South Korean pop culture has enjoyed such sweeping success in China in the past that the term hanliu, which translates as ‘Korean wave’ but sounds the same as ‘cool current’ in Mandarin, was coined to celebrate it.
That’s despite the tensions surrounding the installation of the THAAD missile system in South Korea, which angered the Chinese government and led to a series of unofficial boycotts by consumers that saw the fortunes of Korean firms take a hit.
Some of the hanliu hype has faded since then, however, with Korean cosmetic brands no longer considered the height of fashion and some of the Korean TV dramas losing their magical appeal of the past.
Bucking the trend, a twist of fate has transformed a little-known Korean bakery chain into a respected brand in Shanghai.
Paris Baguette sounds French in its origins but it is owned by the Seoul-based SPC Group. It ran into regulatory trouble last month after the Shanghai Administration for Market Regulation slapped it with an Rmb580,000 fine for “unlicenced production”.
Local consumers initially assumed the bakery was caught up in another food quality scandal. But details spread that Paris Baguette was actually being punished for doing business when Shanghai was in a full Covid lockdown in April.
The Korean bakery had been forced to house its workers temporarily in a training centre while its factory was closed. With time, flour and yeast at their disposal, Paris Baguette’s bakers started to make food for themselves with basic household appliances. Photos were shared on social media and news began to spread that the local neighbourhood, which was in lockdown, was trying to order some freshly baked deliveries.
Group-buying orders flooded in from communities nearby but the problem was that the bakers were not licenced to produce food at the training centre. Food safety officials got wind of what was going on and raided the makeshift production facility four days later, by which time Paris Baguette had sold about 400 sets of pastries.
The ‘illegal’ income was confiscated, along with baking equipment, Shanghai Daily reported, despite the fact that the bakery’s customers were grateful for the deliveries during a difficult time.
When news broke last month that the Korean food chain had been fined an amount that was 10 times the sales it generated during the lockdown, netizens thought the punishment unfair and disproportionate. They pointed out that Paris Baguette is a high-end bakery whose pastry sets, in normal circumstances, sell for about Rmb180 each. The fact that its bakers were charging Rmb120 during the lockdown meant they were really providing a “community service,” it was argued.
Another contributor on social media went further, describing the delivery runs as “suicide missions to supply their encircled neighbours”.
As such, the Korean food chain is now being widely portrayed as “a business with a conscience” and even “a hero firm”, with Jiemian, a local news portal, reporting that sales have soared in recent weeks as consumers show their support for the bakery.
Part of that is a rejection of the ruling of overzealous food safety regulators, perhaps. Maybe it’s another way of expressing a little frustration at China’s ‘zero Covid’ policy as well.
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