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A Single Strawberry Costs Almost $22 at This Upscale Hong Kong Grocery Store

4 minute read

Is there any better place in the world than Hong Kong to be rich? The taxes are famously low; the beaches of the Maldives are a mere six-hour flight away on Cathay Pacific, which offers one of the world’s most luxurious first-class cabins. At the end of your workday, you can take an escalator directly from your office in the central business district up the hill to your apartment overlooking the greatest skyline in the world (or have your driver pick you up, since in all likelihood you have a driver, and live-in maids as well).

But true decadence — unjustifiable decadence — is found at the supermarket. Consider the Kotoka Strawberry Gift Box, a case study in the excesses of late capitalism. It is a single strawberry that costs 168 Hong Kong dollars (about $21.60) at CitySuper, an haut bourgeois Hong Kong supermarket chain that advertises itself as a “mega lifestyle specialty store.” It comes nested in an off-white cardboard humidor filled with the sort of synthetic straw you’d find in an Easter basket. The berry itself — flown in “Fresh by Air From Japan,” according to a sticker on the box — is cradled in a little foam doughnut, presumably to prevent bruising in transit and to keep its juices from dripping into the straw.

Grown in the Japanese city of Nara, near Osaka, the Kotoka is billed as a “rare” fruit with “a good acidity and rich sweetness.” This is honest advertising. It’s a good strawberry: the tartness feels perfectly calibrated, offset by the right amount of fructose; the flesh is juicy but not too soft. But there are plenty of strawberries in the world that are just as good, and you can buy a 1 lb. carton of them for a fifth of the cost.

The existence of the Kotoka Strawberry Gift Box has precipitated quite a fuss on Facebook in Hong Kong, particularly in a group called Hong Kong Moms. The group, which boasts just shy of 37,000 members, is both an encyclopedia of Hong Kong–specific domestic knowledge and a sounding board for local gripes; in the case of the Kotoka, it was the latter. “Any journalists out there covering packaging waste might like to follow up,” the original poster wrote over a photo of the Gift Box. In the comments section, many expressed concern about the environmental impact of gratuitous packaging.

It’s a fair point. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world — 7.2 million people are consolidated into just 275 sq km of developed land — and struggles to contain the 6.4 million tons of waste it produces each year. Its landfills are literally overflowing; the otherwise sweeping vistas at any of the territory’s 38 public beaches are dampened by the limp plastic bags that snag around your ankles as you swim. An online petition launched last month imploring local grocery stores to stop wrapping produce in superfluous plastic has accrued more than 7,100 signatures.

Many are also appalled by the decadence of a $22 piece of fruit. CitySuper also sells $64 melons and, as the Hong Kong Free Press has pointed out, $522 apples. But several traditionalists defended these as customary high-value gifts, given during the Lunar New Year celebration each winter. Perhaps it’s financially or materially wasteful, one person said, but so is Christmas wrapping. “Call it a waste if you like, but it is our culture too,” another wrote. In a statement to TIME, Citysuper spokesperson Kathy Chu said that the strawberry gift box was “intended as a Valentine’s Day gift” and that “the retail prices of [their] products are based on a number of considerations including purchase price, logistic cost, market conditions, and product exclusivity.”

Still, the question of luxury and excess is food for thought in Hong Kong, which by some metrics has the 10th-highest level of income inequality in the world. (It is the only developed state in the top 30 on this list.) The territory has the world’s highest concentration of Rolls Royces per capita; meanwhile, more than half of the population earns less than $1,400 per month. Every so often, photos go viral that show a Hong Kong family — parents, grandparents, and children — in the closet-sized apartment they share, literally stacked atop one another in conditions that have been denounced more than once as inhumane. For the price of the Kotoka strawberry, you can buy seven bowls of wonton noodle soup in Hong Kong, or 60 rides across Victoria Harbour on the famous Star Ferry — or, for that matter, a couple dozen pieces of fruit from an outdoor market.

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