By Lara Berendt
The view from atop a renovated textile factory in Shanghai’s Xuhui District overlooks an expanse of skyscrapers, while murky gray smog hangs on the horizon. Below lies a rooftop garden of rich green herbs and vegetables. A hen and two rabbits rustle in their cages amid rows of plants.
This unexpected oasis is a project of Café Sambal, one of seven eco-friendly businesses within Jiashan Market, an upscale Shanghai “urban garden community” that integrates residential, commercial and recreational spaces. Two Saturdays a month, a farmer’s market, complete with wine and cheese tasting, lures hundreds of discerning shoppers.
Throughout this sprawling cosmopolitan city, Jiashan and similar projects have arisen to meet a demand for healthy, sustainably produced foods, and a growing desire among Shanghai’s wealthy elite to adopt more environmentally conscious lifestyles.
“My restaurants, when I first started out, used mainly fresh ingredients instead of processed foods,” says Café Sambal owner Cho Chong Gee. “Not all organic, but fresh. Now that it’s becoming more trendy, though, I think maybe it’s something I should promote more.”
Cho, a native of Malaysia, says he initially got involved with the trendy Jiashan project because of his love of historic architecture and interior design, but had little knowledge of the local, organic food movement.
“After seeing it, I’m attracted to the whole concept of keeping things sustainable,” he says.
Above Jiashan’s businesses, loft apartments and office spaces carry steep price tags. Residential rents start around 20,000 RMB ($3,076) a month.
“People move here because they like the lifestyle and think it’s more like a small society, with shopping, cafes, and gardens,” says Jiashan assistant office manager, Kong Xiao Yan. “Life is more leisurely here.”
This brand of leisure hasn’t attracted many Shanghai natives, though. The shop owners are largely expats, and residents are all European or American, Kong says.
“The price is a little expensive, and Shanghainese prefer new buildings or flats more than these, which are old, renovated buildings,” she says.
Like the Jiashan lifestyle, organic food carries a price tag that many Shanghai residents are unwilling or unable to pay. Locally sourced, sustainably produced foods are within the reach of a small, affluent segment of the population, as is the case in many Western countries.
“It’s becoming a fashion [...] for young people and foreigners, but maybe the older generation does not prefer this lifestyle,” Kong says.
The 2010 World Expo, which advertised the slogan “Better city, better life,” drew the attention of even the older generation to issues of food production in China, says Jane Tsao, spokeswoman for Shanghai’s first certified organic farm, BIOFarm.
“Food safety became the top concern, even raising high interests for many local Shanghai elderly people with limited but stable income,” Tsao says. “As for the linkage from organic food to the ecosystem or to environmental sustainability, I am afraid it’s not usually the major reason to push customers to buy organic foods in China.”
An increasing number of organizations are promoting the local-food movement in China, but these make up a small minority of the Chinese consumer market, she says. Western sustainable food movements such as Slow Food International, Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) and Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) have inspired some Chinese to follow suit in seeking out organic foods in their own cities.
“I’ve found more and more young Chinese working under high pressure who have taken action to become local-food practitioners,” Tsao says. “Some quit their jobs for a rest, and some started a small farm to practice a slower lifestyle.”
A world of difference persists between China’s affluent professionals, who can afford to buy into the organic food trend, and the majority of the population—rural Chinese who might view a leisurely lifestyle as one in which the backbreaking labor of daily farming can be abandoned for a quick stroll through the aisles of processed foods in a market.
“Organic foods are very expensive so they are not consumed by the majority of people in China,” says Dr. Zhuang Junpeng, a resident physician at Ruijin Hospital in Shanghai.
Zhuang says he has several rich Chinese friends who are able to buy strictly organic foods from high-end groceries, but that “most of the people still consume cheaper, processed foods, and many become very fat as a result.”
But this does not describe the clientele at Jiashan Market. Matteo Ferraboschi, manager of Jiashan’s hip juice bar and café, Melange Oasis, says his customers are 80 percent European expats, and about 20 percent local Shanghainese.
“Expats are surprised when I offer them organic and local vegetables,” he says. “They say, ‘Organic? Really? In China? But it’s so polluted!’”
Are projects like Jiashan Market a passing craze in China or a glimpse of the future? The coming years will reveal how this populous nation wrestles with sustainable food production—and a host of other escalating environmental problems.