Mooncake Scalpers!

I moved to China nine days before the 2002 mid-Autumn Festival – the Mooncake Festival – and it’s been my favorite Chinese holiday ever since. But I’ll leave that story for another time. For now, suffice it to say that – in my years here, I’ve been witness to the development of the mooncake status symbol, whereby the simple mooncake – a pastry that wraps around, say, lotus paste – has been transformed into a branded delicacy and Status Symbol. Two years ago, for example, I received a leather embossed box of four shark fin mooncakes complete with three (three!) 2gb memory sticks and a gift certificate for a dinner for two at a nearby hotel buffet – all branded with the name of that very same 5-star hotel.

Häagen Dazs Cake Decorating Kitchen, Shanghai, Minghang District. 2005. ©Adam Minter

But as status inducing as that box was, no mooncake better exemplifies the mooncake transformation than the almighty Häagen Daz mooncake (one thoughtful friend from Heilongjiang calls them the “perfect fusion of Chinese traditional culture and American commercial culture.” Indeed). I can’t speak for the rest of China, but in Shanghai, these expensive little ice cream-filled pastries have become the mid-Autumn festival gift of choice. Put differently – you ain’t nobody unless you’ve been given – or can give! – a certificate to redeem a stylized box of RMB 520 (US$82) ice cream-filled mooncakes.

So. This afternoon I happened to be walking by the recently closed Häagen Dazs store at Huaihai Road and Huangpi South Road. I wasn’t thinking about mooncakes, actually – but then I noticed three shady looking fellas sitting on the edge of a treebox in front of the closed store. One was holding a Häagen Dazs mooncake catalog; one was holding a pile of certificates (supposedly), all good for boxes of Häagen Dazs mooncakes; and one was holding an envelope of cash.

As it happens I’ve been invited to dinner on Sunday night (the night of the Mooncake Festival), and it occurred to me that it might be a right nice thing to bring a box of these fabled status-inducing mooncakes. So, I approached the shady catalog dude and inquired into what he might have available. He claimed to have two choices. The one that interested me had a catalog list price of RMB 528 (US$82.75) for, like, eight chocolate-looking mooncakes.

Okay, I admit – I had to wonder what these fellas were doing with a bunch of high-priced Häagen Dazs mooncake certs in front of a recently closed Häagen Dazs store. But let’s face it: that’s not my business.

So I started the negotiations and – I’m sorry to say – they quickly broke down when we reached the RMB 400 impasse (US$62.70). After all, unlike most of the people who buy these things (with the intention of handing them off to somebody who will likely hand them off to somebody else), I was actually intending to eat them with the good people who have invited me for dinner on Sunday. But, as I see it, I could buy my hosts several tubs of Häagen Dazs and a baker’s inventory of croissants for that kind of money (and I might just do that).

In any event, a few hours later I later mentioned this mooncake fire sale/scalping operation to a friend of mine (a successful Shanghai businessperson), who immediately dispatched an office assistant to buy up as many of them as the shady trio were willing to relinquish. Not sure how that worked out, but – come tomorrow – if you’re still in the market for Status Cakes, shimmy down to Huangpi and Huaihai. The pastry scalpers will almost certainly still be there.

9 comments

  1. Mooncakes didn’t thrill me……until I tried the Starbucks version. Do they have those up there or only down here in South China. It seems the major investor in the South China Starbucks is the “Moon Cake King” of Hong Kong. With flavors like Mocha and Green Tea/Grapefruit we cannot resist. Of course, I’ve been living off free samples for the past few weeks…..

  2. That’s not the right photo for a mooncake post. Looks like a surgery and not the assembly of something delicious. You must have something better no?

  3. By Thursday I’ve already gotten 10 boxes of mooncakes, and “regifted” 7 so far. The passing them along to others thing in China seems to have gotten a bit out of hand, but I guess it gets more people involved in giving and receiving at no additional cost, hell, even my ayi gets a box of regifted luxury hotel mooncakes from me. None for me, the boxes are nice but the taste is not for me, that is, until someone sends along some Häagen Daz or Starbucks cakes…

  4. Ed – Your comment brings to mind the eternal question: what happens to all of those mooncakes once the Festival is over and nobody wants to re-gift them. I’ve always thought of it as that moment in musical chairs when the music stops and everybody has to take the first seat. Quite seriously, a few weeks ago I found one of last year’s boxes – branded with a scrap metal recycling company’s logo – behind the piano.

    Jen – Yep, Starbucks mooncakes are available up here, too. Saw some this morning.

  5. Traditional mooncakes are the equivalent of Christmas fruit cake: obligatory to many, eaten by only a few, passed on to many more, really enjoyed by only the very old.

    Yeah, that I could be so lucky to get a Haagen Daz ice cream mooncake rather than the sticky, yucky, junky pucks of pukey sweet that are passed to me with best wishes.

  6. Xing Hua Lou, probably the most famous places for mooncakes in Shanghai, has been plagued by scalpers for years. Every year the police come around to clean them up, Shanghai Daily runs a nice story about the round-up, and the scalpers go back to work.

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