It’s that time of year again, when the people of China unite in tearing apart exoskeletons to suck up the flesh of hairy crabs. From August to October, the crabs—which get their name from the hair-like tendrils that grow on their claws—sell like hotcakes throughout China.
Except, hotcakes don’t sell in vending machines. Live hairy crabs? Apparently, yes. On September 11, a vending machine stocked with live crabs appeared on a street in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province. The machine, which is restocked daily, sells crabs for around 20 RMB ($3.27), along with the appropriate accoutrements (crab vinegar and two bags of ginger tea).
If you assumed this cutting-edge invention was brand new, you were wrong. In 2010, another crab vending machine appeared in a Nanjing subway station, pictured below:
- The machine’s temperature of 5-10° C preserved the crabs in a dormant state longer than was possible in a stall, leading many people to call them “sleeping crabs.”
- But the machine’s winning characteristic was the crab packaging. Sellers typically bind the claws of hairy crabs, which supposedly hurts the flavor. To fix this, Shi built a “Crab Villa,” a multi-tired box designed to make crabs feel like they’re in a cave. Shi says he came up with this idea one day, long after hairy crab season had ended, when he found a crab hiding under his sofa.
- What stocked the Nanjing machine, though, was Shi’s upgrade of “Crab Villa”: an edible container that neither broke the crabs’ legs nor suffocated them. Dubbed “Golden Armor,” Shi’s new container could be dropped in boiling water at home, minimizing pinching risk.
But when hairy crab season rolled around in 2011, Double Lake didn’t restock the Nanjing vending machine. It’s not clear why, but local media reports suggests it was more successful as a marketing stunt than anything else. “Since more people ogled the vending machine crabs than actually bought them, the crab mortality rate was fairly high,” said the Yangzi Evening News.
Even if Hangzhou’s vending machine isn’t all that profitable either, Liu, like his predecessor, is banking on the machine’s marketing benefits in the hopes of boosting his store’s crab brand.
But Liu may have a sales advantage over Shi: the brand integrity of his merchandise. Shi’s crabs came from Gaochun Lake, an area where crabs are considered inferior to those of Yangcheng Lake, the origin of Liu’s crabs. (Gaochun Lake has been associated with so-called “bath crabs”—which are raised in questionable habitats and sold shortly before harvest season to upmarket farms in Yangcheng or Taihu Lakes. Those farms then mix the inferior crabs in with the higher-pedigree crabs, passing them off as the latter when they sell them to distributors.)
But there may be a weak spot in Liu’s endeavor. It looks like Golden Armor wasn’t part of his deal: