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Not All Hairy Crabs Are Created Equal

The Wall Street Journal
26 November 2003

By STAN SESSER

ZHENGYI, China — Hunched in the back seat of a car on the shores of the pristine Yang Cheng Lake, famous for its prized and pricey hairy crabs, I'm witnessing a strange, shady transaction. While I keep a low profile, inside a nearby shop my interpreter is turning three commonplace hairy crabs that I bought for a total of $6, into Yang Cheng Lake hairy crabs that together could sell for as much as $60 in Hong Kong. He has paid just 37 cents to buy my crabs a fake pedigree — a laser stamp on their shells, complete with serial numbers, marking them as genuine Yang Cheng Lake hairy crabs.

Hairy crabs — so named because of hair-like growths on their legs and bottom shell — are revered in Chinese cuisine as much as abalone and shark's fin. They appear on the finest dining tables in Shanghai, an hour's drive from the lake, and Hong Kong. As their reputation has spread, they also are appearing in the far reaches of Asia, from Tokyo to Bangkok. The Yang Cheng Lake hairy crabs are the most esteemed of all.

For years, people have been passing off crabs from less distinguished waters as Yang Cheng crabs. But the lake's crab producers were fed up. To protect their valuable franchise, this year, for the first time, they imprinted their crabs with a laser stamp and serial number. That wasn't the end of things.

You have heard of fake Gucci handbags and phony Rolex watches coming from China. Now, welcome to the world of counterfeit hairy crabs — the latest and possibly the most unusual subjects of China's culture of faking labels. Just 10 days after the Yang Cheng crabs appeared with their new stamps at the start of the hairy crab season in August, the counterfeiters moved in with their own laser machines.

"Other companies that made laser stamping machines and didn't get chosen by us, sold them to the counterfeiters," says Yang Wei Cong, president of the Yang Cheng Lake Hairy Crab Business Association. Mr. Yang estimates that for every genuine Yang Cheng Lake crab on the market, there are 10 with fake stamps. During the August-to-December season, the lake produces 1,000 tons of the delicacy — translating into 10,000 tons of fake crabs and millions of dollars. "If they can counterfeit renminbi and U.S. dollars, they can counterfeit anything," Mr. Yang shrugs.

As my shady lakeside encounter probed, the hairy-crab counterfeiting business is so common now that even I can play the game. According to our driver, the three falsely lasered crabs, although purchased from a crab retailer a stone's throw from Yang Cheng Lake, were actually from Hongze Lake, a six-hour drive away.

Walk through the streets of Hong Kong this month — the peak of hairy-crab season — and you will see what a big business this is. From fruit-juice stands to fancy restaurants, seemingly every other storefront has a sidewalk display of hairy crabs for sale — row upon row of the small green crustaceans tied tightly with string and frothing at the mouth. Some have the laser stamp, while others are unmarked. Depending on origin and size, prices can vary enormously, from about $3 for a garden-variety crab to more than $20 for a large one with the Yang-Cheng stamp.

But, stamped or not, a cynic might well ask why anyone would pay $20 for a hairy crab. These much-sought-after, palm-sized creatures yield only a thimbleful or two of meat — and that only after an arduous, messy extraction process. As connoisseurs know, though, the crabs are prized not for their meat but for their creamy roe. In fact, in Hong Kong, some people describe the way they eat the crabs as "tycoon style." This means you pry open the shell, spoon out the roe and eat it, throwing the rest of the crab away and, extravagantly, moving on to the next one. Other fans are happy to work hard to extract the meat. "They're so delicious," says Ding Jing Zhong, a former restaurant inspector for the Shanghai Health Department. "Particularly the ones from Yang Cheng Lake. I've eaten them since childhood, so I can tell the difference. The meat has a touch of sweetness."

Kinson Ho, managing director of the Hong Kong restaurant chain Tai Woo, says all his priciest crabs are genuinely from Yang Cheng Lake. "Their claws are more golden and so is the hair," he nots. "I've been in business 30 years so I can tell the difference, although it's very subtle." Mr. Ho is happy with the hairy-crab business association's efforts. "It's about time there was something like this for quality control," he says. Asked how he and his staff know that the stamped crabs they buy are really from Yang Cheng Lake, he replies: "We trust our good supplier."

Finding a genuine Yang Cheng hairy crab has never been an easy task. "They are very scarce," Mr. Ding says, "They're exported to Hong Kong or eaten by government officials. People from Shanghai drive to Yang Cheng Lake to eat authentic crabs, but even they aren't getting them unless they have some connections. The real ones are used to make big money. Why give them to ordinary people?"

Although the real Yang Cheng crabs have always been in high demand, the hairy-crab association was determined to tackle the pretenders capitalizing on their lake's fame. When the season started this year, each crab hauled from Yang Cheng found itself in a gleaming, lakeside building, smelling distinctly of scorched crab shells. There, workers sitting at laser imprinters with attached computer monitors stamp each wriggling crab, one by one. As they work, a computer automatically records the crab's serial number. (The job is done by laser imprint rather than by an ink stamp so that diners can clearly see the stamp after the crab is steamed or boiled.)

Hairy crabs can be found in lakes all over Jiangsu province, which borders Shanghai. Sitting at one of the many Yang Cheng lakeside restaurants, hosting a 12-course lunch that features seamed hairy crab as the piece de resistance, Mr. Yang estimates the total haul from all the province's lakes to be more than 60,000 tons a year, making the Yang Cheng catch a mere drop in the bucket. But he insists that Yang Cheng's reputation is well deserved. "This is the first lake in Chinese history that started to harvest crabs, in the 12th century," he boasts. "The depth of the water is only two meters, which is perfect because sunlight can go to the bottom of the lake, which encourages production of the food that crabs feed on. There are a lot of weeds, where the crabs like to hide. It's close to the ocean and to the Yangtze River, so there are no major floods or droughts."

Probably most important, Yang Cheng Lake is clean. The hairy crabs are such an important industry for the region that strict environmental regulations control pollution here.

But these ideal conditions are being rendered meaningless by the rampant use of the fake stamps. In other countries, the discovery of counterfeiting on such a scale would likely propel law-enforcement officials into swift action. In China — at least when it comes to the production of phony goods — the wheels of justice turn more slowly. "It's against the law," My. Yang says, but he conceded that the association is now only "in the preparatory phase of cracking down." He says the organization is looking at other ways of combating the counterfeiters. The next step, he says is to call a meeting to adopt a policy. By that time, this year's hairy-crab season will likely be over.

Which leaves next year's. Clearly the laser stamps, at least by themselves, aren't going to work. Mr. Yang says, "The final solution won't be announced until the start of the next season, so that the counterfeiters won't be prepared." He does, however, give some tantalizing hints. One possibility is a crab hotline so that buyers of crabs bearing stamps can call the association, read off the serial numbers, and discover if they're genuine. Another possibility, he says, is "working with the nuclear industry to combine their technology with lasers."

Nuclear? Mr. Yang declines to elaborate. But he pledges that "it will be nothing that makes the crab meat unsafe to eat."



Selected Student Solutions

CS 655 University of Virginia
Department of Computer Science
CS 851/551: Cryptography Applications Bistro
evans@cs.virginia.edu