Slate readers solve mystery: Why can't you find a chocolate bar in China?

Commentary about business and finance.
Dec. 3 2009 5:13 PM

Chinese Chocolate Mystery Solved!

Slate readers explain why I couldn't find a Hershey's bar in the world's most populous country.

Last week, at the end of one of my dispatches from China, I asked readers to help me understand why I couldn't find a chocolate bar in the world's most populous country. I wasn't implying there was no chocolate in China, but I was surprised that after five days in offices, factories, hotels, restaurants, transit hubs, roadside rest stops, ferry terminals, and street markets I had yet to come across a Hershey's bar or the Chinese equivalent.

The responses came fast and furious—more than 150 of them—from expats, veteran China hands, Chinese natives, Chinese-Americans, Fulbright scholars, Peace Corps volunteers, students, and entrepreneurs living in a dozen different provinces. Some sympathized with my plight. "I live in Beijing and it is not easy to find a decent chocolate bar in China," wrote one correspondent. Several readers wrote out the Chinese characters and phonetic pronunciation, and a few offered to treat me. And they all offered explanations, ranging from the highly plausible to the dubious. These were the most compelling:

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1. I was in the wrong place. I couldn't find chocolate because I was in the boonies. "Your quest for chocolate at the Three Gorges would be like me looking for Chinese dumplings at the Hoover Dam," wrote one Beijing resident.

2.Tourist lameness. I wasn't being sufficiently diligent in my quest for chocolate. "The question is not where to find chocolate, but where not," wrote Edward Gargan, the veteran foreign correspondent and author. "Try harder." Dove bars are everywhere in China. All I had to do was look in the right stores—Wal-Marts, grocery and convenience stores. "Keep your eyes peeled at airports, hotels, and higher-end retail stores, I assure you chocolate bars are there to be found," wrote Lawrence Allen, author of the forthcoming Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China's Consumers, which chronicles the 25-year battle between the titans of the global chocolate industry—Hershey, Nestlé, Mars, Ferrero, and Cadbury—to introduce chocolate to Chinese consumers. As Allen noted, China now accounts for about 2 percent of global chocolate sales.

3. Chocolate elitism. My definition of chocolate bar was too pinched. As one remarkably insightful reader noted, "The reason you can't find one is because you have a mental block when you see a Snickers bar," which are quite common. (It's true. I'm allergic to peanuts!)

4. Chocolate is a bourgeois Western construct.The average Chinese worker can't afford this expensive foreign treat and doesn't want it anyway. One reader, who also noted a dearth of chocolate, said one of her Chinese co-workers told her that "chocolate is very expensive for us." Indeed, a few readers noted that it's considered a premium snack compared with cheaper options like biscuits and candy and as a result is not always displayed alongside other snacks.

5. Reverse cultural snobbery. Chinese palates are too sophisticated to fall for cloying sweetness of a Hershey's kiss. "If I had to guess why you have been unable to find chocolate bars, I'd say that chocolate, especially in plain, solid bar form, is really not that exciting a treat to the Chinese populace, [who are] inundated with sweets and candies that [were] developed thousands of years before the first chocolate bar appeared in the Middle Kingdom," one correspondent noted.

6. There's no accounting for taste. Several readers asserted that Chinese people simply don't like sugary sweet snacks. Erich Beck wrote from Guangdong province, where he and a partner set up a candy factory six years ago: "It is usually a shock to visitors that the things we Westerners see as dessert are considered too sweet by the Chinese, and what they consider dessert is only mildly and vaguely sweet." They like fruit for dessert and prefer red-bean paste to sugar as a sweetener. A Chinese-American wrote that her mother, born in Taiwan, can handle only a couple of M&Ms at a time.

7. Lactose intolerance. They're just not that into you, milk. "If you think chocolate is difficult to find, good luck locating some cheese," wrote a first-generation Chinese-American. Some readers asserted that the Chinese suffer disproportionately from lactose intolerance. Whether that's true or not, milk and dairy products haven't traditionally been part of the nation's cuisine. One reader pointed out that the U.S. Dairy Export Council estimated per-person dairy consumption in China at 63 pounds in 2007, far below the per-capita consumption in the United States of about 580 pounds.

8. The Jungle. Last year, China suffered a major food-industry scandal when it was revealed that dairy companies were pumping melamine into milk and baby formula, causing several deaths. When the scandal came to light, Cadbury recalled its Chinese-made products. As a result, consumers may be less than eager to purchase milk chocolate.

9. Western conspiracy. Chocolate is universally addictive and desirable, so Western firms are depriving Chinese of chocolate for a reason, one correspondent suggested, I think in jest: "If we withhold chocolate long enough, they're sure to forgive our debt."

Thanks to all readers for their responses. On my last day in Beijing, in a little convenience store a stone's throw from Tiananmen Square, I found a slightly dusty Dove dark chocolate bar.

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