Thursday, 21 December 2006

Cabbage promotion draws a crowd in Beijing

BEIJING: At 5:45 in the morning the cabbage line outside the Old Drum Tower Outer Street New People's Produce Market is nearly two hours old. First in line is a 72-year-old woman named Wang, who awoke at 3, arrived at 4 and would wait until 8:30 for a single head of winter cabbage. Free.

Cabbage, or bai cai, costs about 4 cents a head, so Wang's prize was not quite a free refrigerator. She did not mind. Nor did another retired matron who passed the time singing patriotic tunes and a shaky but enthusiastic English rendition of "Baa Baa Black Sheep." And neither did two elderly combatants who shouted at each other in unprintable Chinese for inexplicable reasons.

"They are just fighting because they have nothing better to do," explained Wang, who declined to provide her first name. "We all know each other. We're all old neighbors."

Cabbage and old people are civic institutions in Beijing. Winter brings them together. For generations the cabbage, known in the West by its Cantonese name of bok choy, has arrived in markets by November, and Beijingers have hoarded it as an insurance policy to last them until spring, depending on the outdoor refrigeration of rooftops or windowsills. Cabbage and turnips were the staples that saw people through the uncertain harvests and aching poverty of the Mao era.

But the markets are now overrun with enough fruits, vegetables and meats that cabbage, if still widely used, has become as unglamorous as old people — except to old people. The predawn line outside the Old Drum Tower market represents a marriage of convenience: Market managers give away cabbage to attract hordes of fixed-income old people in hopes that the spectacle will attract the curiosity of younger, more affluent commuters.

"It's a win-win situation," said Zhang Pinsheng, 68, a retired teacher. "The market doesn't have to spend money on advertising, and we don't have to spend money on cabbage."

They do have to wait in the predawn cold to collect a chunk of greenery of almost no value — or, for that matter, of almost no taste without sauce.

This year farmers grew so much cabbage that prices dipped to record lows in November, with markets charging only a few pennies a head.

Even so, when the Old Drum Tower market introduced its cabbage promotion in late November, the daily line soon stretched under two overpasses and past a new luxury hotel.

"If they were going to give away fish or eggs, the line would stretch all the way to Qianmen," a neighborhood several kilometers away, said Li Bao, a vendor inside the market. "People would start lining up at midnight."

The incentive for the hundreds of people who come each day is a blend of need, habit, boredom and a desire for companionship.

International Herald Tribune