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Chinatown Cheap Eats

An inside look at one of Oakland's thriving micro-economies and why its produce is so affordable.

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An avocado costs just 20 cents. A pound of baby bok choy will put you back about 60. And a box of naval oranges can be yours for a few bucks.

Oakland's Chinatown, the crowded, colorful blocks that span from Broadway to Harrison Street, and from 12th Street to 6th, are ripe with produce deals like these. "In every city I've lived, Chinatown is the cheapest place to buy food," said Mary Seal, who swung a 50 cent pomello in a plastic bag as she pushed her way through the bustle on a recent Saturday afternoon. "You know you can come here and find a deal if you're on a budget."

While it's widely accepted among Chinatown shoppers that they're getting bargain produce, few know why. And many shopkeepers are reluctant to share their secrets, insisting that they can keep prices low because they're small, family-operated businesses with slim profit margins. Though that's part of the equation, the strongest forces driving produce prices down in this booming micro-economy depend as much on Chinese food culture as on hard work and low overhead.

"I remember when I was a little girl back in China, my mother would go shopping every day," recalled Lillian Hwong, who was perusing the Chinatown produce stands with her young daughter recently. "I would like to go, if not every day, at least every other day," she said. "That way you don't need a refrigerator. You just buy it and eat."

Like Hwong, many of Chinatown's shoppers prefer to shop daily, and to prepare their produce just hours after it's bought. John Leung has owned Sam Yick Market for more than four decades, a bustling storefront lined with crates of fruits and vegetables that spill onto the sidewalk along Franklin Street. But a lot has changed in the neighborhood since Leung moved in. There are twice as many produce stands now than there were just fifteen years ago, so competition has gotten fiercer, he said. But one thing has stayed the same. The customers "come every day and they always buy a little bit," he said.

The sheer volume of daily shoppers allows Leung to buy his produce ripe, since it won't be sitting on his, or his customer's, shelves for very long. And buying ripe means deep discounts for Chinatown storeowners like him.

At Oakland's wholesale produce market, just a few blocks away, the vendors that sell to Chinatown know this fact well. "They kind of have the upper hand sometimes," said Vu Huynh, who works for his parents' small wholesale produce store, W.A. Rouse & Co. "If they don't buy it, it will just sit there," and the produce will lose value, he said.

That puts pressure on small-time wholesalers like W.A. Rouse who depend on Chinatown buyers to sell quickly — even if that means settling for low prices.

Anson Abdullah works at Golden Egg Co., just across the street from W.A. Rouse. For the last two years he's sold eggs and other produce to Chinatown. "They are good businessmen," said Abdullah, of the Chinatown storeowners. "They know their customers well."

They are also some of the toughest hagglers Abdullah works with. Many Chinatown grocers buy together, pooling their resources to buy certain products — say grapefruits or lettuce — in mass quantities. Purchasing in volume and then distributing the crates among themselves means cheaper food for grocers. "Plus when you buy on a daily basis, there's less to throw out at the end of the day," added Abdullah. And less waste equals more value for customers.

Back in Leung's store, the avocados are brownish-green and soft, begging to be split open and mashed into a batch of guacamole. The eggplants have nicks in their deep purple skin. Shoppers stream in and out carrying bags bursting with handfuls of carrots, small bunches of greens, and an orange or two. As Leung rings them up, few spend more than $15.

Almost all pay in cash. Leung, too, pays in cash when he makes his small daily produce purchases at the wholesale market. "I don't pay credit; every time I pay cash," he explained. "If you pay the money to them right away, they give you a cheaper price."

Mike Gordon was one of the few customers at Sam Yick Market on a recent Saturday who wasn't of Asian descent. Unlike most of his fellow shoppers, he doesn't come often, just once a month or so, more for the thrill of the shopping experience than anything. He sifted through a box of strangely misshapen kiwis before deciding on a bright yellow mango and heading for the checkout line.

"The quality is the same, just the presentation is different," Gordon insisted, examining his purchase. "You're just getting fruit with character."

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