Visit to HK paved way for mainland advance
Edward Lai Kwok-yan had no idea how far-reaching the implications would be for the cross-border vegetable trade when he greeted a special guest at the vegetable wholesale market in Cheung Sha Wan one late afternoon in 1979.
The guest, Xi Zhongxun, was then governor of Guangdong province, who had made a surprising detour to the market after a visit to an abattoir next to it. He is also the father of Vice-President Xi Jinping.
'He visited us trying to find out why fresh vegetables imported from Guangdong did not sell well in Hong Kong even though they were much cheaper than local produce,' Lai, then a manager at the market, said.
Lai and his colleagues told Xi the operators of mainland vegetable farms, which were state-owned collectives, did not understand the Hong Kong market and needs of local consumers.
'Hong Kong farmers would not use the whole vegetable as they would cut off the bottom stalk and outer leaves to make it look nicer to consumers,' he said. 'Mainland farmers wouldn't waste any part of the vegetables and stacked and packed them tightly in bamboo baskets half the height of a man. So some might have already gone off by the time they arrived in Hong Kong.'
Lai said restaurants did not want to do the extra processing required for mainland vegetables, so most of them went to street hawkers who could not afford to pay higher wholesale prices.
Xi took note and a month later sent a researcher from Xinhua to study the operation of the wholesale market for four weeks. Within a few years, the quality of mainland exports had greatly improved and the lessons learnt had laid the foundation for the setting up of modern wholesale markets on the mainland, Lai said.
Now mainland agricultural products dominate the Hong Kong market and a network of modern wholesale markets is being developed across the nation.
One is run by Shenzhen Agriculture Products, a listed company with a market value of more than seven billion yuan (HK$8.36 billion) and annual turnover above 90 billion yuan. The company has acquired 20 food wholesale markets across the nation and will open Asian's largest wholesale market in Pinghu, Shenzhen, later this year.
Lai will become a special adviser to the company after retirement, contributing his experience running the Hong Kong wholesale market.
Lai joined the Vegetable Marketing Organisation in 1975 after quitting a book-keeping job at a helicopter company. He was promoted to senior manager in 1985 and general manager to look after the Fish Marketing Organisation as well in 1994.