars that meet our specific requirements being given permission to use the guild trademark,” said Huang, adding that more than 4,000 snack bars have been approved in this fashion since 2006.
Guan Guanglin, a local entrepreneur who got into the business in 1996, runs a factory that supplies ingredients for nearly 2,000 snack bars in Guangdong's economic hub of Shenzhen. He opened his own snack bar in 2010 after taking up a position as a chef at a well-known fast food chain in order to observe their management style.
“It lasted only a year and turned out to be a failure,” said Guan. “Perhaps the charisma of Shaxian snacks lies in their personalization -- it's the same food, but a different flavor.”
Guan said he intends to boost the industry to a new level by starting a listed company to act as a “carrier” for Shaxian snacks, a goal that Huang said can be realized by incorporating large private snack food chains, as well as processing and supply companies.
“Shaxian snacks bear the dreams of all of Shaxian's people,” said Le Rongguang, deputy magistrate of Shaxian county. “We have spared no efforts to foster the industry's growth.”