For any true chocolate lover, the Chocolate Wonderland theme park that opened last week in Beijing is a criminal waste of good cocoa. About 80,000 kilograms of imported Belgian chocolate has been hand-sculpted into a Willy Wonka world with Chinese characteristics. There are hundreds of chocolate terracotta warriors, a life-sized chunk of the Great Wall, Buddha figurines, a fudgy-looking laptop, a Prada bag and a life-sized BMW. However, it will all be thrown out once the park closes in April. Not a single piece will be eaten. Mainlanders, however, are unlikely to feel the loss: most have yet to acquire an appetite for chocolate. On average, each Chinese person consumes about 90 grams of chocolate per year, according to market research firm, Euromonitor. That is tiny compared with about 5kg consumed per person per year in the US and 10kg in Switzerland. Chocolate companies are wrestling against culture, history and taste, trying to turn mainlanders into chocoholics. While it may be a struggle, there are strong signs that the younger generation of Chinese is turning sweet on chocolate. Beijing Artsource Planning, the firm behind Chocolate Wonderland, hopes to use the theme park to drum up domestic demand. Their sponsors include Italian firm Ferrero and Swiss chocolate maker Lindt. The first hurdle may be creating a chocolate to suit the Chinese palate. 'It's a delicate balance finding the right recipe,' says Jean Marc Bernelin, a technical adviser for top-grade chocolate maker Barry Callebaut, of Switzerland. Mainlanders enjoy Lunar New Year treats such as candied lotus seed and kumquat but it seems they prefer their chocolates less sugary. 'They don't like it when it's too sweet, and they don't like it when it's too bitter,' Bernelin says as he cooks up chocolate for visitors at the theme park. 'So you need to find the right balance, which is not so easy.' Barry Callebaut believes it can come up with the goods. In 2008, it moved its Asian headquarters to Shanghai from Singapore and opened a chocolate academy in the city of Suzhou, just south of Shanghai. The mainland has a sweet tooth, it's just not as sweet as the West, says Jennifer 8 Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. 'Chinese people don't like things that are too sweet ... even in America, you'll see Chinese bakeries creating cakes that are lighter and less sweet than American cakes,' she says. 'Refrigeration came late to the Chinese culinary tradition ... you see a lot more sour, pickled, dried sweets in China (suan mei, or sour plum, for example), to keep them from spoiling.' Several visitors to Chocolate Wonderland say they prefer dark chocolate because it isn't so sweet. 'I don't eat chocolate often, maybe once a month,' says Wang Yantong, a 26-year-old woman from Beijing. 'I like black chocolate. It tastes better than milk chocolate. Milk chocolate's too sweet.' Health is another reason why dark chocolate may become a winner on the mainland. 'I like dark chocolate because it's better for your body. It's good for your heart, isn't it?' says Qiao Qingping, 40, who brought her 13-year-old daughter along to the theme park. Chao, who wants to convince consumers that chocolate is a healthy food, has his work cut out. ('It's only the other things that are added afterwards that make it unhealthy, for example, sugar,' he says.) But greater health knowledge and concerns about obesity among consumers may mean a greater resistance to the sweet temptation. Mainlanders have long favoured savoury snacks. Convenience stores are packed with salted fish snacks, pork jerky, sour plums and dried fruit. And belief in the traditional concept of balance and moderation in diet still runs deep. 'Even though I may want to eat more chocolate I'll control myself,' says Li Songlin, a 28-year-old visitor to the theme park. 'This is part of our Chinese culture, we shouldn't eat too much of one thing.' It may be that chocolate has yet to gain popularity on the mainland simply because what's on offer just isn't good enough. 'You don't really have quality chocolate in China,' says Beijing-based food critic Eileen Wen-Mooney. '[In the US] you have so many different kinds of chocolate. But here great chocolate is simply not available. The one they have is very waxy. I think Chinese people would love chocolate if there was any decent stuff in the shops.' But industry veterans such as Lawrence Allen suggest the pattern is changing. 'The little emperors that have grown up eating chocolate, I would say their consumption pattern is probably not that far away from other people around the world,' says Allen, a former senior executive of Hersey's and Nestle's mainland operations. Market research bears out his view. Sales of chocolate confectionery grew 7 per cent last year to 7.7 billion yuan (HK$8.8 billion) - according to Euromonitor - higher than the global average. Chocolate also performed better than other confectionery on the mainland. The research firm suggests this is in line with the growing disposable income of the urban youth. With increasing advertising and improved distribution networks, chocolate is reaching more shops in more cities. Allen says companies have battled for the past 10 years over brand domination. Effem (which is owned by Mars), Nestle and Ferrero led sales in 2008, according to Euromonitor. Mars' Dove bar is one of the best selling chocolate bars on the mainland. With Dove, Mars got in early and used the best chocolate in its stable, says Allen. Ferrero, on the other hand, owes its success to 'well-heeled Hong Kong businessmen' who brought lavish gifts including boxes of Ferrero Rocher to the mainland in the 1980s to seal business relationships, Allen explains in his book Chocolate Fortunes. This gave Ferrero the status of a luxury gift that it still enjoys today. The idea that they need to make a different kind of chocolate to suit Chinese tastes is rubbish, says Allen. Domestic producers have not been able to compete because consumers view chocolate as a foreign luxury item and favour overseas brands. Moreover, the production of quality chocolate is cost intensive and difficult to copy. With foreign-owned brands dominating the market, chocolate is prohibitively expensive for many people. Dove bars retail at about seven yuan each - about the price of a bowl of noodles. Still, it might simply be a matter of time. The West has had several hundred years of history with chocolate compared to a couple of decades for the mainland. And as Starbucks managed to convert tea-drinking Chinese to coffee, mainlanders may yet swap their salted fish snack for a Snickers bar. 'They convinced Chinese people to drink milk, didn't they?' says Lee. 'If they could convince the Chinese that chocolate is a luxury product, they could get people to buy it.' And as with other ventures, chocolate companies are agog at the potential market of 1.3 billion customers. 'The market in China is very big. Even if Chinese people never eat as much as Europeans, if you just double the amount of chocolate they eat per person now, that's going to be a big effect,' says Chao.