Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice in Modern Canton

By Seung-Joon Lee | Go to book overview

2 The Organization of Rice Supplies in Canton

THE FORMATION OF THE CANTONESE PROVISIONING
NETWORKS FOR CONSUMER SATISFACTION

Canton residents’ day-to-day patterns of rice consumption reflected the structural complexity of the Pearl River Delta economy, with the coexistence of rice shortages and commercial prosperity. By the turn of the twentieth century, Canton came to need much greater external supplies of rice, especially foreign-rice imports from Southeast Asia. As the city depended more and more on maritime trade for its rice supplies, the security of the food supply within the city became uncertain and unpredictable. Above all, the Canton rice market had to do more than simply supply foodstuffs to the urban population of Canton. It also acted as the food-distributing center for the rural population in the Silk District, where most of the residents engaged in commercial agriculture and handicraft industries rather than rice cultivation. In other words, even the rural population had to rely on the urban rice market for their food supplies. However, this is not to say that Canton was always caught up in a subsistence crisis. On the contrary, the prosperity of Canton’s commerce and trade made it possible to afford a ceaseless supply of rice.

Canton was a great marketplace into which a wide range of rice varieties poured, and within which urban consumers could enjoy the unique local food culture. While Cantonese rice merchants tried to diversify the routes for rice supplies to supplement a provincial-rice insufficiency, market conditions were created in which there were increased opportunities for Canton rice consumers to try out and compare different qualities of rice. In short, reliance upon external supplies gave rise to an unintended consequence: more rice varieties in the market and more choices for consumers. In addition to personal budgetary constraint, therefore, the consumers’ satisfaction with rice quality became an important factor in the marketability of rice. To be sure, rice prices were extremely erratic, due to changing inter

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