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Our daily packaging: mooncakes

You can spot Mid-Autumn Festival from a month away if you follow the glint and sparkle of mooncake packaging.

While I was growing up, my family would buy a box or two of mooncakes (月饼) filled with sweet lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks to enjoy during (and before and after) Mid-Autumn Festival. We’d take bite-sized slices of the dense, rich pastry with a strong cup of digestive pu’er tea while commenting on how rich and dense it was or whether this brand was any good.

In China these days, the world of business and officials has adopted the festival as an excuse for elaborate gift-giving and guanxi-strengthening during the fall season. Sweet mooncakes — not to be confused with meat mooncakes, 鲜肉月饼, which are uber-popular in Shanghai — are sold in tins and by the piece in supermarkets everywhere, but among those wishing to impress, a nice tidy tin box of plastic-wrapped traditional mooncakes apparently won’t cut it anymore. Häagen-Dazs and other chilled varieties, as well as fillings of coconut, nuts, chocolate, and red bean paste have become very popular, but it’s the lavish packaging these pastries come in that have taken me aback the last few Mid-Autumns I’ve spent in the country.

These were on display at our local Walmart: oversized gilded cases lined with satin and velvet, likely average-tasting mooncakes encased in tin and shiny paper, royal and gaudy all at once. As with so many aspects of life in this increasingly prosperous country, the reliance on façade to beg respect is almost embarrassingly blatant here.

The over-packaging of mooncakes even became news-worthy two weeks ago after the local Beijing government decided to start taxing employees on mooncakes received from their employers, based on the consideration of mooncakes as a fringe benefit. It seems that people are pissed mostly because the price of mooncakes has been inflated to hundreds of RMB per box due to over-packaging, which reportedly makes up more than half the total price.

I had no idea mooncakes were part of employee compensation here; I wonder if it’s stated in job contracts? It’s not in mine, which is just as well: with the amount of mooncake we’ve been receiving and snacking on as an office these last few weeks, I’m pretty relieved not to have been “gifted” a padded box to take home.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

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Our daily packaging

For some reason I never paid too much attention to food packaging until I got to China and realized, damn, some things here are ridiculously over-packaged (or ill-packaged). Packaging, beyond its purpose to contain/transport/preserve, is essentially a tool for selling things. Often, if brand preference doesn’t come into play, the choice between two otherwise similar (in price, contents) products comes down to packaging: which typeface do I like more? Which bottle will look nicer on the counter? Is paper or plastic more eco-friendly? Do I want the frozen black sesame dumplings with a grinning Jackie Chan on the bag or the ones without? (Sean chose the Jackie Chan, and they all exploded in the pot.) I’ve spent long, long minutes in front of packs of supposedly simple items like salt, sugar, and cornstarch, trying to determine which one looks the most legitimate or least suspect.

We seem to have come to believe that the more — the prettier — the packaging, the better quality the product is, or the more value-for-money it is, or the more face-saving it is (in the case of gift-giving, which is huuuge in China). I’m totally guilty of picking the bottle of olive oil that’s encased a nice box (“I’ll find a use for it!”) over the exact same but non-boxed item, or the [insert product here] that’s wrapped in an extra layer of plastic — ’cause it looks safer, more pristine, like more attention was devoted to making the product just a little bit better than its competitor. Especially in China where people’s trust in products has fallen with each new publicized food scandal, a little more packaging can add much to consumers’ sense of security.

In reality, most of this is a sham, and leads to an incredible amount of waste. But what are we to do as consumers? We’re not in charge of the way things are packaged, but we do have a say, usually, in what we buy. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that if there’s a product I like, I will keep buying, feeling shameful enough about the waste to wish there were a less-packaged alternative, but not guilty enough to not keep buying the product (because I don’t see an alternative on the shelf). For dried goods, there’s always the bulk section — and even zero-packaging stores in the UK and soon Texas — but I’ve seen bugs crawling in the brown rice bin at Trust-Mart (now Walmart, btw) and moth larvae grow out of my bag of bulk black rice, so there goes that option.

I’ve touched on over-packaged
and before, but over the next months will post more instances of remarkable packaging as I come across them — not just to show how ridiculous things are getting/have become, but also, in cases where I’ve actually bought the product, to expose my own not-so-great consumption habits (which I am trying slowly to change, I promise). With any luck, there’ll also be some positive finds along the way.

Stay tuned!

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