With Mid-Autumn Day coming tomorrow, saleswoman Wang Xiurong is finding her business less buoyant than expected.
Her counter in Beijing's Sogo department store has an array of simple, prettily packaged mooncakes costing 88 to 689 yuan (US$11-87) per box.
"The best seller was a box of Cantonese flavoured mooncakes priced at 189 yuan (US$23.9)," Wang said, adding that the same product with a 10-yuan (US$1.25) bottle of wine tucked into the box sold for more than 250 yuan (US$31.6) last year.
Glamorous mooncake packs containing "special accessories" such as wines or fine watches were very popular last year, but this glitzy approach has sent mooncake prices through the roof.
At festival time last year, newspapers reported two extreme cases - a box of mooncakes containing a gold Buddha figurine worth 180,000 yuan (US$22,500) and another box that included the key to a new apartment worth 310,000 yuan (US$38,750).
"People buy them as gifts for friends or relatives, or even as bribes for officials," Wang said. "The 'special mooncake accessories' make the gifts 'heavier' and the recipients happier."
The "Compulsory State Standards for the Production of Mooncakes," jointly released by the General Administration of Quality Inspection, Supervision and Quarantine and the Standardization Administration of China, took effect this June.
According to the standards, mooncake packaging must represent no more than 25 per cent of the total cost of the mooncake product, and the average space between mooncakes in a box should not exceed 2.5 centimetres.
Some local mooncake standards ban accessories in mooncake boxes to prevent extravagance and corruption.
Wang, the saleswoman, said enforcement of the standards has pushed mooncake prices down this year, but some people still like to buy mooncakes with accessories.
"Some shoppers keep asking if there is wine in the mooncake box and leave disappointed when I tell them that the government prohibits 'accessories' in boxes," Wang said.
In ancient China, the Mid-Autumn Festival marked the beginning of the harvest season. Traditionally, celebrants will sit around tables in their courtyards admiring the full moon and eating mooncakes.
The festival dates back to the early Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and is regarded by the Chinese as second in importance only to the Spring Festival, which heralds a new year in the Chinese lunar calendar.
It has also always been an occasion for presenting gifts to friends or relatives. The gifts can be as simple as handmade mooncakes or, as described in classic Chinese literature, goose feathers.
But in modern times, festival gifts have become more and more costly and can be used as bribes.
Silk, gold wrapping, wines, fine watches - all these are accessories that make traditional mooncakes stand out together with their unique and impressive packaging.
The price for such luxuries is high. Ordinary people still mark the occasion by presenting mooncakes to the elderly as tradition demands.
"We applaud the government's efforts to lower the price of mooncakes," a middle-aged woman told China Features at the Sogo department store. "Ordinary people like us buy mooncakes just for our families and friends. We don't need the complicated accessories in the box."
Director Wang of Guanshengyuan, a well-known dim sum brand, expected higher sales this year.
"We conformed strictly to the standards even before they came out in June. People buying our brand want mooncakes but not expensive packaging or accessories," he said.
Online luxury loopholes
However, expensive boxes of mooncakes complete with "accessories" can still be found online, as some mooncake companies turn to the Internet to play hide-and-seek with the government.
The Shanghai-based website Sinocake offers dozens of expensive mooncake sets online, some of which contain luxurious wines or watches.
A set of mooncakes produced by a Shanghai-based food company containing 11 mooncakes and a 200-ml bottle of brandy sells for 288 yuan (US$36) on the website.
In another set produced by a Taiwan-based bakery with a price tag of 798 yuan (US$100), the mooncakes come with gold wrapping, a crystal tray and silver knives and forks.
"Those mooncakes are so popular that they have been out of stock for a week," said a staff member at the website's ordering service.
He claimed that all the expensive mooncakes were approved by government departments in Shanghai, but was unable to name the departments.
"Expensive 'accessory mooncakes' cannot be found at department stores," he said, "but people can order them online. We dispatch staff to deliver our products before buyers pay for them, which makes things very convenient."
However, 76 Shanghai food companies, whose mooncake products account for about 80 per cent of the mooncake market, signed a pact in July promising to obey the new mooncake standards, although some of the companies sell mooncakes with luxurious accessories online,
Source: China Daily