CORRECTION: Mooncakes are traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival every fall, not during the Chinese New Year. The introduction to this story has been corrected.
Bob Moon: There's a big festival every year on the Chinese calendar: It's called the Mid-Autumn festival. The traditional gift of the season are mooncakes. They're pastries, small but rich, with a flaky crust and a sweet filling, usually made of lotus paste.
More than a billion people wanting the same thing on the same day? Smells like a business opportunity to me.
Our Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz takes us inside the mooncake economy.
Rob Schmitz: Mooncakes have been likened to pastry hockey pucks. At around a thousand calories, they're almost as dense. This helps explain why the Chinese don't buy mooncakes for themselves. They gift them.
Shaun Rein is a strategy consultant in Shanghai.
Shaun Rein: It's a way of showing respect to business partners and people that you want to be close to, and it's also a way to give them outright bribes.
Yes, bribes -- and we're not talking about briefcases full of mooncakes, but their paper representations, mooncake vouchers.
Here's how it works: Buy a voucher from a company that makes mooncakes. Give it to your friend, client, local government official. And they, in theory, redeem the voucher for mooncakes. What most people do, though, is sell the vouchers on the black market for cash.
Rein: There's no embarrassment about saying, "We don't want this mooncake." Let's be pragmatic and get some money out of it.
And when a fifth of the world is in on this, that money becomes an underground economy worth billions.
Dozens of workers pack boxes of mooncakes at a Haagen-Dazs redemption center in Shanghai. Thirteen years ago, the company had an epiphany: They realized the Chinese give mooncakes, but many don't eat them. It's like the Christmas fruitcake dilemma in the West. So they thought: Why not make ice cream mooncakes? The ice cream mooncake was born.
Gary Chu manages the company's China operation.
Gary Chu: It's huge business. It's a very important business for us. It's growing at double digits every year.
Soon after, Starbucks, Nestle and Dairy Queen got into the business. This year, Haagen-Dazs sold 1.5 million boxes. To buy one, you'll need $50 to $100 worth of vouchers. Want an ice cream mooncake this year? Sorry, vouchers are sold out. Your only option is the black market.
Yin Jing speaking in Chinese
A back-alley vendor named Yin Jing wears a fanny pack full of Haagen-Dazs mooncake vouchers. They're made of thick paper; each one has a laser engraved hologram, just like currency. They float like currency, too. Last week, their price peaked. Now with just days to go before the festival, Mr. Yin is looking to unload.
Yin Jing: After the festival's over, all these vouchers will be expired. So I have no choice. I've got to start dropping the price.
This selling frenzy reaches the highest levels of society. Just blocks away, a vendor who only gives his surname -- Zhang -- just negotiated a deal on reams of vouchers.
Zhang: These are all from government officials. They get so many as gifts, and they feel too embarrassed to sell them to me in person, so they ask their wives to meet me in a coffee shop.
Fresh from his secret government rendezvous, Zhang's got his game face on, trying to sell all these vouchers before his time runs out. If he fails? He'll be forced to succumb to the spirit of the season by giving away dozens of boxes of mooncakes and keeping a few for himself, at which point the giving will stop, and the losers of this annual game will be forced to eat.
In Shanghai, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.
Moon: By the way, you can see photos of Shanghai's underground mooncake economy -- and for that matter, just take a look at what a mooncake is.
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