Regional Goodies: A Tradition Struggles On

A view of Qianxiang Street where store owners are tending their inventory of traditional snacks.

A view of Qianxiang Street where store owners are tending their inventory of traditional snacks.

In the heart of Guancheng’s old and torn alleys five dim workshops with faded signs line one side of the busy, two-meter-wide Qianxiang Street that for over a decade has been home to a Dongguan tradition. Local housewives stop by with their children or bicycles, chatting and beaming with the makers of small dense pastries.

Two teenagers in blue high school sweat suits stand in front of the trays and baskets, carefully choosing and tasting the best ones for their class’s end of the term merrymaking. Inside the shops, plump middle-aged women sit around a table full of dough and an assortment of peanuts and sugar whilst stuffing, wrapping and twisting during breaks between vigorous gossip. A yellow tiger-striped kitten gracefully strolls along the brick-built balcony edge, lazily overlooking the street on a typical day.

Before this scene developed, the semi-sweet confections were made at home for family festivities. The street has developed into a hot spot for purchasing these snacks in Dongguan, as younger generations’ appetites have lessened for the old style snacks and busy schedules hamper homemade activities building up to the Chinese New Year. The process requires teamwork from a family, and often represents expectation for the coming year: No matter how this year goes, the new year should be started with richness and abundance.

A view of combining the mixture of peanuts and sugar to fill oil dumplings.

A view of combining the mixture of peanuts and sugar to fill oil dumplings.

An abundance of five to eight varieties of snacks in round or diamond shapes cram a container called the “complete box” (全盒). It’s a round or pointed container divided into five or more sections used for serving guests.

And nowadays, although the box has been mostly replaced by fancy candies, chocolates and cookies that are more preferable to modern taste buds, the older generations still prefer the traditional foods for celebrating festive occasions, providing crucial support of the street’s business.

This buttress of business is indispensible to Qianxiang street vendors like Juan who in 2002, after a second child ended her ability to work regular hours, began a snack enterprise. Relying on neighborhood housewives to help in her shop from time to time, she says her recipes have not changed at all.

“We are all housewives who know nothing but making these snacks,” said Juan while she cut the big dough into segments. “No young people would like to do this. As long as I can do it, I will keep running it.”

Mr. Yin’s shop, a two-unit stall at the center of the row, is outfitted with a large, bulky wok facing the street. As a dessert cook in the formerly government-owned Wanjiang Hotel, Mr. Yin bragged that he inherited techniques 15 years ago from several authoritative pastry masters, making his snacks the most authentic, and claiming superiority over the housewives’ recipes.

Offering testament, he says even some migrants like to buy his products. “The food on this street is reliable, especially after the frequent exposure of food safety concerns. The same recipe has been used for years without any chemicals or artificial additives,” he said.

In Mr. Yin’s shop, a young man sat in the middle of two women, winding dough sheets skillfully. He is Yin’s son and successor, and a student of a Guangzhou university. He has been helping in the shop since he can remember. “I was forced to work during my summer and winter vacations, but now I know it’s my responsibility and I will have to face it sooner or later,” Yin junior said.