Smuggling Mooncakes to China

“Parallel traders” ferry goods across the border from Hong Kong into Mainland China for a small profit. They’re taking advantage of differences in price, availability, and (perceived and real) safety between goods in the Hong Kong and China. Those Mainland ladies I ran into on the East Rail line several weeks ago were probably parallel traders. The Sheung Shui MTR station — the last one in advance of the official border crossing — is awash in middle-age Chinese traders re-packing their goods and trying to figure out how to look nonchalant while dragging a handcart full of baby formula across the border.

The authorities have recently cracked down on parallel trading, but for those still willing to take the risk, there is a slightly increased (but still slim) profit to be made. As the South China Morning Post explained this weekend:

Parallel traders set different market prices for each category of goods, according to their difficulty to carry, conceal and get past the authorities.

Before the crackdown, traders kept HK$15 [just under US$2] for transporting a case of Yakult, a fermented milk drink popular in Guangdong. Now, they get HK$20. A pack of cigarettes has increased to HK$4 from HK$3.

Given the current difficulties getting things past customs, and this weekend’s Mid-Autumn Festival, some traders are concentrating on a seasonal specialty:

“Now, carrying Taipan Snowy mooncakes are the best deal. We should focus on mooncakes, since it’s easy to carry one or two dozen each time and it’s a good excuse to say they are presents for family members and friends.”

Some traders also seem to be in it for the excitement in addition to the pocket change:

“It’s adventurous,” he said. “The tactic is to go beside a parallel trader who is carrying goods more than you. Then he will become the obvious target.”


“Just now, a customs officer asked me to stop, but I just behaved as if I hadn’t noticed his call and strode away. Then, the officers captured the man behind me.”

Despite the semi-illegality of their trade, I have to say I kind of admire their chutzpah. Also, I can’t get too worked up over people smuggling basic food and consumer goods across the “one-country, two systems” border.

And so for them, this Mid-Autumn Festival, I provide the above commemorative border-smuggling comic with my own ideas on how to enhance their stealth.


(Sources: SCMP, 29/9/2012, “Slight respite from parallel traders may not last,” by He Huifeng (the quotes are from this article) and SCMP, 29/9/2012, “36 Held in Parallel Trade Swoops.” by Simpson Cheung. Unless you’re a subscriber you won’t be able to see around the pay wall.)

15 responses to “Smuggling Mooncakes to China

  1. I’ll be stopping in HK for an overnighter on the way to and back from Hanoi. Any tips on what I should smuggle back to Shanghai? I’m looking to maximize profits. Also you know anyone interested in fresh Shanghai hairy crab? 🙂

    • Ha! I have to say it’s been a great holiday weekend. I “viewed the moon,” visited a few public lantern displays, and managed not to eat one moon cake.

      • Hahaha I can’t image anybody as you depicted above, with the combo of mooncake and iPhone5..! 😀 Though during my HK weekends, at the ferry there it was loads of people unpacking gadgetry so the chinese customs would not confiscate them… Did you asked the agency I mentioned? Cheers!

      • I have a double entry to use this autumn and after that I’ll get more serious about the multi-entry (but not for cross-border trading as the margins are too narrow for me!).

  2. Ha, ha…love the cartoon. I didn’t know they’re cracking down on these people. I see them frequently on the ferry with huge loads of stuff, and it’s obvious they’re not consuming it themselves.

    That being said, I sometimes do smuggle endives, lemongrass and other veggies I can’t get in China across to the Mainland (for my own consumption). And now, I’ve just made it public.

    • Reading the SCMP, I’m only hearing the Hong Kong side and they’re marginally cracking down (many wish they would do more as evidenced by the very, very long passionate comment from “TrueHKer” on my “Chatting up Mainlanders on Hong Kong’s East Rail Line” post).

      I have no idea whether the China-side is actively cracking down. That said, take care with your endives: an old friend from Zhuhai was just busted yesterday for brining 3 Idaho potatoes in from HK on the ferry.

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