Something's Fishy About Chinese Hairy Crabs

Oct 6, 2011
Originally published on October 11, 2011 10:57 am

Fake products permeate nearly every corner of China's economy. Earlier this year, the trend seemed to reach a new low when phony Apple stores were exposed in southwestern China.

Each fall, the fakery even extends to the world of seafood and East China's Yangcheng Lake, which is just a short train ride from Shanghai. Yangcheng is home to what are reputed to be China's tastiest and most expensive hairy crabs.

The trick is finding a real one. The market in counterfeit Yangcheng hairy crabs is 10 times the market in real ones, according to the Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab Association.

Local crab wholesalers have fought counterfeiters for years with various tactics. They've used lasers to etch the Yangcheng name on crab shells. This year, the crab association distributed 15 million plastic tags to certify their crabs were the real thing.

The tags even have a serial number and a toll-free phone number consumers can call to check.

Losing Battle Against Counterfeits

Yet fighting counterfeit crabs — like fighting any fake product here — is a Sisyphean task.

"Everything is being counterfeited," says a crab fisherwoman with the surname of Xing, who sells crabs by the side of Yangcheng Lake in the city of Suzhou. "There's nothing you can do about it. And you can't control it."

Xing, who sits beneath an umbrella by the roadside, sells her small crabs for about $4 each. That's a good deal, considering larger crabs can sell for more than $9 in wholesale markets.

Shanghai restaurants can charge about triple that.

Xing says she could charge more if it weren't for all the counterfeits.

"The price for our Yangcheng Lake crabs could have been higher, but the fakes ones keep the price the down," she says.

Xing has some of the plastic tags the association distributed this year, but she says they are only so effective.

"Every farmer with a local residency permit has a license to raise crabs in Yangcheng Lake," she says. "People who don't, just buy the tags from other farmers, and there are also fake tags."

Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs derive their name from the mossy, brown hair that hangs from their claws. The crabs are famous for their sweetness, which locals attribute to the lake water's quality and habitat.

"Hairy crabs prefer to live in a clean water environment, where there is lots of sunlight, grass and food," says Yang Weilong, head of the local hairy crab association.

China's Prosperity Increased Demand

The rise of the counterfeit Yangcheng crab is a classic Chinese business story. Local people enjoyed hairy crabs for years, but demand took off in the 1990s as the government's economic reforms boosted incomes.

"After the opening up of the Chinese economy, some Shanghainese became rich," Yang recalled. "On the weekends, they'd drive up here with their families and cash to have fun and savor hairy crabs."

Eventually, local crab farmers couldn't meet demand and fakes poured in.

Pushing counterfeits is good money. Using the Yangcheng brand, vendors can mark up a crab's price by at least 30 percent. And, by just looking at a hairy crab, consumers can't tell whether it came from Yangcheng Lake or elsewhere.

In Shanghai's Tongchuan Seafood market, Yangcheng hairy crabs are sold from giant fish tanks, but even the vendors admit many are counterfeit or only recently acquainted with Yangcheng Lake.

A vendor who only gave his surname of Li because of the sensitivity surrounding hairy crabs described a typical scam.

"We rent a patch of water in Yangcheng Lake and put crabs from Nanjing, Jiangsu and Gucheng lakes for about three months," he said, matter-of-factly. "People think these are Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs, but we know they aren't."

Vendors even have a nickname for crabs transplanted from elsewhere to the waters of Yangcheng Lake. In Chinese, they're called "xizao xie," or "shower crabs."

Li says this practice is not a secret among vendors. "Only to consumers," he says.

Loose Definition Of Authenticity

Authenticity is an elastic concept in China, even for the Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab Association. Yang, the association's leader, says whether a crab is a really a Yangcheng crab all depends on how long it's actually lived in the lake.

"As long as they spend the last six months before harvest in Yangcheng Lake, they will be considered what we call Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crabs," he says. "There are very few crabs actually born in the lake."

So, most of the crabs harvested from Yangcheng Lake — the ones with the plastic tags touting their authenticity — are actually from somewhere else.

Yang says it's no big deal. In fact, he says crabs don't grow naturally in Yangcheng Lake anymore anyway, because human development has disrupted their spawning patterns.

"The waterways leading to the Yangtze River are blocked by dams, so the adult crabs can't go to the ocean to mate and young crabs can't return," he says. "What can we do? We can only solve the problem by importing young crabs into the lake."

The hairy crab season opened late last month and some Chinese still swear by them. But others who grew up eating the delicacy stopped years ago. The reason, they say: too many fakes.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. This week, we're looking at how fake products permeate China's economy.

