I’m a big fan of hairy crabs, not so much because I think they taste good but because the delicacy represents a storied Shanghai tradition that can attract headlines locally, across China and around the world.
Shanghai has far too few of these homegrown major headline-grabbers outside the world of finance, where it has no problem making front-page news.
So I was quite excited recently to read news reports from a major “launch” event for this year’s hairy crab season, attended by many high-level industry and government officials from the Yangtze River Delta area where the industry is based. But then, I had to stop and re-read the newspaper report, as it seemed to be coming from the Diaoyutai Islands, the source of a long-simmering territorial dispute between China and Japan.
Closer examination of the report revealed the event was actually held at the Diaoyutai State Guest House, the famous Beijing residence where heads of state often stayed. But wait a minute, I thought. Why was an event so closely associated with Shanghai being held in Beijing?
I didn’t need to think too long. Organizers chose to hold their “2013 Hairy Crab City Congress,” an official national launch for the hairy crab season, in Beijing to attract more VIPs and reporters. It was the second year the launch was held in Beijing and it updated everyone with the latest news on the harvest of crabs that go on sale throughout Shanghai this month.
On the one hand, I understand the decision to hold the event in Beijing, China’s political hub. But on the other hand, I strongly believe that other cities need to be a bit bolder and more confident about coming out of Beijing’s shadow and staging their own events to attract national and global media attention.
Shanghai in particular is well positioned to hold such events, which was one reasons I was so disappointed to see the hairy crab launch in Beijing. China’s financial hub attracted strong and generally positive worldwide attention for its successful staging of the World Expo 2010, which drew a record 73 million visitors in six months.
But like other major cities, Shanghai suffers from an inferiority complex when it comes to staging major media events — the result of years of domination by Beijing-based central media like Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily and CCTV.
As a former international correspondent, I have firsthand experience with Beijing’s dominance of foreign media coverage. During my days reporting for Reuters in Shanghai in 2005 and 2006, I was one of a relatively small group of around 100 resident foreign correspondents — a fraction of the hundreds in Beijing. The situation now is somewhat better for domestic media, with many major regional newspapers opening Shanghai bureaus.
But Shanghai’s bigger problem lies in its lack of confidence. Unlike other cities, which really would have trouble attracting big coverage, Shanghai has enough locally based out-of-town reporters to stage a broad range of important events. This was demonstrated recently by strong national and global interest in the city’s new Free Trade Zone and Disneyland.
Now city officials need to discard their shyness and show the rest of China and the world that Shanghai is more than just a financial hub, and is also a leader in both traditional and new culture.
Hairy crabs would be a great place to strike this new tone of confidence, as these odd-looking crustaceans are one of Shanghai’s biggest and most famous cultural attractions. Not only are they and the crab-raising culture physically and descriptively colorful, but the crabs also attract strong interest from Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.
While Shanghai may have missed the boat by allowing Beijing to host the hairy crab launch this year and last, I hope local officials will be more assertive. They should return the crab season launch to its home in Shanghai, where the city can showcase this unique local culture to audiences in China and around the world.