Mission to Metro

When I think of all the changes in China since I left in the late 90s, one that stands out is the advent of the warehouse grocery store. That was so not the case back in my day. So here’s Stuart Beaton, our man in Tianjin, to explain just how great the shopping in China has evolved over the years. His podcasts can be found at http://rastous.podomatic.com/. Here’s Stu:

With term starting again, I’ve had to put aside my hobby of searching for pictures of cats posing with machine guns (you’d be amazed at some of the feline fighters that seem to be out there), and go back to standing in front of lecture halls packed with students.

You’ll notice that I’ve not prefixed the word “students” with things like “eager”, “attentive” or “keen”, as that would be an abject lie.

Let’s just say that they’re there to do their share, and I’m there because it beats shoveling the sidewalks.

And it was after such an event on Tuesday morning that I slunk home to find my lovely wife, Ellen, clutching an empty milk carton. Normally I wouldn’t be alarmed by such a thing, but this was the last of the milk, and I had been rather looking forward to a cup of tea.

So it was decided that we’d journey forth and infiltrate a place of purveyance, and negotiate the vending of some (not) cheesy comestibles. Or, to put it in plain terms, go grocery shopping.

Since the Melamine Milk scandals of the past few years, Ellen no longer trusts milk that originates in China. It’s a sad state of affairs when people will pump up the protein with plastic pellets, and given that I’m not that keen to have renal failure, we now buy UHT milk imported from Germany.

Which means a trek to Metro, an aircraft hangar sized cash and carry restaurant wholesalers, about half an hour’s journey from home.

Kitted out with my trusty trollies, cold bags and a hastily penciled list, we squeezed on to the double decker bus that runs from outside the gate, and bumped our way around.

Metro isn’t your run of the mill supermarket, that’s for sure. It’s not open to ordinary members of the public, and entry can only be gained by showing a membership card – the obtaining of which is extremely difficult without a restaurant.

Or teaching the Deputy Manager English on a regular basis – which I had the chance to do several years ago, before she moved on to sell BMWs instead.

Metro is designed to cater to… well, the catering crowd. There you can purchase everything you need to stock a hotel or restaurant, from exercise equipment for the gym, to office supplies and computers, through uniforms, cleaning gear and furniture, right up to giant TVs.

But it’s the range and variety of food that keeps us going back.

They stock a wide range of high quality local products and produce, and their food handling and hygiene is amazingly good. I’ve even seen the butcher wash his hands, then put on fresh disposable gloves to handle the meat – something that I’ve never witnessed anywhere else in China.

Even their fresh fish seems to be fresh, without being kept alive in a small puddle of slime. Carrying a wide range of imported products also makes it one of my favourite places to shop.

Their frozen products also make my life easier – we quite often buy a box of pre-formed, unproved croissants, which I let rise and thaw overnight, before glazing and baking them the next morning for a relatively quick and easy, but very rewarding breakfast. Frozen, pre-portioned cryovac’d steaks are also a hit with Ellen.

If I was so inclined, I could treat myself to all manner of wines and spirits at prices far lower than those in ordinary supermarkets and department stores (in my wild and heady early days here, I’d blow a sizeable chunk of my pay there, and spend the rest of the month comfortably numb, but, alas, such times are behind me now), or buy cartons of dirt cheap soft drinks.

We don’t do all of our grocery shopping at Metro though because not everything is cheaper or more convenient there – toilet paper, rice, flour and other day to day items are actually more expensive, it’s only more “exotic” things or bulk packs that are worth the trip to get.

And we have to get a taxi home… the bus is too slow, and I’d hate my steaks to thaw!


  1. says

    You can buy “Vitasoy” and the like – if you want to pay way over the odds for an imported product, when the fresh stuff is widely available.

    In fact, many Chinese homes make their own soy “milk” every day, it’s incredibly common. Street vendors sell it.

    But it’s not a “good substitute” for milk, especially in culinary applications, the fat and protein levels are completely different.

    And I jut don’t like it – the particulates leave my throat feeling dry and scratchy.

    Goats’ milk? If we don’t trust the local cows, why would we trust local goats?

    The nearest Walmart is almost as far away as Metro, and isn’t a very nice place to shop.

    At all.

    Cramped, crowded, badly stocked, badly organised, badly staffed and badly run, the handling and hygiene seems to be worse than our local Vanguard supermarket.

    As for avoiding milk formula for infants, a huge proportion of the population finds that about Y300 for one can is a bit rich for the blood…

    • Giora says

      I’m surprised that Wal-Mart isn’t doing a good job in China. Last year the city of Chongqing closed 13 stores of Wal-Mart for 2 weeks for misleading customers about pork. For ordinary Chinese who don’t tarvel outside the country, American companies like Wal-Mart is what they know about the United States. And if Wal-Mart stores are not good, as you say, than it’s reasonable to expect the Chinese shopping there to have bad image of the US. In recent years, Wal-Mart lost market share in China .. maybe because of what you described.

  2. says

    The 2008 milk scandal raises concrens about food safety in China even now. It’s in the storyline of my novel, where the young mother insists on breastfeeding to avoid the infant milk formula. I wonder if you can buy “Vitasoy” soymilk in Tianjin, a good substitue for milk, and Walmart stores in Tianjin might sell safe milk and many other products at low prices. you might also want to check Goat Milk produuced by Yayi International, a company from Tianjin.


    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      The breastfeeding vs. formula debate is so interesting in China. Traditionally, of course, women breastfed their babies, but as China developed and became exposed to western goods, many new moms suddenly thought it was fashionable to use formula. When I had my first son 14 years ago, my Chinese mother-in-law kept trying to get me to use formula because she said babies can drink more of it (after all, you can always open another can). It was an ongoing battle, but I held my ground.

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