Every morning around six, the Qibao Tang Tuan Shop opens its door. There are no worries that business might be slack at the crack of dawn. Many local residents are lined up to order a bowl of tang tuan, or glutinous rice dumplings, for breakfast.
Jia Lixin, owner of the shop, knows all his regular customers. Many have been coming to the shop for years. They chat with him like old friends as they eat the traditional Chinese dish of glutinous rice balls served in boiling water.
Jia started out in 1996 with a small street stall selling breakfast. Two decades on, he owns a chain of 10 tang tuan shops all over the city as well as several larger restaurants.
“Looking back over my life in Shanghai of the last 20 years, it all seems like a dream,” said Jia. “But even now what I love the most is still tang tuan.”
Born in 1970 in Anhui Province, Jia worked in a state-owned chemical company in his hometown until the factory folded in 1996 and he moved to Shanghai with his wife and severance pay of 165 yuan (US$23) in his pocket. A relative suggested he become an apprentice at the popular Qiaojiashan snack shop, also known as Shanghai Cafe.
After a year’s training, Jia decided to strike out on his own, opening the breakfast stall in Qibao Town. In addition to tang tuan, he also sold pancakes, fried bread sticks and bean curd jelly.
“I had intended to start the business in the downtown area because I thought business would be brisker there,” said Jia. “But then I read about traditional Qibao tang tuan in a history book. It turned out that it had a history dating back over 100 years, but the skill to make it had waned. So I came here to have a look.”
Jia said the old street where he started in 1996 has radically changed since then. At that time, there were no tourist shops or big retailers — only a barbershop, a key-making stand and a small fabric store for locals.
Jia’s breakfast stand quickly became popular. Many of his older customers were adept at making the old recipe and gave him tips on the best tang tuan. His version of the traditional dish became the benchmark, and he finally moved into a shop to sell the soup.
“That was also the most difficult period of my life,” he recalled. “We didn’t have any employees. My wife and I had to do all the work. There were no machines back then, so I made all the dough with my bare hands.”
With work at the shop and a child to rear, the couple was exhausted by the end of every day. But they got up before dawn to start all over again.
Jia said he feels deep gratitude for all the encouragement his customers have given him, even in excusing his mistakes.
“My wife once accidentally spilled soup on a lady’s silk stockings,” he recalled. “We were horrified and insisted on paying for the damage. But she and her husband refused any money. They told us ‘It’s not easy to maintain a business like the two of you do.’ We were really touched.”
As Qibao Old Street gradually became an important landmark in Shanghai, Jia’s shop became one of its most revered occupants. The shop eventually had 10 employees, but even then, demand kept everyone working nonstop.
“We train cooks for years before they can make tang tuan on their own,” said Jia. “We require our employee to treat their work as a piece of art that looks and tastes good.”
What’s the secret of a perfect bowl of tang tuan? The quality of the ingredients, accurate proportions for the stuffing and a skillfully wrapped dough, Jia said. The precise recipe is a well-guarded secret.
“It’s all about how much effort and genuineness you put in it,” he said.
Jia has experimented with new ingredients, including green vegetables, purple sweet potato, peanuts, jujube paste and crab meat.
“Young people are now crazy about Western-style snacks, and they always want to try something new,” Jia said. “So we have to keep up with the trend or we will be left behind.”
At a recent Chinese food festival in Niigata, Japan, the Qibao Tang Tuan Shop’s exhibit was one of the most popular kiosks. Jia even had two new ethnic Chinese apprentices living in Japan.
“Most Japanese customers had never had tang tuan before, but they fell in love with it after the first taste,” he said. “I’m considering opening a branch in Japan.”