Happiness in Beijing is a perfect watermelon

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

August 25, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- China's leaders argue interminably over how best to provide their people with a "comparatively well-off" life, the nation's official goal for the end of this decade.

But most Beijingers already know that real contentment, at least during the summer months, amounts to large slices of the sweet, wet flesh of that overgrown cucumber known as the watermelon.

On average, every man, woman and child in Beijing annually eats about 110 pounds of watermelon -- the vast majority of which is devoured from May to September. In the capital's hot, mostly dry summer months, when a dull haze envelops the city and feeling parched becomes a round-the-clock sensation, melons literally become the stuff of life.

"If I'm hungry, I won't eat bread or meat like foreigners do," says a devotee. "I'll just eat watermelons."

Consequently, many Beijingers make a daily ritual of finding and buying just the right melon with which to treat their families each night.

They usually don't have to travel too far. Each summer, hundreds of watermelon vendors set up impromptu shops here in curbside lean-tos made of thin poles and sheets of canvas or plastic.

To the delight of swarms of black flies, nearby garbage cans overflow with green rinds munched down to their yellow-white linings. In the early mornings, Beijing's streets are clogged with long lines of trucks belching black smoke, their flat beds piled high with bound-for-market melons.

To prevent pilferage, now common in this once virtually crime-free society, vendors typically man their stalls all hours of the day, setting out cots, TVs and drying laundry behind their large pyramids of fruit. That hasn't stopped gangs from waylaying farmers as they bring their melons into the city.

If this melon lust is something of an annual rite for many Beijingers, then their main shrine would be in a suburban county about eight miles south of the capital, where officials this year set up what likely is the world's only museum solely dedicated to watermelons.

Daxing County, a dreary satellite town, produces about 65 percent of all watermelons consumed in Beijing, but the only melons in its museum are astonishingly life-like wax models -- 60 of them, representing all the varieties grown in China.

The one-room museum offers more than almost anyone would need to know about watermelons here: The fruit came to China 11 centuries ago via traders from Central Asia; China leads the world with 40 percent of the earth's melon patches; the largest melon ever grown in China weighed in at 90 pounds.

Daxing officials mounted this display to draw more people to their annual watermelon fest -- a gathering, like most other official efforts in China these days, really aimed at attracting business, particularly foreign investment.

That watermelons are serious business is nothing new to Beijing's savvy vendors and skeptical buyers, who have turned selecting the perfect melon into a highly competitive art.

Most melons are sold for the equivalent of only about five to seven cents a pound, but vendors can rack up $1,000 worth of profits over a summer -- more than double the capital's annual per capita income.

Whether a melon ultimately is judged good rests on an endless list of criteria: ripeness, sweetness, the color and size of its seeds, the thickness of its skin, the crispness of its pulp.

One of the most popular types is called "118," after the name of its American strain of seeds. Also favored are Hami melons, an extra sweet, rather expensive cantaloupe from a Silk Road oasis in China's far western Xinjiang region.

Some unscrupulous vendors try to throw off their customers by injecting less than perfect melons with sugar water. "Young people with money are the easiest ones to cheat," says a 17-year-old hired hand at a melon stall. "They don't care -- they just throw their money around."

Not to be fooled, most buyers rely on what is believed to be the best test short of eating: rapping their fingers on the outside of the fruit. If a hollow sound results, the melon should be OK.

But some watermelon buyers can never be satisfied, says another young melon purveyor: "Foreigners are even cheaper than Chinese. They are always looking for some small defect."

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