Today on MORNING EDITION, we heard about forged paintings. Now, NPR's Shanghai correspondent, Frank Langfitt, has the story behind the lucrative market in, of all things, counterfeit crabs.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I'm standing here on the edge of Yangcheng Lake, just about a half an hour's train ride from Shanghai, and I'm looking out at thousands and thousands of nets filled with crabs. Now, this is the home of what many Chinese would tell you are the tastiest crabs in the country.

A few of those nets belong to a crab farmer, surname Xing. She sits in a folding chair beneath an umbrella by the water's edge. When a customer arrives, Xing hauls up a mesh crab pot and the crabs click their claws. Xing sells her small crabs for about four bucks each. That's a good deal. Larger Yangcheng hairy crabs can sell for more than $9 in wholesale markets. Shanghai restaurants can charge about triple that.

Xing says if it weren't for all the counterfeits, she could charge more.

XING: (Through Translator) Of course, there is an impact. The price for Yangcheng Lake crabs could have been higher, but the fake ones keep the price down.

LANGFITT: The fake crab problem is staggering. The local Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab Association - yes, there is such a thing - says more than 90 percent of all the crabs that bear the Yangcheng name are imposters. Local wholesalers have fought counterfeits for years with various tactics. They've used lasers to etch the Yangcheng name on crab shells.

This year, the association distributed 15 million plastic tags to certify the authenticity of each crab. The tags even have a serial number and a toll free phone number where consumers can call to check, but Xing says the tags are only so effective.

XING: (Through Translator) Every farmer with a local residency permit has a license to raise crabs in Yangcheng Lake. People who don't just buy the tags from other farmers and there are also fake tags.

LANGFITT: Like Chinese business people in other sectors hard hit by fakes, Xing's frustrated.

XING: (Through Translator) Everything is being counterfeited and there is nothing you can do about it and you can't control it.

LANGFITT: Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs derive their name from the mossy brown hair that hangs from their claws. The crabs are famous for their sweetness, which locals attribute to the lake's water quality and habitat.

Yang Weilong heads the Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab Association.

YANG WEILONG: (Through Translator) Hairy crabs prefer to live in a clean water environment where there's lots of sunlight, grass and food. Yangcheng Lake meets all the standards.

LANGFITT: As Chinese incomes rose in the 1990s, demand for the crabs soared.

WEILONG: (Through Translator) After the opening up of the Chinese economy, some Shanghainese became rich. On the weekends, they'd drive up here with their families and cash to have fun and savor hairy crabs.

LANGFITT: Eventually, local crab farmers couldn't meet demand and fakes poured in. Pushing counterfeits is good money. Using the Yangcheng brand, vendors can mark up a crab's price by at least 30 percent and by just looking at a hairy crab, customers can't tell whether it came from Yangcheng Lake or somewhere else.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

LANGFITT: Here at the Tongchuan Seafood Market in Shanghai, vendors sell Yangcheng hairy crabs from giant fish tanks, but even they admit many are counterfeit or only recently acquainted with Yangcheng Lake.

Here's a vendor who gave only his surname of Li.

LI: (Through Translator) We rent a patch of water in Yangcheng Lake and put crabs from Nanjing, Jiangsu and Gucheng Lakes in for about three months. People think these are Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs, but we know they aren't.

LANGFITT: Li says vendors even have a nickname for crabs transplanted from elsewhere to the waters of Yangcheng Lake. In Chinese, they're called xizao xie, or shower crabs. I asked Li if this is a secret.

LI: (Through Translator) No, it's not. Only to consumers. Some don't know the real situation, but we vendors are all doing the same thing.

LANGFITT: Authenticity is an elastic concept in China, even - it turns out - for the Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab Association. Yang, the association's leader, says whether a crab is really a Yangcheng crab all depends on how long it's actually lived in the lake.

WEILONG: (Through Translator) As long as they spend the last six months before harvest in Yangcheng Lake, they will be considered what we call Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs. There are very few crabs actually born in the lake.

LANGFITT: That's right. Most of the crabs harvested from Yangcheng Lake are from somewhere else. Yang says that's no big deal. In fact, he says crabs don't grow naturally in Yangcheng Lake anymore, anyway. That's because human development has disrupted their spawning patterns.

WEILONG: (Through Translator) The waterways leading to the Yangtze River are blocked by dams, so the adult crabs can't go to the ocean to mate and young crabs can't return. What can we do? We can only solve the problem by importing young crabs into the lake.

LANGFITT: Hairy crab season opened late last month and some Chinese still swear by them. But one man I recently met who grew up eating hairy crabs said he hadn't had one in years. The reason: too many fakes.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.