Hundreds of residents lined up inside Sanlu Group's compound in Shijiazhuang , Hebei , yesterday to return packages of the baby formula at the centre of a tainted-milk-powder scandal.
Yesterday was the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival, arguably the second most important Chinese festival after the Lunar New Year. People normally mark the day by staying home with family, eating mooncakes and watching television.
But it was clear that those gathered at Sanlu Group's headquarters were in no mood to celebrate. Angry shouts could be heard, but the crowd was mostly quiet and restrained.
Many had been shocked by the company's admission on Thursday that some of its milk formula had been contaminated with melamine, a chemical used in plastics, fertilisers and cleaning products
'I felt like the sky was falling and the sunshine dimmed [when I heard the news],' said Tian Qingdong , 46, whose 11-month-old son had been fed Sanlu milk powder until last week.
However, like many others gathered yesterday, Mr Tian decided to swallow his anger after realising he should return his remaining powder before it was too late.
'I'm definitely still angry, but I should get a refund for my powder first before this factory collapses.'
The company has been ordered to stop production pending a nationwide investigation. Deprived of its cash flow, no one knows how long the company will stay solvent. It was distributing receipts recording the amount of milk powder returned and money owed yesterday. People were encouraged to keep the notes in case Sanlu was ordered to compensate their customers for future losses.
A man in his 30s stopped by the factory yesterday afternoon after a cashier there encouraged him not to wait another day before returning the formula. 'I know I can pay you today with a 'note', but I cannot tell you what we will do tomorrow,' the man said he was told.
Sanlu has long been considered a reliable maker of milk powder. Many of Shijiazhuang's residents grew up with its products and have nourished their children with them. That kind of brand loyalty made this incident extremely hard for Guo Xiaofang , 30, to accept.
'I chose Sanlu for my son because I grew up with it and trust it. Now, it just broke the last dose of trust in the human world,' she said.
She has fed her two-year-old son a high-end Sanlu product called Jin Beibei since he was two months old. Though her son has shown no signs of illness she took him for a thorough check-up on Saturday and he was cleared, but a single test failed to put her fears to rest. 'I have to get him checked every two months in the future to make sure my poor judgment will not cast a shadow over his whole life.'
The army-run Bethune International Peace Hospital has been treating many of the sick babies. Heavy security forces were called to the hospital on Friday and Saturday to make sure angry parents remained calm.
Hong Qing , who went there to check on his son's health on Saturday morning, said 'it's like a living hell right there in the corridor of the third floor', referring to where the check-ups are conducted.
'It's like a death penalty being announced after parents are told there are stones in their babies' kidneys. I feel for them when they say they'd rather die instead of their kids.' But even for parents of healthy children, there is little sense of relief, for 'you never know how long it takes for the symptoms to emerge', he said.
Shijiazhuang's government had announced that free kidney function tests would be given, but the order did not seem to have reached hospitals. Several parents contacted at Bethune hospital said they had to pay for all charges.
A nurse grew impatient when asked whether the tests should be free. 'You can ask whoever announced it, not our hospital. We are not charities,' she said.
She said the hospital conducted tests from 8.30am until 5.30pm, and anyone who missed out would be encouraged to come the next day.