Welcome to the behemoth of supermarkets, Carrefour Gubei, apparently one of the busiest supermarkets in the world. And it just happens to be my local.
As much as I’d like to think I can survive entirely on the contents of the wet market and my local fruit lady‘s shop, the reality is that there are things just too difficult to find anywhere else – like good chocolate, baking powder, and a decent steak. But going to Carrefour (Jia-la-fu as it’s known to locals) is like a trip to the dentist – you don’t want to go, you know it’s going to hurt like hell and cost a bomb, but you do it anyway and afterwards you feel mostly numb, but strangely virtuous. At least on the way home from Carrefour, unlike a trip to the dentist, you can eat the hazelnut choc-chip cookies you just bought without any guilt.
Why is it so taxing? For a start, it’s huge. Two floors, fifty-six check-outs, and the washing detergent section alone is bigger than most supermarkets. You can buy a motorbike, a live eel, a dried pig’s head or a four-piece outdoor setting under one roof. It’s also massively popular for its low prices and enormous choice. You know what the shops are like on Christmas Eve before early closing? It’s like that every day at Carrefour. It’s a battle of imperial proportions just to get the trolley through the crowds without going insane or injuring anyone.
And the crowds like to see what the foreigner is buying – they find it interesting enough to occasionally take articles out of my trolley to look at them more closely. Given the stress, I try and go there no more often than every two months, so my trolley looks like I’m the in-house caterer for a family of twelve – Lurpak spreadable butter x 8, parmesan cheese 1kg, tinned tomatoes x 12, rice 10kg, four whole chickens, and 19 boxes of breakfast cereal.
It’s a love-hate relationship, really – but at least the products are interesting. Here’s a selection of goods you can’t buy in Woolworths.
Various rice snacks, none good.
Confusing choice of chili and black bean sauces, at least that’s what I think they are. Usually I choose by the ‘label attractiveness’ method, totally flawed.
Straight chili – tread carefully here.
The fresh seafood section – fish, prawns, eels, turtles and bullfrogs, alive or dead. The live ones make for great entertainment at the check-out if you’re not holding the plastic bag properly.
The dried seafood section – seaweed, jellyfish, shark, skate, shrimp, whole fish. Very smelly.
Cantonese-style roast meat stand – the trays at the front hold snouts, ears and trotters, from left to right.
Tea choices – oolong, pu’er, longjin, jasmine, rose, chrysanthemum.
Tea additives – dried ginseng
A small part of the tofu stall – about 83 different tofu products. Near everyone I know is relieved you can’t buy this in Woolworths, especially the chou doufu – stinky tofu.
There’s also a noodle stand, a dumpling stall, a full-sized bakery, a whole aisle devoted to tissues, and an Official Expo Souvenirs shop within a shop. It’s overwhelming. Thank god I won’t run out of butter for the next eight weeks.