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Xingtai: the city and the soy sauce man's job

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A corner of Xingtai city

The true story of a soy sauce man part II

During the Spring Festival, I took a trip across a large part of China, with short stays in three prefecture-level cities: Xingtai in Hebei, Mianyang in Sichuan, and
Rizhao in Shandong. This article is the second of a series depicting my firsthand observations of these lesser known Chinese cities.

Li, the central character, is a former-classmate of mine who has been a traveling salesman for a Guangdong-based soy sauce brand.

See also Part I of The true story of a soy sauce man, and the companion video.

Xingtai is a prefecture-level municipality of seven million people at the south end of Hebei Province, bordering Shandong and Shanxi provinces. The population is largely agricultural, and urban development is lagging.

The city area of Xingtai is fairly small. Li the soy sauce man's office is only ten minutes' ride away from the city's center, and it already has a rural feel with farmers' cottages and vegetable gardens mixed up with apartment complexes inhabited by urbanites.

Walking in the downtown area, Xingtai's skyline does not boast the glitzy high-rises of other Chinese cities of its seize. The city's colors are predominately gray, the cityscape looks drab and architecturally impoverished. Most buildings seem to have been constructed to provide the most economical type of sheltered space rather than to please people's eyes even the least bit. This impression is reinforced by the poor public sanitary facilities: pit-toilets with overflowing excrement are not unusual.

Nonetheless, Xingtai does have a glorious past. Take a stroll in the city and you are likely to be reminded of the city's deep pride in being the hometown of a great scientist: Guo Shoujing, an astronomer living in the 13th century AD, whose fame extends to outer space, where a circular mountain on the moon and an asteroid are named after him.

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A deserted building in a backstreet of Xingtai

To commemorate the great astronomer, Xingtai's government has named a street and a square after Guo and dedicated a museum to him. During my short stay, I even walked by a Shoujing stationery store and a Shoujing vocational school.

My three days' stay in Xingtai may be too short to judge, but I suspect the local cuisine must be boring. Like in my hometown of Rizhao where people cannot name any local specialty food, Xingtai's restaurants are not very confident in its local menu either. I looked for a restaurant offering local flavors, but all I found were Sichuan hot pots, Shanxi stuffed meat buns, Tianjin fried cakes, and Dongbei mushroom and chicken, and even a restaurant which named its offering as "world magic soup".

Li the soy sauce man — who comes from Sichuan — was impressed by the stoicism displayed by the northerners of Xingtai, many of whom, he believed, subsist on steamed buns and very limited choices of vegetables during winter with great satisfaction.

"The other day I bumped into a distributor, I asked what did he eat for lunch, he told me cabbages and potatoes. The next time I met him, I asked the same question, this time I was told potatoes and cabbages- nothing changed but the order of the two words".

While Li was telling this story in a lighthearted way, as a soy sauce man, he must be frustrated by the local's frugal food budget. "In Sichuan, a man who makes two thousand kuai a month might spend half of it on food, while here in Xingtai, all they try to do is to save every penny for their children, if not their grandchildren too". Understandably, Li's soy sauce doesn't sell well here.

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A corner of Xingtai

The brand Li works for is one based in Foshan, Guangdong, hometown of the legendary kung fu master Wong Fei Hung (黄飞鸿 Huang Feihong). Besides their devotion to martial arts popularized by the Hong Kong cinema, the Cantonese people are also well known for their adventurousness in experimenting with all kinds of food. "Cantonese will eat everything with four legs except chairs and everything with two legs except their parents" goes a popular saying.

The ingenuity in food is also evidenced by their contribution to the soy sauce industry. While the northerners were still happy to have one type of soy sauce, the Cantonese started to distinguish between different kinds, which vary in manufacturing techniques, consistency, taste, and color.

For example, laochou (老抽 )is used to give a golden brownish finish to a dish and shengchou (生抽) is more effective in enhancing the food's taste. More and more soy sauce variants are being developed, mostly by Cantonese themselves and copied by the competitors from the rest of the country. As a result, the market now is full of soy sauces which are supposedly designed for one dish only: "steamed fish soy sauce", "sea food flavor soy sauce" and "meat stew soy sauce".

The production of soy sauce used to be controlled by small family businesses with highly localized distribution. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that the production and sale of soy sauce started to be industrialized. Though many small workshops persist, big brands are dominating the market these days.

Li's company boasts a history tracing back to early Qing dynasty, but as an independent brand, it is no more than 50 years old. In 1994, the formerly state-owned company was privatized and business started to take off. Its aggressive onslaught in the north started around 2000. Now the new northern market holds big promise for its future growth.

Like many others, Li's company relies heavily on local distribution companies in Xingtai, and Li's job is to coordinate between the manufacturer and local distributors.

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The New Age square in the center of the city

Despite the common interests shared between the brands and its distributors, they have different incentives.

Brands, as a rule, are most generous with distributors when they are breaking into a virgin market when the distributors' established channels play an important role. However, as the brand becomes more established, the distributors' contribution becomes less significant. Sometimes, after the initial honeymoon, brands start to cut out the middle man. Some would directly supply big retailers who have sound credit records and move large volumes. So despite the improvement of the market conditions, distributors face mounting risks of being edged out of the game while their margins grow thinner.

To increase or maintain their profit level, they have to find new clients to boost the volume, but the low margin usually makes them hesitant to invest in marketing. The brands, which have a stronger need to build brand awareness among the customers, have to take up the slack.

So the cooperation can be tricky; what's supposed to be a mutually beneficial relationship often turns into a tug of war with both sides expecting the other side to contribute but hoping to keep a larger share of the sales price.

Li the soy sauce man's daily business was to be at the center of this sensitive relationship and keep the distributors happy while maximizing profit for his employer.

-- to be continued

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