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Small county’s breadwinners rise to occasion

2017-February-15       Source: Xinhuanet.com

The stoves below 100 griddle plates roared into action, and 100 bakers waited eagerly for the starting gong.

The stoves below 100 griddle plates roared into action, and 100 bakers waited eagerly for the starting gong.

"Rolling pins ready?! Spatulas ready?! One, two, three, go!"

The chefs were in Xiangfen, a small county in North China's coal-rich Shanxi Province, for the county's first ever contest to find the best baker of shaobing, a traditional Chinese flatbread.

Shaobing was first brought to Xiangfen sometime after 770 BC, and, while available almost all over the country, it is a particularly popular snack in North China.

After more than two hours, 200 cooks had been whittled down to just one and Qiao Yongjun from Yonggu Town was named the winner. He sells shaobing in the provincial capital Taiyuan.

Since the 1990s, 20,000 people have left Xiangfen to find work in China's cities. It is estimated that they earn 500 million yuan ($73 million) annually.

While many of the country's migrant workers look for employment as construction or factory workers, a large number of people from Xiangfen have chosen to make their dough by hawking this traditional snack.

Although Yuan Wugen, 43, lost the competition, by any measure, he is a winner in the shaobing business.

Born into a poor rural family, he got his first job at a restaurant when he was just 14 and by the time he was 20, he had his own restaurant in Beijing that specialized in shaobing. He is now the head of a lucrative catering enterprise.

One man's success can inspire many more.

"When I was at the station in Linfen and I asked for a train ticket to ­Beijing, the ticket officer immediately knew that I was a baker from Xiangfen," said Yu Dongxiang, 45.

After getting married in 1999, Yu found himself in debt, so he went to Beijing and rented a tiny store, not much more than a hole in the wall, to sell shaobing.

"I earned more than 20,000 yuan in the first year, which meant I could pay off my debt," said Yu, who now owns a restaurant in Beijing and a beautiful courtyard house in Xiangfen.

Shaobing pioneers like Yu have reported earnings upward of 300,000 yuan a year, some of the more astute sellers are earning millions of yuan.

Trademark business

In order to make the most out of its local snacks and delicacies, Xiangfen recently registered a trademark. All of its food souvenirs will now be sold under the brand "Jinxiangsu," which is a combination of the names of the province and county and the word ­delicious, according to deputy county chief Du Xutang.

The purpose of the contest was to promote Xiangfen ­shaobing and offer ­bakers an ­opportunity to share and perfect their skills.

"We want every resident of ­Xiangfen, especially the young, to know that this traditional snack has the potential to generate a good income," Du said.

Many small cities and towns are exploring food tourism.

Lanzhou in northwest China's Gansu Province is known for beef-soup lamian (hand-pulled noodles).

There were more than 30,000 beef noodle outlets in China last year, which generated 50 billion yuan in revenue.

In Liuzhou, South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, sales of luosifen, a rice noodle dish that uses river snails, generated 1.5 billion yuan last year.

The profitability of shaobing has not gone unnoticed by Xiangfen's younger generation, who are happily donning aprons and taking over their parent's businesses.

"Making shaobing may be hard work, but I am motivated knowing that this food is being turned into cash, cars and a house," said Yang Huiting, 31, who has sold shaobing in Beijing for 15 years and recently took over a restaurant from her father.

Yang returned to Xiangfen for the Spring Festival but she will return to Beijing in the coming days.

"Selling snacks is about more than just the money, it's about keeping our traditions alive," she said.

Editor: Steven

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