State-owned model alive and well in Beijing
Pickled vegetables at Zhaofujie Grocery Store
Items for sale at the grocery store; Above: Bread wrapped in wax paper at Yili Food Company. Photos: Zhang Yiqian/GT
Bread wrapped in wax paper at Yili Food Company. Photo: Guo Yingguang/GT
Li Ruisheng stood behind the wooden counter in his grocery store in Zhaofu Jie, Dongcheng district and carefully put eggs into double red plastic bags, one by one.
The smell of pickled vegetables permeated the store. Eight plastic basins sat on the counter in front of Li, filled with pickled radish, cucumber and turnips. Li pointed with his pen, "We still make them the old way."
Zhaofujie Grocery Store is one of the last few State-owned entities in the food industry in Beijing. Most have converted to a shareholding system. Standing the test of time, today the grocery store attracts people with its nostalgic appeal.
While other stores have altered their structure to adapt to changing times, stores like this one are still holding on to the system of the past. Some of these old-style stores are persevering in this new age, while others are dying in the tide of change.
A taste of time
"We live quite far from here, but we always come here to buy groceries," Tan Jianrong, a regular customer, told Metro Beijing. She used to work in the food business as well, back in the 1970s.
The grocery store is easy to get to on the subway, but it can be hard to find. After exiting the Gulou Dajie station on Subway Line 2, one has to go through a labyrinth of hutong in order to get there.
"Walking into one of these stores feels like crossing into the past," Tan said. When she was in her 20s, all the stores in China looked exactly like this.
Wooden-shelved cases stand all around the store. They are full of packaged pickled vegetables, cooking ingredients, and desserts. On top of the shelves are four billboards that display pictures of certain products, such as Daqianmen cigarettes. Back in the old days, these types of billboards served as advertisements, Tan said.
Everything in the store has been around for a long time, even as long as 20 years, such as the old green scale sitting on the counter, or the abacus Li still uses instead of a calculator. Here in the store, all the items fit together.
In addition to the store's appearance, its food has stayed the same. Li boasted about his erba jiang, a mixed paste that is 20 percent peanut and 80 percent sesame, asserting that not everyone can get the taste just right.
"You have to stir-fry the paste," he said. "If you stir-fry it too long, then it turns black and tastes bitter; if you don't stir-fry it long enough, then it will be raw and white."
A man surnamed Liu, 36, remembers the old days fondly. He moved with his parents to Beijing at the age of 5 and he always accompanied the adults to the grocery store. He told Metro Beijing he remembers pushing open the doors - back then the wooden doors would swing both ways and could be opened from both sides. He loved playing there as a kid, and today he brings his own child in to buy soda and sometimes erba jiang.
On the opposite side of the Second Ring Road, Guoying Xincheng Noodle Shop has also stood the test of time. As indicated by its name, noodles are its specialty. The store has a simple appearance: wooden chairs, tables with steel legs, two bottles of vinegar on each table and walls painted green waist-high.
Strong links to the past
The aesthetic of these businesses is connected to a long history and the memories of an entire generation. Before China's reform and opening up in 1978, there were many State-owned enterprises covering all fields, including hospitals, food operations, and factories.
An employee of Guoying Xincheng Noodle Shop, surnamed Zhang, said that his most vivid memory of State-owned restaurants is associated with grain coupons during the planned economy period. He remembers them being used back in 1980, when he first started working.
Li said that the State-owned system has meant a life-long job for him. He started selling groceries and ingredients when he was about 20. More than 30 years later, he's still standing behind the counter, doing the same thing.
This employment model is different from the contract system companies usually have today, he said. And the situation is the same at about 20 other grocery stores. The youngest person working in these stores is about 45, and many are close to retirement age.
But he reckons change may be a good thing.
"This type of shop is being eliminated by society. If you sell things and you can't make a profit, you have to make a transition somehow," Li said.
Living in the future
Only a few State-owned grocery stores and restaurants are still open today, and they all have different techniques for attracting customers, as well as an attitude toward the changing times.
Li said not many young people are interested in selling groceries and food seasonings now. He believes young people want to work in higher-tier jobs. "They couldn't hold down this counter," he said.
The store hasn't hired anyone in 20 years. It pays about 1,500 to 2,000 yuan ($236 to $315) a month, which Li says is in no way enough in today's world.
Tan said that the store has special features that have an important place in her heart, but it can't beat the changing times. It's getting harder to find such stores today, she said, which is why she comes often to Li's store. But once these employees retire, she will have to get used to living without these stores.
Guoying Xincheng Noodle Shop made the transition to a shareholding system in 2003. This is the logical choice for many State-owned restaurants. But instead of renovating, the noodle store kept its decor and food the way it was, as a way to attract customers.
Some customers have been eating there for over 10 years, 50-year-old Zhang told Metro Beijing. Some even come from out of town just for the food.
Keeping the same traditional recipe has also been the key for Yili, a company that grew famous on its bread and cookies. It also adopted a shareholding system in 2001 and a newer, more updated look in its stores. But some things never change.
The store still offers fruit breads, Chinese waffles with sesame paste and plum candy. It has sold these items as both a State-run and a privately owned company.
A worker at the company, surnamed Yin, said the customers come for tastes from their memories.
"Our fruit breads are all made by hand, not machine. They taste different," she said. The foods are also wrapped in wax paper, just like in the old times.